Practicing Holy Listening in Daily Life

Photo credit: Sandy Reich

By Holly Porter Phillips

In Margaret Guenther’s book Holy Listening, she calls the spiritual director a midwife to the soul. Guenther says: like a midwife, she (the spiritual director) works with the whole person and is present throughout the whole process. She “has time”… she offers support through every stage and waits with the birth giver when “nothing is happening.” Guenther goes on to say that, of course, there is never a time where nothing is happening, but the midwife or director is there to affirm that something is indeed “happening.”

I chose to have a midwife attend all three of my births. At my first birth, I remember asking her, “why didn’t you tell me it would be this hard?” questioning why I had decided to give birth this way. During my second birth, I recall exhaustedly yelling, “I can’t do this anymore!” doubting my ability to carry on, and my midwife gently responded, “you can do it. you are doing it.” The strongest memory from my third birth is when I cried out the moment my son emerged from my body, my midwife’s gentle and supportive hand on my shoulder as I did the hard work of bringing new life into the world.

As a director, I see myself as a midwife to the soul, a holy listener, a spiritual companion. Often those I walk alongside will ask why its so hard, or say they can’t do it anymore, or cry out in pain. And, like a midwife, I gently remind them that they can do it, they are living and bringing new life into the world.

Last spring, I participated as a spiritual director for a Retreat in Daily Life. During the week, retreatants meet with a spiritual director daily for a shortened time of 30 minutes. I typically begin a session by offering a time of centering — reading a poem or prayer and then inviting directees to enter a time of silence, ending it as they are ready.

I expected for the silence to end quickly, with the shortened session, but often the directees remained quiet for several minutes, before offering an amen signaling for us to begin.

What this experience affirmed for me is that what people often desire most, is not only to be listened to, but for another person to be near, available, attentive, for someone to simply be with them.

I am about to begin my second year in a spiritual direction apprenticeship and I have enjoyed seeing the ways in which the skills I am learning have overflowed into other relationships — my parenting, my friendships, and how I care for myself. Today I want to offer a few things I am in process of learning and how I am trying to practice holy listening.

The gift of a sacred pause. Daeseop Daniel Yi says that “Silence is a gift and a way of knowing the guest, myself and God. Instead of trying to fill the space with responses, taking time to reflect on what is happening right now is a way of creating a space in which the Holy Spirit naturally works and leads*.”* This is where we begin it’s as simple as “think before you speak” and as easy as a deep breath as you listen. When we offer a pause before responding, we give someone else a chance to complete their thought and room for us to fully listen and understand. Without using words we can communicate that we have time, and want to hear what is being shared.

The gift of curiosity. Curiosity is the opposite of judgement. Curiosity gives space to be fluid and to change. When we respond to ourselves or others with curiosity instead of shame, with questions instead of answers we make space for as Mary Oliver says “another voice to speak.” Curiosity is a gift we can give to others (and ourselves) on the journey of self-discovery.

The gift of a broad margin. Henry Nouwen writes that “Discipline means to prevent everything in our life from being filled up. It means having space in our interior being that is not otherwise occupied.” Thoreau calls it a “broad margin.” I call it space. Space to linger a little longer at the dinner table, to meet a friend for a walk, to take dinner to a grieving neighbor. Space to listen without making a grocery list or worrying you’re going to be late to your next appointment. Space for yourself to breath, to relax, to enjoy your life.

The gift of taking are of ourselves. Hannah Rowan writes “Self-care is not only a requirement for the ministry of spiritual direction, but is in fact a good witness to the spiritual directors authenticity and good stewardship of personal life gifts and resources.” It’s the over-used message of putting on our own face masks first. To love and give and be in relationship we have to take care of ourselves, there is no other way. This includes (but is not limited to) mediation and reflection, attention to our health (including adequate sleep), rest, and time to dedicated to joy and delight and fun!

As I practice Holy Listening, I am able to notice when others are doing it too, when I am the beneficiary of this gift. How has Holy Listening changed things for you—either as you received this gift or as you practiced it yourself?

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