It was during my years at seminary that I first heard of Spiritual Direction: the art of spiritual listening. The thought of becoming a spiritual director resonated from a place deep within me. To my surprise and disappointment, people with whom I shared this insight received it with reservation, and rightfully so. To accompany someone on their spiritual journey requires the kind of spiritual maturity that comes with age and experience.
More than 20 years later, as Wendy and I began our pastoral ministry at Good Shepherd Moravian in Calgary, Alberta, I was approached by Rev. John Griffith, a former Moravian pastor and spiritual director, regarding a training program he helped lead. It was a two-year program that had a major influence on how I perceived ministry and worship.
One result was the introduction of a spiritual direction group at Good Shepherd Moravian Church. This group, limited to no more than eight people, meets once each month for about an hour. Chairs surround a small table displaying a few items for spiritual focus while music plays in the background. Participants are invited to come as early as they like but to enter in silence and meditation. The session begins with the facilitator reading Psalm 19:14: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” A topic may be raised to consider and respond to or the group may be invited to share how they experienced God at work in their lives since the last meeting.
The goal of this experience is simple; to create a safe, sacred space where people can share their life journey and listen for God’s movement in their lives. It sounds simple enough until our humanness gets in the way. The human tendency is to preach, teach, counsel, fix, advise or launch into a similar story from our own experience—none of which are a part of spiritual listening. Spiritual listening is about noticing God at work in people’s lives. It’s about listening with your heart. The challenge is holding in balance our passion for God, our compassion for people and our willingness to get out of God’s way. In short, it’s about trusting and living in God.
Our culture values achievement. We are taught to be productive. The meaning we derive from our life is directly related to what we do rather than who God is within us. We have lost sight of who we already are and who we will always be: an expression of God’s love. In spiritual listening there is nothing that the listener has to accomplish because God is already accomplishing it. The listener’s job is to be present with an open heart. We listen to another’s story. We are aware of what feelings and thoughts arise as we listen. And when the speaker is finished the listener shares what they experienced in the deeper places of their heart. The voice of God is both hidden and revealed in life. When listening with the heart both the listener and the speaker are receptive to the presence of Holy Movement.
Spiritual Direction can be traced to the first centuries of the Christian faith. The Moravian church shared an expression of this in the eighteenth-century Choir System when members of the community were grouped according to gender and marital status. In these groups spiritual needs were addressed. It should be no surprise that we might look to our heritage to claim a renewed expression of this practice.
The Northern Province Synod of 2014 directed the Provincial Elders’ Conference to establish a Spiritual Formation Task Force to explore and share expressions of spiritual development already existing in our churches. The Task Force began by reviewing an idea developed by Lanie Yaswinski called “Experience of Twenty-first Century Choir Bands.”
The goal of the task force is to provide a definition, guidelines and leadership training for listening groups in churches across the Northern Province. This is a huge task and the Task Force has only just begun, but the energy and excitement of members of the Task Force is palpable. Lay persons with moderate training and ongoing support provided by an experienced spiritual listener are able to facilitate such a group. Imagine what the Moravian Church could offer the world if its members intentionally explored God’s life movements together.
Simply listening might not sound like much but there is a profound need for this kind of sharing and growth in the world today. People are hungry for a sounding board for their soul. This was very clear at Good Shepherd Moravian Church when the level of sharing became instantly deep at our first spiritual direction group meeting. This group has been meeting for six years and doesn’t break for summer.
As lives in the congregation were spiritually enriched by these meetings, so also the church was enriched. There was a gentle deepening in the way people understand God at work in their lives and in the church. As a result, the need for a second group was expressed and started over a year ago.
As we care for our own spiritual needs not only does our passion for God and compassion for people grow, but also our willingness to get out of God’s way reveals the greater things of Christ.
Rick Beck is pastor of Good Shepherd Moravian Church in Calgary, Alberta