Retreating to spiritual listening

Earlier this year, a group of Canadians joined the Rev. Rick Beck for a Spiritual Listening weekend at Camp Van-Es. In this article, two of those attending—Wynne Edwards and Alice Sears—share their impressions of the weekend.

Friday afternoon we drive through blowing snow and poor visibility. We miss the entrance to Camp Van Es twice with its rutted road filled in by powdered snow. This retreat better be worth it! Welcomed into Unity Lodge by fresh coffee, hot chocolate, a warm fire and open hearts, we already know it is.

When all 15 of us have stomped off snow and warmed by the fire, it’s time to identify ourselves and tell a little of our story. We are from four Moravian churches in the Canadian District. Our leader, Rev. Rick Beck, as well as a member of his congregation, have braved the snowy highway from Good Shepherd Church in Calgary.

All but three of us are women. Most are of a certain age, masses of wisdom just waiting to be tapped. There are three sisters from one family, two from another. Sisters-in-law tie those two groups together. There are a mother and daughter. At least four members of the larger group carry fresh grief.

Friday evening we move into the work of the weekend. Early discussion is about judging – the importance of letting it go, particularly in spiritual listening. Can we actually set aside judging as we listen to our retreat partners?  Some of us don’t think so; it becomes a retreat joke. In nearby Morning Star Hall we all judge dinner to be excellent. Also breakfast and lunch and the snacks delivered to Unity Lodge for our breaks. We share leftovers with the 42 teenagers on site for a youth retreat. Our paths don’t cross but clearly, they have energized the camp.

I raise my blind on Saturday morning and greet the first prayer of the day. Pristine snow that sparkles with imitation diamonds, and bright blue cloudless sky, form a backdrop for a forest of bare poplars. Unremarkable trees that grow everywhere in this area today stand straight and dignified at their naked best. No sign of human life; nothing but rabbit tracks on the deep snow.

Today, a pattern of Rick’s design emerges—what he refers to as input where he imparts knowledge of the “how-to,” and the “how-not-to,” of spiritual listening. Knowledge gained in his participation in a Spiritual Direction Training Program, honed while leading groups on spiritual direction and spiritual companionship. The goal of these groups is to help people discern the movement of God’s grace in their lives by creating a safe place to be vulnerable and honest with themselves.  This is accomplished by listening and responding to their stories.

Spiritual listening is different from counseling, where there is a problem to be fixed. Different from coaching where you set a goal and develop a plan to reach that goal. Different from evangelism where one party believes it has something you need and a need to persuade. As spiritual listeners we will stay “empty:” empty of fear, wishes, chatter and the need to impress. We need to be open to what God can do.

After input time we are divided into groups of two or three to practice what Rick has taught us. We share our own spiritual journeys and hear about the journeys of others. While sharing we attempt to be spiritual listeners. We learn to bite our tongues when they are pushing to interrupt the storyteller with messages of understanding, advice or our own similar experiences. We learn that we don’t die, or even suffer much, if we don’t have opportunities to express our opinions. Spiritual listening is about the speaker, not the listener.

The skilled spiritual listener assumes that each of us has a relationship with God and his or her listening encourages that person to go inside herself or himself to explore that relationship. The effective spiritual listener must be comfortable with silences, trusting that God is at work. 

After the practice time, we come back to the larger group to share our experiences and what we had learned, this time led by Rick’s remarkable skills.

The afternoon surprises us with the temperature rising to above zero Celsius. We have waited so long for this. It calls us out of our comfy lodge. We sift through the light powdery snow, make snow angels, snap brilliant photos, plow through the drifts to a commemorative bench, hike to where a cross is mounted by the frozen lake. 

In our closing session, Rick demonstrates an episode of spiritual listening with one of our group. Clearly, it is a perfect ending to our 24-hour retreat. We have listened and learned; we have practiced our new skills with people whose stories have had a significant effect on us. We in turn have had the experience of telling our stories, in a safe and encouraging environment, to someone who is obviously listening, ready to hear us. It was an enriching experience where we made deep spiritual connections with others and with God. We parted reluctantly but determined to use our new skills in our communities.

Wynne Edwards and Alice Sears are members of Rio Terrace Community Moravian Church in Edmonton, Alberta.