Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Soul-Battle of a Listener

Lately I have been immersed in the hard work of listening. After a fallow season, guests again retreat here to Spa for the Soul. They come to rest, to pray, to regain perspective, to learn, to find healing, and to explore new territory in their pilgrimage with Jesus. They stay a week. Or three. Often I accompany them as spiritual director.

Spiritual director. That’s a whole other topic. In short, it means a gift and a call was discerned and confirmed by my community, and I undertook training in this ancient discipline in order to mature in listening, prayer and accompaniment on the spiritual journey of another.

During my years of study our tutor often remarked that, for many, the greatest gift we would give was simply to listen. To attend to another’s story and to let it be, in that hour, the only story. To allow it to unfold, to make its twists and turns, to flow its own course. “For many, it will be the first time in their lives that another person has truly listened for more than five minutes.”  

To listen. That can sound like a passive exercise. Let the other talk. Don’t say much. Smile and nod from time to time. Maybe even use listening posture. Or if not simply passive, active listening often supposes engagement: analysis, or an effort to problem-solve. Or to teach, impart some word of wisdom.

But is that real listening?  No. To truly listen, to engage in that life-giving discipline, is a battle of the soul. It is to enter into and walk alongside on the life-journey of another. It means that I choose to trust that the Spirit of God indwells and is at work within the one I accompany. And that the Spirit is fully able to complete all that has begun in the soul of the one who shares his or her story with me--without me standing in the path to figure things out and interject my fallen analysis of what needs to happen. My role is to attend, to accompany, to enter into the speaker’s story with empathy, compassion and prayer.  To provide companionship and support that will help that dear one journey beyond where he or she might otherwise go. And to stay out of the way as best I can.

Why is that so hard? A battle of my very soul? Here are pieces of it:

·      I must lay aside myself. That includes my story, my similar (or very different) journey and how it turned out and what I learned. It includes my stereotypes and prejudices. My revulsions, too. As the other’s story unfolds I am called to a vigilance that notices when these things begin to rise in me, looks at them and consciously lay them aside to return my focus to Jesus and to this one He loves. I battle to let this be the other’s story alone.

·      I must lay aside my need to feel relevant. For that need tempts me to speak things other than the Spirit has given, to manufacture wisdom, to push so that I can see movement in the other’s journey. Anything that might satisfy me that my presence and engagement has made a difference. I battle to become lesser so that Christ will be magnified.

·      I must lay aside my agenda, my sense of where this story needs to go, how it should be resolved. To really listen is to be willing to wait, to accept that what is obvious to me may take time to emerge in the heart of the one I attend. To really listen is to lay aside my need to tell all I know. I battle to walk alongside rather than behind to push or in front to guide.

·      I must be willing to encourage the speaker to stay in the crucible, or to call him or her back to it, yet also be willing to continue to listen, to pray, and to love if the dear one flees. I battle with the desire to flee the refiner’s fire.

·      I must be willing to be rejected, irrelevant, or even disliked. For inasmuch as I attend both the speaker and the Lord I may become identified with what or Who the speaker resists. I battle to lay aside ego and identify with Jesus.

·      I must be willing to let the speaker go.  I battle the attachment that refuses to leave the dear one to Christ alone.

It is not that I am passive, or that I never speak. The call to is pray and attend. To apply knowledge and wisdom to what I see emerging. To discern what resonates as true and where truth is being resisted, submerged, or even denied. My call is to notice and to sometimes know, but always with compassion and never with judgment or condemnation. To see without speaking all that I see, willing to wait for the one who is living the story to notice when he or she is ready.

To truly listen also requires occasional speaking. Sometimes the listener speaks simply to clarify, or to affirm attention and alongside-presence. Sometimes listeners ask questions, not to satisfy personal curiosity or to direct the speaker’s story, but to invite the speaker deeper into places that may need more attention, places to slow down and notice what has been overlooked. Sometimes I speak what I think I have noticed…carefully, and not as to give an answer, but to test a theory. “Could it be that in this you have more freedom than you think you have?” “Could it be that this you speak of is life-giving and worthy of more time and attention?” “Could it be that you carry anger towards that person that you are not aware of?” “Does it feel to you like that is the real reason?” Sometimes a listener affirms what resonates as true, as life-giving movement.

With some I accompany the listening is joy. So clear is the dear one’s seeking, so pure the heart. With others, well, we all have times when we become mired in self-pity, depression, lethargy, anger and hurt, or blindness to our own part in our suffering. We get stuck. We resist the truth we see, plant our feet, and refuse to move because our hearts ache and our strength is small. Depths of compassion, patience, and willingness to wait become part of the listener’s inner struggle.

And that is where I started. The soul-battle of the spiritual listener demands constant prayer, high alert, heavy expense of energy, detachment from results and from people who need to find their firm attachment to Jesus. And time. Did I mention time? And did I mention how often I experience set-backs, notice places I’ve slipped and lost ground?

But what privilege to watch the Spirit move, to be once again surprised at the freshness of that wind blowing through a life and out into the world that dear one will engage. It is a soul-stretching battle, completely worthy of every searing ounce of engagement one can give.

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