Margaret Guenther 1
“Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest and you received Me …’” —The Rule of Benedict, chapter 53.
This line from The Rule of Benedict opens the first chapter of Margaret Guenther’s book, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. The title could so easily have been Practical Spiritual Direction for Clergy and Laypeople. Guenther’s writing offers practical wisdom about being a spiritual director, along with illustrations from biblical stories and her own experiences. She says her book is for the “beginner,” but I have kept her writings at my desk at all times for years.
When she began writing about spiritual direction in 1992, Guenther was one of the few women doing so. Her feminine wisdom offers new approaches in talking about direction, such as allowing the director a measure of self-disclosure, sharing parts of her life when appropriate (as opposed to the protocol of therapy). After a short “catch up time,” she begins a session with silence, asking the spiritual friend to let her know when she or he is ready. She ends the meeting with a “little” prayer. She keeps no written records and cautions the spiritual director to recite ten “Jesus Prayers” before saying anything or interrupting.
Guenther lets the spiritual friend know that the session is nearly over by saying “We’ll have to stop in a few minutes,” realizing that the person will now speak about the most significant material. She still ends the session at the appropriate time by saying, “Let’s start with that next time.” She keeps reminding the spiritual friend to talk about herself (“This is your time.”), keeping on track with “What do you want me as your director to do for you?” and “What do you want Christ to do for you?” Or sometimes she will say “Tell me about your work, your family, your friends, your health, your Christian community, what you do for fun.” She knows that at times what is being said is a confession, and she names it. She tries to help spiritual friends discern the “next right thing,” similar to Mr. Dick in David Copperfield. Sharing humor, tears, modeling Jesus as a spiritual director,
Guenther compares the spiritual director to a midwife. This can entail waiting in a ministry of presence amid the strain; offering a hand to be held in the prevailing fear of labor; naming transitions. She identifies the process with the shedding of a snake’s skin, a skin which had to be formed in order to grow, but no longer is useful. She describes a spiritual director as an encouraging coach, celebrating new life.
Guenther spends her last chapter talking about women as spiritual directors and the gifts they may have to offer, as well as the special concerns of women seeking spiritual direction. I love some of her feminine approaches: “If Priscilla had written our epistles instead of Paul, I suspect there would have been more about Incarnation and relatively little about circumcision.” This was meaningful to me, as I have been reading Guenther’s book on a trip to the Greek islands. I thought so much about Priscilla when we were at Ephesus, as she had moved there when the Jews were thrown out of Rome. She became a big supporter of Paul. Some have said that she might have written the Book of Hebrews. I will reread Hebrews to see if that might be true.
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