Much loved as an author of such books as Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction; Toward Holy Ground, Spiritual Directions for the Second Half of Life, and The Practice of Prayer, Margaret Guenther is professor emerita of Ascetical Theology and retired director of the Center for Christian Spirituality at the General Theological Seminary. She is an Episcopal priest, serving as associate rector at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and a member of the editorial board of Conversations. She joins David Benner in conversation about the spiritual journey—her own and the gift of accompanying others on theirs.
David G. Benner: I should begin, Margaret, by telling you how much I appreciate the gentle, personal voice you bring to your writing, particularly Holy Listening, the place where I first met you. Books on spiritual direction are so often technical and impersonal. Yours are so warm and engaging that I felt I was already in a conversation with you before we met face to face. Now that we have, I am not surprised to find a twinkle in your eye and a sense of humor that marks you as a woman who doesn’t take herself too seriously! This is really welcome in someone working in the field of spiritual formation, where I am afraid so many people take themselves far too seriously.
Margaret Guenther: Thank you, David. It’s always a joy to hear good things about my writing. It’s rather as if I am being told that I have handsome and gifted children. As for Holy Listening, the book grew out of my experience of sitting prayerfully with my fellow seekers. I had read a lot of books about this ministry and was struck by the fact that many of them seemed so clinical, and some were downright ponderous. As I understand it, the ministry of spiritual direction is at the same time extraordinarily simple and profound beyond our understanding.
DGB: But while you sit prayerfully with fellow seekers, I know you also value the role of playfulness in the spiritual direction process. In fact, I recall somewhere you wrote of the importance of “merry candor” on the part of the spiritual director. Tell me a bit more about the place of playfulness in spirituality. Is this just a matter of personality, or is there any reason to cultivate lightheartedness as we try to live life in relationship to God?
MG: One of my favorite verses in Scripture is Psalm 18:19 (NASB1): “[God] brought me out into an open place; He rescued me because He delighted in me.” In a similar vein, the Latin translation of John 3:16 speaks of God’s delight in the world: “sic enim dilexit Deus mundum.” I must assume that if God delights in me, I am expected, indeed invited, to delight in God. Delight is such a lighthearted, joyous word. It suggests letting go, spontaneity, childlike abandon. But it also has a lot of depth, suggesting deep, intimate joy.
When I meet with people for spiritual direction, I encourage them to play with their Godimages—that is, how do they view or think of God? So many of us get stuck with a deeply ingrained image of a harsh, judgmental, terribly just but quite unapproachable God. But what about Psalm 131, where we are invited to nestle in God’s lap like a trusting toddler? I might encourage the directee to play with the idea of how God images her or him. Or another bit of homework: make a list of those things about you which bring delight to God. Showing me the list at our next meeting is quite optional. The main point is to remind the directee of what we all tend to forget: that we are made in God’s image. Julian of Norwich reminds us that, for all our limitations and imperfection, God made us, God loves us, and God keeps us.
I confess that my directees and I do laugh together. Of course, we also cry together too.
DGB: It sounds as if you meet them as a person, a fellow seeker, a companion on the journey—not as a spiritual guru. This sounds more incarnational than simply instructional, maybe even more human than those expressions of spirituality that hide behind roles and minimize the fact that we are both human beings on a spiritual journey and spiritual beings on a human journey.
MG: I never cease to be awed, amazed, and quite humbled, that my sisters and brothers would trust me in this tender, intimate relationship. A long time ago a wise friend defined spiritual direction as “just two poor sinners sitting together.” I like that picture— not that both partners in the conversation are preoccupied with their fallenness, but rather that both are aware of their ordinariness.
A pedestal is a dangerous place for one who offers spiritual direction. It can be very attractive, even seductive. I resolutely climb down or jump off if I find myself treated as a guru.
DGB: You have written that “spiritually we are always on the way, in via, when we long to be in patria. We are travelers, and we are weary and homesick.” This reminds me of John O’Donohue’s description of the tension between longing and belonging. It strikes me that some of us are bigger on longing and some on belonging.
Any comment on the relationship between these two poles of experience in the Christian journey?
MG: What a great question! My first thought is this: the longing is more than bearable when we know that we are not traveling alone. At this point of my life—January 4 marked my seventy-fifth birthday—I know that in some ways I am journeying alone for this last earthly stretch. But at the same time, I am sustained by all my fellow pilgrims: my family, the people in my parish who know me and love me, and those special spiritual friends scattered around the globe. So right now the tension for me is fruitful rather than distressing.
DGB: But how can we journey most helpfully with someone who doesn’t feel the tension—perhaps having little sense of being in via, resting comfortably in the present places of belonging—or who faces such keen dissatisfaction with present reality that longings to be in patria may be intense and even painful?
MG: It’s been my experience that people who don’t feel the tension don’t seek us out for spiritual companionship. Why should they? They are quite comfortable, maybe satisfied with spiritual junk food or maybe truly at home in the present. I have met some of those tranquil souls who haven’t felt that divine restlessness described by Augustine in his Confessions: “[God], you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
As for that second group, those folk whose longing is so intense, it is both a challenge and an honor to companion them on their journey. This calls for a lot of patience! Maybe some “failures” too.
DGB: How helpful is it to think in terms of stages of the Christian spiritual journey? Is this a useful framework for understanding your own movement toward God, or have you found it helpful in your work as a spiritual director?
MG: I get uneasy when I find myself relying too much on road maps or anticipating predictable stages. There are, of course, the classic stages of purgation, illumination, and union. Its an attractive picture, especially if we imagine ourselves marching steadily forward.
My own experience says that we begin the journey again and again, moving not in a circle but rather in a spiral. I like the story of the Exodus: the children of Israel fled from slavery, then found themselves wandering in the desert and looking back with longing for the security and good food in Egypt (somehow, they forgot the toil and harshness of slavery), then arrived in the Promised Land. I see this as a model for the spiritual journey with this exception: if we live long enough and keep growing spiritually, the Promised Land eventually turns into Egypt, and we realize that we have to journey on. I don’t expect to “arrive” until I cross the next great Threshold.
I like to know as much as possible about a directee’s journey but am always ready for surprises as we travel together.
DGB: You have also written of the importance of tending to what is birthing within us. This metaphor of birth and growth may in some ways be better than the metaphor of a journey because it focuses on God’s action in us rather than our activity. But tell me a bit more about how you understand this.
MG: I suspect that the birthing image is important to me because of my own experience of motherhood. (I have three very grown-up children.) Bringing forth a child from my body was a profound spiritual experience—wondrous, miraculous, and mysterious. So I was delighted when I found the image in several of Meister Eckhart’s sermons. I know that it is not unique to him, but his picture of the empty place within us where God is born spoke to me. It is our work to tend that welcoming place and receive the new life that is born there. Of course, we have the same image in the last stanza of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”—“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”2
DGB: I know that an important part of your own calling has involved work with the dying. What has this taught you about the nature of the spiritual journey?
MG: The dying offer us a rich gifts. They can be our teachers when they invite us to share their last months and days. When I first felt the call to ordained ministry, I was convinced that I would work primarily with the frail aged or in hospice. As a mother, I knew about the first threshold: I had witnessed the wonder of bringing forth new life. As I grew older, I was drawn to that second threshold, so like and yet so unlike the first. Instinctively I knew that ministry to the dying was really ministry with the dying.
The focus of my ministry has turned out to be much broader than I had envisioned: my days are filled with teaching, preaching, the care of souls, and, increasingly, companioning those much younger than I. But along the way I have been privileged, indeed blessed, to befriend and be befriended by the dying.
DGB: Tell us, if you are willing, about some of the specific people you have journeyed toward death with. What exactly did they teach you?
MG: Three people, known and loved over a span of almost three decades, stand out especially in my memory. Ellen was a poet. She had been a pioneer in modern dance, but when we became acquainted, she was ninety, frail, and confined to a wheelchair. Ostensibly, I was her pastor, but in reality, she was my friend and older sister. Generous and open in sharing her musings and uncertainties about “the other side,” she let me go with her as far as I could. She taught me a great deal about writing, simplicity, and acceptance.
Then there was Beth, young enough to be my daughter. I had been her spiritual director when she studied for the Episcopal priesthood. Then, briefly, we were colleagues until a rapidly growing cancer claimed her life. For the three months of her final illness, I visited her daily, often morning and evening. We prayed together, shared stories of our girlhoods, told awful jokes, were silent together, and wondered about what it would be like on the other side of the threshold. I preached at her funeral and managed to get through it without breaking down. Like Ellen, she is still with me in unexpected little ways. I can hear her voice, her laugh. Like Ellen, she did not suffer fools gladly, and sometimes I can hear her brisk assessment of a ridiculous situation.
Tom died only a few weeks ago. He hadn’t been a close friend, but rather a casual acquaintance of many years. When he learned that he was facing death, he invited me to companion him in his last months. We would sit together, usually in the late afternoon after I had finished my work in the parish, and visit. Such an old-fashioned word for what we did! I wasn’t there on a pastoral call; indeed, there was nothing professional about our relationship. We just visited. Sometimes we talked about our children, our growing up (we were of the same generation), our travels, our long marriages. Sometimes we had a glass of wine to celebrate the end of the day. Before I left, we always prayed together. I prayed for Tom’s healing, even though we knew that only a major miracle could halt the progress of his disease, and Tom offered prayers of gratitude. We held hands as we prayed, and almost always we both shed tears. Just a few days before he died, Tom—at most a nominal Christian—told me that he had found God, that he was flooded with gratitude. There was joy in his voice. There was peace and joy in his sickroom.
As you know, I celebrated my seventy-fifth birthday a few weeks ago. Despite the sturdy constitution and high energy level that I have inherited from my hard-working farmer grandparents, I know that my days on this side of the second threshold are limited. Of course, we should all know that even when we are young, but it is easy to forget that we are mortal. I am grateful to the generous friends—Ellen, Beth, Tom and all the others—who have welcomed me into their dying.
DGB: “Welcomed you into their dying.” I really like that as a way to describe the invitation and the gift these people have given you. And thank you for sharing what it has meant to accept this invitation.
One more question—actually a cluster of related questions, but feel free to ignore those that are distracting and respond only to whatever part of this engages you. In Holy Listening you wrote that “good spiritual directors, like good teachers, are able to evaluate progress on the journey.” How is such progress to be measured?
And do you have any worries about the person who is overly preoccupied with the question of whether she or he is making progress on the spiritual journey? How do good spiritual directors (and perhaps good teachers) keep such an evaluative focus from impairing the journey of growth and learning?
MG: In one of my previous “incarnations” I was a “real” teacher, that is, I taught first in a university and then in a theological seminary. The part of my work then that was most difficult and that I disliked intensely was the requirement to put a letter or number grade on a student’s effort. To be sure, this was relatively easy when I was teaching the beginning stages of a language. I could give a vocabulary or grammar test, add up the right answers (about which there could be no question), and then assign a grade. The picture changes when we are talking about measuring real growth and understanding. I remember my own experience as an adult learner in seminary: I received top grades for some papers that I regarded as perfunctory and critical comments for work that had deeply engaged me and forced me to grow.
But that’s about life in academe. In a spiritual direction relationship, I resist any sort of measuring apparatus or rigid process of assessing progress. Indeed, I’m not always sure what “progress” might look like. Rather, when the relationship is a comfortable one, we can reflect together. As we look back over our time together, I can point out areas of growth the directee might have missed or might tend to minimize. Together we can look at questions or themes that recur. I can point out, gently, any resistance I might have noted and remind the directee that this can be a promising sign of growth: the next step is there, waiting to be taken. It’s also a good time for me to ask how I might be more helpful. I don’t have a timetable for this. It’s just part of the ongoing conversation.
Fortunately, I don’t work with anyone who is overly preoccupied with the rate of his/her spiritual growth. They would probably just look at me and recognize that it wouldn’t be a good match in spiritual companionship.
DGB: Thank you for your patience with that last string of questions, and for engaging with me as you have in this process. I have at least as many unasked questions that I’d love to bring to our dialogue as those that made it to the table, but perhaps they can wait for another opportunity. But the last word should be yours.
Any final comments about the spiritual journey—advice for those of us who accompany others on it or for all of us who make it?
MG: No advice. Since we are all traveling toward the same goal, our journeys have much in common. In a way, they are all the same journey. Yet each is unique. If we can love and support our fellow travelers, share out of our abundance in good times, and accept their gifts when we are impoverished, we’ll have done quite a bit.