Updated: Jun 18, 2020
A couple of weeks ago, I got to lead a workshop for a local church on the topic of Spiritual Friendship. I have received this gift so richly, which is one of the reasons why I enjoy my work as a Spiritual Director tremendously, and why I am keen to create spaces for people to engage in conversation around it. Here are some of the thoughts I shared with the group here in Denver.
Who is a Spiritual Friend?
A spiritual friend can be someone who you break the communion bread with, share your day to day life with, or serve and work alongside, but it can also be someone who you only meet periodically to talk about your experiences of life with God. The context or layers of the relationship don’t really matter as much as the purpose of the relationship. David Benner describes this as follows:
"Spiritual friends nurture the development of each other's soul. Their love for each other translates into a desire that the other settle for nothing less than becoming all that he or she was intended to be. Soul friends become spiritual friends when they seek to help each other attend and respond to God." - David Benner, Sacred Companions
Spiritual friends care about each other’s holistic well-being and help one another to listen to-their own souls and God. They are not as interested in answering life questions as they are to help each other to come closer to God in the midst of those questions.
One of the greatest gifts that spiritual friends give to each other is the gift of ears. They try to listen well for their own soul, to the soul of the other, and God.
Here are some ways how I have benefited from these kinds of soul-attuned, deep-listening friends over the years:
I have felt seen and known
I have grown in awareness and knowledge of myself
I have experienced God’s love and healing through their compassionate presence
They have given me fresh perspectives and challenged my faith
Sharing with each other has normalized our struggles - "we are not alone"
It has offered a place for confession, accountability, and support
They have witnessed God’s grace, kindness and work in and for me
They have reminded me of who I really am and who God is
It has given me a place to offer myself, practice hospitality and welcome others into my life in a deep intimate way
The gift of others' prayers for me
How do we learn to listen for the other?
As part of my Spiritual Direction training, I was introduced to the idea of “three-way listening”. Many of us do this intuitively, without really being even aware of the different elements going into it. What it is is that as we are together, we listen to ourselves, God, and the other. All of these are closely interrelated and connected.
Listening to ourselves might sound counter-intuitive as we are trying to pay attention to what the other person is saying, but actually it is a crucial part of our listening to them and God. God speaks to us in our minds, and through memories, emotions and our body. Attuning to and learning to listen for our own souls is important in becoming spiritual friends, and simply in growing in our friendship with God and self. Noticing what is going on inside of us, our emotions, our bodily responses, thoughts, and all the inner-chatter, will help us to better listen to the other.
Secondly, we listen to God. This means that we recognize that God is with us and wants to talk to us. We listen prayerfully, trying to imagine how God sees this person (asking God to help us to see through God’s eyes) and how God would listen to them (practicing to hear through God’s ears). Some ways to set ourselves into this prayerful listening is to start with a reading of a Scripture, listening to a piece of music, or taking a moment of silence and pausing once in a while as we listen to each other.
Finally, we listen to the other. There are a few things that I want to highlight about this.
Value questions over answers. Most often when people share deep things of their lives they really don’t seek answers, but rather simply a compassionate listener. Our Christian lives are full of questions that need to be expressed and lived rather than answered. In practice, this kind of listening most often includes no advice giving, interrupting, or problem solving, and definitely no judging. If in doubt, just ask the person to share more by inquiring, “Can you tell me more about what that is like for you?" Henri Nouwen wrote: “A wounded healer is someone who can listen to a person in pain without having to speak about his or her own wounds.” It’s a powerful way to show love by being willing to step aside from the center of attention and being willing to simply listen and ask questions.
Sharing of spiritual experiences and longings. This doesn’t mean that relationships, health, work etc. should not be brought to these kinds of conversations; in fact quite the opposite. Those are the very things we want to be sharing, but when these kinds of external experiences are shared, the focus should be to explore our experience of God in the midst of those circumstances. God’s fingerprints can often be traced in our lives through noticing “language of the heart”, which can show in expressing strong emotions, desires and “shoulds”.
The foundation of love, acceptance and support. Going back to the first point, our friendship and listening needs to be motivated by love. A healthy amount of self examination is needed as we are learning to address our compulsion to have something to offer, ease other’s pain, or add value by saying something wise. It is loving to ask ourselves, “Am I saying this because I think it’s for his or her benefit, or for preserving or boosting my own ego”. Love doesn’t mean that we never confront or challenge each other. In a trusted relationship there is space this, but it is not the primary concern. Love in spiritual friendships simply means that we prefer the other and seek to be a compassionate fellow traveller on the road of following Jesus.
How do I get started?
A great place to start is to read some of the recommended reading below together as a group or with your friend. Secondly, be very concrete and realistic. Talk about expectations, needs, fears and plans, and when and how often you will meet to talk, listen, and pray. If you haven’t practiced this kind of slow listening and sharing before, make it a habit of reminding each other of the importance of silence. Start with silence and reading, prayer or music to mark your time of reflective three-way conversation. Be expectant and know that as you grow together your conversations will deepen and change. Commit to honesty, confidentiality, and praying for each other.
Have patience and wait for the soul to reveal itself and trust in God's timing. We might not be ready or those whom we listen to need time to grow in trust in order to reveal the raw places of their hearts. Have patience. God is not in rush. Life is a journey and our life of faith is not linear, but cyclical. We revisit the same themes and issues again and again as we are growing to put our trust in God’s love. Learn to receive and extend grace to yourself and your travel companions as you tell and listen to the same stories over and over.
Here are some questions for your personal reflection as you prepare to meet with your spiritual friends.
What was life like for you this past week?
Can you describe a time when you felt the most free?
When did you feel least free?
How has God been present for you in recent weeks?
When did God seem to be absent?
What spiritual practices have been particularly meaningful to you in recent weeks?
Which have been less meaningful than usual?
What do you seek from God at this point in your life?
When have you felt a strong emotion in the past days and what, if any, was your experience of God then?
How do you wish to be prayed for today?
If you would like to have me come and teach on this topic, or other themes of spiritual growth and prayer, have a look at my offerings here, and do not hesitate to get in touch with me!
Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction by David Benner
The Art of Listening in a Healing Way by James Miller
Seeking God Together: An Invitation to Group Spiritual Direction by Alice Fryling
The Critical Journey, Stages in the Life of Faith by Janet Hageberg & Robert Goelich
Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by Robert Mulholland
The Gift of Being Yourself and Surrender to Love by David Benner
The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth by Christopher L. Heuertz