Learning to Listen: Advice for Spiritual Directors

By Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB

Spiritual direction, listening, fr. Boniface Hicks,

My relationship with my spiritual director has been life-changing. From our first meetings, I learned quickly that he was an excellent listener and that in this relationship it was safe to be completely transparent. He always received me with love, patience, and understanding. Furthermore, as I met with him, I could tell that he really believed in me, and that gave me confidence in myself. He became my model for offering spiritual direction to others.

The key point that I learned from my spiritual director was the primacy of listening. I often thought that spiritual direction was about giving sage advice, but I learned a better approach from my spiritual director. I learned that it was profoundly healing for me to have the chance to share my faith journey with someone who really cared. My spiritual director never rushed me and always left me as much room as I needed to stumble through moments of awkward vulnerability. At the end of our meetings, I had done most of the talking. Many times my spiritual director had said little or nothing that provided me with new insight, and yet I could always say it was a very grace-filled meeting. I often recalled that example as I began to give spiritual direction. It was difficult to trust, at first, that I could really just listen and affirm and that would be the most effective thing for my directees.

As I began to trust my spiritual director even more, I had the courage to bring up some deeper secrets that I felt the Holy Spirit was stirring in my heart. I will never forget a few of our direction sessions when I haltingly shared things I had never shared with anyone before. He gave me as much space as I needed and said very little in response other than to encourage me and reassure me that his loving view of me had not changed. He asked a question or two to help me go deeper into it but he did not dig or probe or make me feel in any way uncomfortable. I felt so completely safe and that God was tangibly present in that experience. I felt so much better afterwards, with greater confidence, peace, lightness of heart, and healing. I am grateful to say that, following his example, I have been able to offer that safe, affirming love for others who have likewise been able to share their deepest secrets with me in spiritual direction.

One more striking experience I had in spiritual direction was in a struggle I was having with a supervisor that was shaking my confidence in myself. I felt misunderstood and sidelined, and I was starting to think that I was less capable of priestly ministry. As I shared that experience, my spiritual director became animated with words of affirmation as he also became defensive of me in what was happening. His uncharacteristically strong response reached right through the wall of my insecurities and gave me courage to believe in myself and to believe in what God could do through me. After his example, I have often been in a position to fight for my directees and help them overcome discouragement as I remind them how good they are.

My experience of receiving spiritual direction has profoundly shaped the way that I offer spiritual direction. I always strive to listen well, to support my directees in their vulnerability, and to help them feel loved with explicit affirmation. I pray that my own directees are able to pass on to people in their lives the same positive experience that I have received.

 

Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB, is a Benedictine monk of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He has provided spiritual direction for many men and women, including married couples, seminarians, consecrated religious, and priests. He is the co-author, with Fr. Thomas Acklin, OSB, of Spiritual Direction: A Guide for Sharing the Father’s Love.