Book Review: Holy Listening—The Art of Spiritual Direction
By: Margaret Guenther Publisher: Cowley Publication
Over the past year I have read several books covering the topic and practice of spiritual direction. Counting my present experience, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction ranks among the very best that I have read to date. This guide, written by Margaret Guenther, is unlike some of the other books on this subject that I have read.
First, let me say that spiritual direction is not a discipline or art that can be necessarily taught. There are certain tools that can be shared and there is experiential wisdom that might be communicated to help perspective “guides” and directors, but spiritual direction cannot be taught from a clinical perspective. When speaking of “soul” therapy there remains much mystery, especially when considering that the vast majority of the work done in spiritual direction is done by the Holy Spirit of God.
Disclaimer aside, Holy Listening does not attempt to “teach” spiritual direction, but instead, Margaret Guenther humbly shares a lifetime of her experience as a “holy listener” and soul friend. The book is just under one hundred fifty pages long and divided into only four chapters. The first chapter reminds the reader that each soul is to be welcomed as Christ; Welcoming the Stranger, refers to the Rule of St. Benedict (Chapter 53: Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received Me”). This is a delightful chapter full of real-life insight that offers bountiful wisdom gleaned from years of holy listening. Each page of this chapter drips humility from Guenther and points to God as the true guide in the work of spiritual direction.
Chapter two is the longest chapter in the book and my favorite. I think it offers the most practical wisdom and instruction in Holy Listening. I just checked my copy of the book and I think every page but three or four have some type of highlighting or note written on them. Let me reemphasize that the style of the book is not teaching method, but sharing experience and because of this style of sharing there is an invaluable amount of wisdom and insight gleaned. The personal stories, both successes and errors, are related with honesty and care. I found reading the stories themselves a holy experience for me.
Chapters three and four provided unique challenges to me as a male. Chapter three is written using the metaphor of a midwife to describe the work of the spiritual director. I had to take my time and open my mind to the metaphor, but the effort was worth it. Once I reached the half-way point of the “midwife” chapter, this wonderful metaphor began to yield bountiful fruit. Chapter four addressed specific challenges and distinctive to ministry and direction to women (chapter titled: Women and Spiritual Direction). I’m sure this will be a valuable chapter for me at some point and I will probably refer to again and again in the future, but I must admit that I was a bit lost for the majority of this chapter. I write this confession as a man who has been married almost twenty-four years and a man who was raised with two sisters. I have experience with the nature of the female, but much of what was shared in this final chapter was a bit outside of my experience.
This really was a wonderful book. It is one of the best I have read on the art of spiritual direction. There is nothing systematic or technical about it, but I don’t think there is a more complete approach to the subject of being a soul friend than any other book I have read to date. I’m confident to recommend this work to anyone who might be considering this type of counseling. It is a gem and a gift to the person called to spiritual guidance and direction.