Slow, Silent, and Stupid

I’m always on the lookout for easily remembered phrases to sum up the basics of congregation-based spiritual direction. For example, I’ve previously posted about this essential pattern of small group spiritual direction:Talk Listen

Silence, sharing, silence, response, silence.

If you can remember only one thing about what the small group spiritual direction process is about, this is it.

So when I ran across the phrase “slow, silent, and stupid” as a summary of the kind of presence a spiritual director brings to a session, I knew I had to explore it further.

It’s from “From fear to calm: Spiritual direction on stormy waters,” an excerpt in The Christian Century from James Martin’s book Jesus: A Pilgrimage). In it, Martin says,

I’ve been a spiritual director for more than 20 years. It is one of my greatest joys. Spiritual direction helps people notice where God is active in their prayer and in their daily lives. While it may overlap with a number of other practices, spiritual direction is neither psychotherapy (which focuses mainly on the psychological underpinnings of a person’s problems), nor pastoral counseling (which focuses mostly on problem-solving in a spiritual setting), nor confession (which focuses on sin and forgiveness). Spiritual directors are trained specifically to enable a person to recognize God’s activity; this means helping that person with prayer.

I absolutely love this as quick way to sort of the differences between psychotherapy, pastoral counseling, confession, and spiritual direction. But the passage that really hit home for me was this:

After my ordination, I spent an entire summer at a Jesuit retreat house near Cincinnati, Ohio, learning about spiritual direction techniques, most of which hinge on being a good listener. “Slow, silent, and stupid,” goes one mantra.

Slow, silent, and stupid. I had never heard that mantra before (and I haven’t seen it anywhere other than Martin’s article). It’s the individual spiritual direction equivalent of “silence, sharing, silence, response, silence.”

If you remember only one thing about how to be a good listener in a spiritual direction setting, it’s this.

Martin finishes the paragraph with just right amount of explanation. “Don’t rush; don’t be afraid of silence; and don’t assume that you know what the other person means; ask.”

Whenever I start an individual spiritual direction session, I try to remember these words. And I definitely would share these words with lay leaders training to be a small group spiritual direction facilitator.

Any one of these attitudes can be difficult in this culture. We’re always rushing, it seems. And finding even one square inch of silence seems impossible. And darn it, I didn’t go to school for however many years it was to not speak up and share my knowledge.

But if we’re going to truly make room for the spirit in spiritual direction, following Martin’s advice seems essential.

Whether it’s with individuals or in a group, opening up the kind of space where one can truly be heard requires attending to all three of these traits of a good listener is crucial.


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