The ministry of spiritual direction is often symbolized by three chairs grouped together in a triangular pattern. One chair is for the director, the person whose main role is to listen, ask questions, and to lovingly respond. The second chair is for the one who has come to seek guidance, discuss an issue, tell a story, or to simply be in the presence of a listening heart. This person may be called the directee, the client, the seeker, or the story teller. The third chair remains empty, serving to remind both persons that the true director of the session, or the conversation, is the Spirit.
When teaching a course entitled Experiencing the Art of Spiritual Direction at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, I invited the students into pairs to practice speaking and listening to one another. I placed an empty chair beside them as that physical reminder of the holy presence while they practiced this one-on-one ministry of spiritual direction.
One week it occurred to me to fill that empty chair with a student observer, who was to watch and notice what was happening in the exchange. The students did not like the idea. They believed that the third person was there to evaluate and judge the others, and then to tell them after the session what they did wrong. I assured them that was not the purpose of the person in the third chair, but rather he or she was to be a witness to what was happening, to embody the Spirit’s love and compassion for both director and directee. I also added that those in the third chair were not allowed to speak during or after the session—their presence was to be enough.
“Then what are we supposed to do?” they asked. “Pray,” I responded, “in whatever way seems right to you. You might hold them in light, you could pray for your own heart to open to enable you to listen without judgment, or simply sit and breathe.” I named the person in the third chair the compassionate observer.
With practice, the students discovered that the exchange was always enhanced by the presence of the compassionate observer. The directors reported that they felt supported and encouraged, that their questions and responses often seemed guided, and they were reminded they were doing holy work. The directees shared that they felt able to go more deeply into their stories and were able to share more honestly when they remembered the loving presence of God. By the end of the semester, they wondered how anyone could do spiritual direction without an actual compassionate observer being present!
When I moved on in that class from teaching one-on-one spiritual direction to teaching the process of group spiritual direction, it was a natural step to bring along the compassionate observers. I had learned group spiritual direction from Rose Mary Dougherty at the Shalem Institute in Washington, DC. In her model, one storyteller shares with three or four directors or responders. The guidelines were simple. A time for the process was decided upon by the group, usually thirty to forty-five minutes. The storyteller began the process by speaking without interruption. After some silence, a responder could ask a question or make an observation, prompting the storyteller to continue the story, look more deeply at the issue, or even take the story in a new direction. Other responders participated as they listened carefully and found within themselves questions that might facilitate the process. Periods of silence were to be included between questions and responses.
As I participated in this process of group spiritual direction, I found it challenging and exciting. As the storyteller, having more than one responder helped me view my issue from a variety of perspectives. As a responder, I liked sharing the responsibility for asking questions and offering possible insights with two or three others. The whole process felt rich and full of possibility.
When I introduced the model I had experienced on the Shalem retreat to my seminary students, I added the compassionate observers in the process. Surrounding the storyteller and responders in prayer continued the students’ experience of the compassionate observer they had practiced in the triads. It also provided them the opportunity to be present and listen with no responsibility to speak.
As I watched the students practice, I noticed that they found it difficult to allow natural periods of silence during the process. Responders jumped in too quickly after the storyteller spoke. Questions followed with further questions came rapidly, and the storyteller did not have enough time for reflection. I decided to add timed silent periods as a way to teach the students the benefit of including silence and stillness in group spiritual direction. This new model consisted of one storyteller, three or four responders, and at least two compassionate observers. I added a timekeeper to begin and end the periods of silence.
When Sandy Boyd called to ask if I would help begin an ecumenical peer supervision group for spiritual directors in the Denver metro area, this was the model I told her I would like to introduce. We gathered eight people and began the supervision process using what we came to call the prayer model. This group has lasted for over twenty years. Members have come and gone, and new people have been added. Over time we have refined the model, but the original spirit of the process has continued.
Catherine Tran was one of the early members, and it was she who took the prayer model to a judicatory group she was part of and started a program of teaching the model over a number of years. Other group members have taken the model into their teaching assignments, their congregations, and their spiritual formation groups. Adaptations are also being used in discernment groups, peer supervision groups, dream groups, and Bible studies. This prayer model seems now to have a life of its own.
I am grateful that Sandy Boyd and Catherine Tran have taken the time and energy to write this book, Spiritual Discovery: A Method for Discernment in Small Groups and Congregations, to explain the prayer model in detail and to share how it has been taught and used in a variety of settings. Releasing this prayer model into their hearts and hands for the benefit of others is a joy. Their willingness to continue to explore its many gifts and to encourage others to use it to promote prayerful discernment in a variety of settings warms my heart. I particularly appreciate their creativity in paying attention to how practicing the four roles in the model helps the participants deepen their prayer lives, the fruits of which they can then carry into the wider world.
As you read and practice and pray with the guidance of Spiritual Discovery: A Method for Discernment in Small Groups and Congregations, my prayer for you is that you will find deeper connections with the Spirit and with others. Use the material and stories in this wonderful book as a jumping off place. Feel free to experiment with it so it becomes yours. The prayer model is not a prescription to be followed to the letter. It is alive and expanding, so breathe more life into it, and see where the Spirit, which is the true teacher and director, guides you. You may be surprised!
Jane E. Vennard
From Spiritual Discovery by Catherine Tran and Sandra Boyd. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.