Beyond Words

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House

The experience of spiritual direction assumes one very important thing: that the person seeking counsel can explain something of their spiritual life in such a way that the person from whom they are seeking it understands them. To a great extent those who seek out a spiritual director do so because they have something to talk about and experiences to describe; and therefore the problem of non-communication is a rare one. However, it is often the case that someone will say ‘I don’t know how to describe this’, or ‘I just can’t put it into words.’

In these circumstances there is a problem; just as one might struggle to communicate with someone who can’t understand the language one speaks. But gesticulations and actions, pointing, or perhaps drawing on a piece of paper can overcome the language barrier. The same techniques come into play in spiritual direction: body language is the most eloquent one. It is not unknown for someone to bring a photograph or painting to help them share their experience.

There are other language aids that can be used: I have known people refer to films and plays, or to quote literature – especially poetry – ‘this says what I am trying to say.’ The chief resource in spiritual language is Scripture. when the Prayer Book advises a penitent or someone seeking ghostly counsel to go to a ‘learned minister of God’s word’ there is an assumption at work that all that we need to nurture, protect, and guide the soul on its journey is found in Scripture.

Our Lord often pointed first to Scripture when individuals sought guidance, and likewise individuals came to him with dilemmas expressed in Scripture. The Desert Fathers’ ghostly counsels, as they have come down to us, are pithy and terse summaries of Scripture. How about this for a summary of the Beatitudes? ‘This is the truth: if a monk regards contempt as praise, poverty as riches, and hunger as a feast, he will never die.’

It may be that in a culture that values ‘self-expression’, individuals feel a responsibility or burden to speak in their own words. If this is the case, it is almost counter-intuitive to use someone else’s language. Our forerunners in the faith, however, instinctively sought to locate their own spiritual experience in that of the Catholic and Apostolic Church, and in doing so found consolation and encouragement. The narrow way is a well-trodden path, and there are many who have left us with language to guide us. It is probably the case that now ‘spiritual reading’ means reading about spirituality, rather than experiencing the companionship of those who in their holy living and holy dying wrote with the authority of those whose ‘prayer is true’. There are volumes of writing universally recognized as ‘spiritual classics’, and yet very few people read them. To read about them is not the same.

And then there is silence. Being mindful of the work of the Holy Spirit in spiritual direction, it is a good thing sometime just to be silent; for, as St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians, the Spirit that searches everything – including the depths of God and men’s hearts – can help us give utterance.