(#1) Contemplative Listening and Spiritual Conversation:
Pastoral Care for All God’s People
NB: This lecture is accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation (1.03Mb pdf). The numbers in the text refer to the PowerPoint slides.
I too express great thanks for the opportunity to honor
I met Dr. Way when I arrived at Vanderbilt, a naive yet eager first-hear PhD student. I soon learned Peggy’s consistent commitments, including:
I was (and still am) a Roman Catholic nun in a non-denominational seminary/graduate school. Peggy, of all my professors, understood that my intuitions for spirituality were deeper than for psychology, though she was also very clear that it was my task to get quickly up to speed in psychology. This intuition was borne out in my disciplinary switch to spirituality some years later.
Notice I have stolen Peggy’s book’s subtitle for my subtitle.  No accident! (#2) I hope to present two practices, contemplative listening and spiritual conversation as—simultaneously—pastoral care practices and spiritual disciplines for all God’s people. These practices, I am convinced, can so ground our interrelationships that their quality deeply affects both our spiritual lives and our ministries of giving care. They are practices of practical solidarity, practices that foster connection. In light of this morning, I hope you will see that our hospitality to the other as other and our overcoming of the violence of the indifference of abandonment can begin with our every conversation. I believe this to be true not just for public leaders in the Church—all baptized Christians minister in their own vocations. Who of us doesn’t listen (more or less well) and doesn’t speak (more or less intentionally and helpfully)? Listening and speaking underlie almost every vocation. Furthermore, if we want to somehow follow the injunction “Pray always,” then there must be ways of connecting prayer and ministry because we spend so much of our waking time engaged in ministry.
In Created by God: Pastoral Care for All God’s People, Peggy cited this poem based on one by Emily Dickinson:
(#3) They might not need me—yet they might—
I’ll let my heart remain in sight—
A skill so small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity— 
In the midst of finitude and given’s, in the midst of small and large victories, in the midst of funerals and baptisms, weddings and hospital visits, in the midst of visits to the doctor and visits from the grandchildren, come acts of listening and speaking. Teachers and students speak and listen to each other, as do pastors and parishioners, spouses and partners, parents and children. Indeed our various liturgies move between listening and speaking, as we together seek to hear the Word of God for us today and to respond in praise, adoration, thanksgiving and petition.
(#4) “A skill so small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity.”
Who does not need conversations? In interactions of all kinds, including particularly verbal ones, we form our identity as persons, as members of our families, as spouses, as parents, as friends and neighbors, as fellow laborers, as givers of care, as common children of God. Identity formation goes out, day in, day out, largely unconsciously, as we spin out the narrative of our persona lives in the context of the narratives of the communities to which we belong.
(#5) “A skill so small. . .” Speaking and listening often escape our notice, so ordinary are they. As Peggy observed, “the more hands on, the more unnoticed.” What is more “hands-on” in ministry and in living that speaking and listening? Yet how important they are to the quality of life.
(#6) “Precisely their necessity”—and ours! Oh, how we need them! Harsh words may be far less enduring than no words at all. Angry words imply a worthy opponent, no words at can render one unseen and unheard and erased—invisible to the powers that be and even, over time, invisible to oneself. So much for my belief. It is also my thesis.
(#7) Part I: Contemplative Listening
Contemplative listening as a spiritual practice came to me first. After I left Vanderbilt, in the early 80’s, with Peggy’s words still echoing in my ears, I began teaching Pastoral Care and Counseling at Roman Catholic seminary. As part of the basic pastoral care course, I introduced a component of listening skills. I focused on the dynamics of pastoral dialogue—with only moderate success, I must say. It seemed that the need to interpret and fix came to the fore very quickly, no matter how I stressed the skills for the early moments of the conversation. After about one exchange, some students would inevitably launch into a program to address the issue as they barely or imperfectly understood it. A quick fix is oh, so satisfying to a busy pastor. Take care of that bit of messiness and so avoid the anxiety of being powerless to fix others lives, or so we can luxuriate in being needed.
After some years, I moved to my present position, where my discipline shifted to spirituality/spiritual formation. I began to present spiritual disciplines for the pastor as part of my teaching. Listening was still crucial—in that way pastors and caregivers and spiritual directors are similar—but I began to look for ways to think about listening from the perspective of my “new” discipline of spirituality. (#8A) One day, while reading John Patton’s then new book From Ministry to Theology,  I noticed that his CPE students manifested the same propensity as my students to jump in and theologize before they had uncovered the scope and depth of the issue. Patton had devised a theological reflection method that held the theologizing at bay until very far into the process. The idea was that all interpretation, including theologizing, carries the possibility of hiding what it is trying to illumine if it is applied too quickly. The lens, even a perfectly orthodox theological one, colors what we see. So Patton insisted on bracketing all interpretation in the early moments of the conversation in order to concentrate on really hearing both what is really at stake and its emotional impact and overtones. By the time I had read well into the book, the thought had dawned: the listening practice he is proposing is the same kind of self-emptying attention that the Christian spiritual tradition has called contemplation. (#8B) And then the idea hit me like a thunderbolt: why not teach listening from the base of the spiritual tradition?
(#9) But what is contemplation? There are many,
many definitions, both ancient and contemporary.
Here are several: (#10) From Richard of St.
Victor: “Seeking truth in purity and simplicity.” (#11) From Ignatius of Loyola, “Finding God in all things.” (#12) From Teresa of
I usually give my classes a lovely essay by the (#16) Jesuit Walter Burghardt, who describes contemplation as “a long, loving look at the real.” This description has the benefit of being both evocative and easy to remember. In sum, contemplation is a loving quality of presence in which one is open to things just as they are in the present moment.
Of course, from a Christian perspective, all prayer is answering speech, as Frederick Buechner reminds is. Adapting that felicitous phrase, we could then say that contemplation, as a form of prayer, is (#17) answering awareness, answering presence. Contemplation is always a gift, always at some level initiated by God.
We also need an anthropology which allows us to posit that looking at creation is an act of worship of its Creator. Here’s a beginning: The Word made Flesh that is God’s revelation comes to us precisely through and as one of God’s creatures. The more completely and lovingly we ponder God’s creatures, the more clearly does God’s revelation come to us through creation.
As we do this kind of self-emptied presence to what is, we begin to see—we begin to have revealed to us—the is-ness, givenness, complexity, beauty of the particular creature here and now in front of us, the child, employee, student, spouse, delivery person, mail-carrier. In the face of that particular person or other bit of creation awe can arise. But we must also confront our own sense of inadequacy, terror at finitude, anxiety at not being in control, and need to fix all pain that we may also see when we really look at the world and its inhabitants..
(#18) Briefly, here is the practice of contemplative listening as I introduce it in several of my classes. It is based in the simple act of telling stories about our life experience.
(#19) First, there is an initial practice for all, namely some participation in the tradition of contemplative prayer in order to have an experiential sense of contemplation. Many contemporary Protestants have never been introduced to this kind of prayer and think it reserved for mystics or monks. I often use Centering Prayer for this introduction, but there are other ways to do it. One reason why I keep returning to Centering Prayer for this introduction to contemplation is that it doesn’t take very many minutes of trying to let go of all thoughts and images and memories and plans, any agenda of our own, and to simply wait expectantly on God. We quickly learn how much chatter there is in our minds and how quickly they take off on their own agenda despite our intentions to simply be present. The ultimate goal of this contemplative practice, though, is not to be able to listen better—that’s only the proximate and pragmatic goal. The ultimate goal is to develop a contemplative attitude about all of life. That transformation, of course, is a work of grace; one that often takes place through faithful practice over time, sometimes a long time. But clergy listen as an everyday part of their ministries. If they can listen contemplatively, I believe that grace can transform them into more contemplative persons through the means of this simple action that they do repeatedly, day in and day out.
(#20) Then there is the practice for the story-teller: I give the one who will tell the story a set of steps for noticing his or her own experience and narrating it “close to the bone,” free as possible from interpretive overlays, posturing, doing it right (whatever that means in a particular conversation)—this too is being contemplative, contemplative with our own lives.
(#21) Finally, there are the practices for the hearer: Broken into discrete steps for teaching purposes, there are several steps. First, emptying of expectations of other and self; then bracketing of all inner chatter (“the committee in the head,” as one author called it)  ; then attending as directly and with as much gentle attention as possible to the words of the person narrating the story. All this is mostly hidden, done inside the hearer... (#22) Then, the simple, but oh, so difficult skill of saying something back to the teller. I ask my students to do so in one sentence. In it, I ask them to focus on something of what the teller said and to include the feeling tone behind the words. Period. Full stop. To a woman who has just talked about her son’s rather strange behavior you might reply: “You are worried about your son—he seems out of control these past couple of weeks.” No interpretations, no probes, no advice, no fixing, no satisfying your own curiosity. No responding with a story from your own life—at least not at this moment. All those urges must be bracketed and set aside for the moment, as they cloud the immediate listening to the one who is before you.
(#23) This simple practice is a powerful way to signal that you have heard the other, as she or he is. It asks us to minimize the static that comes from seeing primarily through our own lens by attempting to put on the lens of another. It asks us to maximize the experience of the other by giving it back to them in a simple sentence. It asks us to recognize that both what happened and how it feels are important to understanding the other’s experience fully and therefore, to listen for both, to respond to both. But it also brings us to a point of humility: it is never possible to fully enter into or understand the other’s experience. We can only try to.
(#24) Is this all there is to pastoral conversation? Definitely not. But it is only later, when the teller’s experience is fully heard, that we move to other aspects of pastoral conversations. These later onversation strategies might include probes to lead to greater thought, questions to elicit more information or to pose alternatives, and summaries to pull together seemingly unrelated threads of experience. Nor is pastoral conversation all there is to caring; often our conversation must be backed up by caring or even prophetic actions. What these strategies will be is determined by at least two things. First, what is the relationship that the teller and speaker have with each other, either formally or tacitly? (Two spouses wondering about the difficulties their child is experiencing is a different conversation world from a student talking to a faculty person about the difficulties with the last paper.) Second, what are the goals for the particular conversation? (Just “shooting the breeze” is different from attending a family who has just learned their child has been hit by a car, and still different from confronting an abuser and filing mandatory reports to child protective services.) (#25) But at the first moment of interaction, all conversations can start in contemplation, if not in technique, at least in attitude, namely that I want to hear this other person, precisely as other, as deeply as I can. To do that, I have to step “outside” myself, at least for a moment, to understand the other precisely as other.
When I teach contemplative listening, we practice by telling our stories in a small group. As you might expect, a group setting means things get very complex very quickly!
(#26) Finally, the practice for all group members: Without stepping out of the practice for the listener-responder, a group setting requires the additional task of following the exchanges between the teller and other members of the group and moving with them to the next present moment. The conversation is not static, not simply each one in turn responding as an individual to what they heard in the story—the conversation moves and grows in the group. That means listening to what is now the reality, and responding to that reality, both its content and feeling tone. As in the pastor’s office, one listens within a dynamic reality of an unfolding story, one that is being created in this very moment of speaking, listening, responding, hearing. (#27 and #28)
(#29) Returning to the
As we tell stories in a group setting, the group members’ responses create a collage, each person polishing a small facet of the teller’s experience and giving it back to the teller. A few minutes of this kind of rich exchange can bring out whole new understandings in the teller. It’s not uncommon to hear: “I never made that connection before—it’s really true.” The most subtle and amazing thing happens as we tell stories to each other and try to respond contemplatively for a period of time. (#30) Communities are formed! Communities of shared life, communities of trust, communities of tears and laughter. People are affirmed. Do you know how rare it is to be really heard? What a precious gift, one that the receiver so often experiences as grace. . .
(#31) Part Two: Spiritual Conversation
(#32) My understanding of spiritual conversation also took some time to gel in my consciousness; it is a much later arrival. Over time, I began to retrieve materials that I had first worked on in my dissertation around The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. Writing about the Exercises,  trying to make them hospitable for women, alerted me to the issues of conversation as presented in the Spiritual Exercises.
Some years ago,
(#34) Both Contemplative Listening and Spiritual Conversation are spiritual practices. The first, Contemplative Listening is the micro-practice, but Spiritual Conversation is the setting that both fosters and is the fruit of Contemplative Listening. These practices are available to any of us, no matter what other vocation we might have. These spiritual and pastoral practices are what you might call “ur-ministries” by which I mean the most basic foundation upon which other more specialized vocations, charisms and ministries are grounded.
(#35) So, what is Spiritual Conversation? For our prototype, Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Conversation means to speak familiarly with people (that is face to face, intimately, informally, as one friend to another), so as to draw them into God’s service. In Spanish, the language of the early editions of Ignatius’s most famous work, The Spiritual Exercises, we can see this familiarity in the difference between “tu” and “usted,” the “tu” form being used for familiar relationships and intimate situations.
We need some building blocks in place to see how Ignatius meant his followers to understand Spiritual Conversation. (#36) First, Ignatius of Loyola was aware that certain natural qualities of person enhanced the effectiveness of spiritual conversation. Some of these qualities are obvious: alertness, prudence, and a generally pleasing personality. But the virtue that Ignatius suggests for honing these natural gifts is a bit more surprising: modesty. We might say poise or self-possession or courtesy or personal graciousness, though these have a slightly more secular ring than Ignatius would have preferred. For Ignatius (and, I hope for us), one’s outer bearing should arise from one’s inner condition. In other words, Ignatius desired that we demonstrate with our bearing who we really are and that it be hospitable, welcoming and genuinely interested in the other person. Inner peace manifested in outer composure—the integrity between inner and outer is crucial.
Ignatius had one more natural quality in his list of key virture: zeal. He believed that the person who would engage in spiritual conversation should be “desirous of all virtue and spiritual perfection, energetic in whatever enterprise of divine service they undertake,” as he put it in the Constitutions, #156. In other words, we must be convinced of the worth and value of what we are undertaking. And it is not sufficient to have such desires “generically,” detached from real people. Ignatius has in mind desire for the good of this particular person, this particular institution.
(# 37) Second, given the work we do, we must confront the huge issue of setting priorities. Ignatius faced the same problems we do: too much to do, too many who wanted to see him, and too little time. His solution: try to determine what apostolic action is most for the greater glory of God and then concentrate one’s attention and efforts on this aspect. We can really do no better: figure out what is the center of our life and vocation, and order our priorities from that center. From this prioritizing, we can then hopefully, marshal an unhurried, genuine empathy for those we deal with. How we order those priorities, is, of course, a central aspect of discerning our vocation. My vocation is as a teacher; I must prioritize my life to be able to listen to students and colleagues as the center of my vocation; a mom would more likely put listening to her spouse and her children in that central position.
(#38) Third, use common sense. In his face-to-face relationships, Ignatius had a lot of common sense. For example, one needs to get to know the other, to find out what his or her disposition is like, what her values and joys might consist in, what is really important. According to Da Camera, Ignatius’s scribe for his Autobiography, Ignatius had a real knack for getting to know the feelings and personality of anyone he talked with. After a conversation, he really knew a person from inside out.
(#39) Finally, the heart of spiritual
conversation: just plain listening, long and intently. “Be ready to listen for long periods,” he told two early companions
as he sent them off on a difficult mission to
In the paragraph I am going to quote next, which is actually from Pierre Favre, one of the early Jesuits, I invite you to substitute for the word “heretic,” a phrase more appropriate to our situation, such as “nemesis” or “leader of the opposition.” The following comments cover the most intractable kind of relationship, including with one’s enemies, but apply as well the more naturally compatible people are.
In the first place it is necessary that anyone who desires to be serviceable to heretics of the present age should hold them in great affection and love them very truly, putting out of his heart all thoughts and feelings that tend to their discredit. The next thing he must do is to win their good will and love by friendly dealings and converse on matters about which there is no difference between us, taking care to avoid all controversial subjects that lead to bickering and mutual recriminations. The things that unite us ought to be the first ground of our approach, not the things that keep us apart. 
You can see that there is a good bit of asceticism required: most of us don’t spontaneously act with tact, patience, generosity of time and spirit, patience and self-control with those we don’t see eye to eye with as a matter of course. We may be better able to sustain this way of behaving to the degree that we are confident of its importance for fulfilling our vocation. Ignatius would also remind us that it is always the work of God in us, not merely our own doing.
Ignatius set his vision for spiritual conversation in a more “public”document too—right at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, before ever the director and the retreatant begin their conversations, we find this statement, which Ignatius labels the “presupposition.”
(#40) Presupposition: That both the giver and the receiver of the Spiritual Exercises may be of greater help and benefit to each other, it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.  (Ganss 1991, 129)
Ignatius is saying, in effect, if this process is to work to bring greater glory to God, here is the basic rule for relating to each other. Notice:
Mutual: applies to both
Contextual: the situation influences interpretation
Generous: each assumes the best of the other
Disciplined: sincere attempt to see both sides
Goal: for mutually acceptable positions
Correct: only in love and if necessary at the end
Conclude: with something that can be affirmed
When you think about it in light of the way we usually converse, this pattern is really striking. What could happen if this were the behavioral norm in our government? In the church? In the parish? In our families? What would it take for us to move one step towards it?
The challenge is that, even if the other party does not act this way toward you, you can still choose to act this way toward him/her. It’s harder, yes, sometimes much harder, but there is nothing that prevents one side of the conversation to from assuming the best of the other, making a sincere attempt to see the other side, striveing for a mutually acceptable position (instead of “winning”), correcting only after attempts to understand and to come to a mutually acceptable position, and, regardless of the effect of the other responses, concluding by affirming something—“at least we can agree to disagree without it closing down our ability to talk.” (#42) This exhortation to presume and search for the best in the other is the starting point for Ignatian conversation.
Finally, we come to the most characteristically Ignatian image for spiritual conversation. In a letter to the two Jesuits serving as Papal legates to Ireland, Salmeron and Broët, September 1541,  he wrote: (#43) “Whenever we wish to win someone over and engage him in the greater service of God our Lord, we should use the same strategy for good which the enemy employs to draw a good soul to evil. He enters through the other’s door and comes out his own.”
The reference, to which both of those men would be familiar, is to the Spiritual Exercises, #332. Here, in context of what is called the Rules for Discernment of Spirits, the metaphor is used to describe how the Evil One might fool inattentive discerners, subtly distracting them from their good intentions and actions. In the letter to Salmeron and Broët, the metaphor is used to describe a pastoral strategy to be employed by (presumably good-intentioned) persons, and as understood as a means to secure the greater glory of God.
(#44) Ignatius based his strategy on Paul’s words “I became all things to all people so as to win all to Christ” (I Cor. 9:22).At its best, it is the skillful use of accurate empathy as an intentional pastoral strategy. But here my feminist hermeneutic of suspicion kicks in. Is this strategy deceptive? Paternalistic? Manipulative? It certainly could be all three. It could be patronizing of we assume we have a corner on what’s best for the other person. It can be manipulative if we forget that even accurate empathy can be turned to our own purposes, not to the good of the other. The desire to be all things to all people can easily slip into fear of conflict and avoiding honest criticism, of being nice at all costs, of becoming content with the least common denominator, of capitulating our moral integrity. These are the dangers.
But this strategy need not be manipulative if our motives are sincere interest in the other person and deep desire to do the best thing in the circumstance, if we always leave the other free to go another way, if we do not promise more than we can deliver, if we desire and live humbly and if we simply desire the greater glory of God in the exchange. (#45) Spiritual conversation challenges us far beyond mere technique. The deepest meaning of spiritual conversation is about being a certain kind of integrated person who responds to others, always intent on their greatest good.
At its best, what Ignatius describes is the skillful use of accurate empathy as an apostolic strategy. But since it is so easy to pervert this strategy, even—perhaps especially—unconsciously, it requires a balancing a set of conversation rules that also stress appropriate resistance, boundaries and disclosure. David Tracy offers a useful set:
…say only what you mean; say it as accurately as you can; listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other; be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner; be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it. 
Contemporary Jesuit Willi Lambert has tried to summarize the essential operations of the Ignatian style of conversation:
(#46) 1. Be convinced of the surprising worth of conversation, and thus of the importance of preparing oneself while recognizing that a really successful conversation is a gift.
2. Speak slowly, carefully and affectionately.
3. Listen with peaceful attention to the whole person.
(#47) 4. Come to conversations free of prejudice
5. Rarely, if ever use arguments from authority to trump the other speaker.
6. Speak with modest lucidity.
7. Take enough time. 
One last point: Why is it important to see these pastoral care strategies as spiritual disciplines?
(#48) Most of us can’t pray for hours like the members of contemplative religious orders, but we can still claim the word contemplation for ourselves. Contemplation is something we can all do as part of our formal prayer, of course, but it can spill readily out of our formal prayer into our lives. Busy pastors and pastoral care givers of all kinds can do the kinds of contemplative practice that I am suggesting here—right in the midst of carrying out their vocations. It’s how we “active” people can let our formal prayer spill over toward praying always. It’s one way we may, ultimately, overcome the artificial but often deeply held split between prayer and action. I am deepening my prayer at every moment that I am listening. I am extending my prayer at every moment that I engage in the attitude and work of spiritual conversation. And these kinds of contemplative listening and speaking, performed in the midst of our lives and ministries, in turn enrich our formal prayer. These practices belong to everyone. Moms, home health aids, pre-school teachers and aids, clerks, construction workers—and professors, pastors,--Spiritual practices and pastoral care for all God’s people.
Created by God: Pastoral Care for All God’s People (
 Cited in this form in Way, Created by God, 144. The actual text from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed Thomas H. Johnson Boston Little, Brown and Company, 1960, #1391 reads as follows:
They might not need me—yet they might—
I’ll let my Heart be just in sight—
A smile so small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity—
The difference is telling.
 From Ministry to Theology: Pastoral Action and Reflection (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990).
 For a representative sample, see the website of the Shalem Institute: www.shalem.org/resources/quotations. All the above quotations taken from this website, viewed September 18, 2005, except those from Thomas Merton, which is from New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions, 1961, 3, and Walter Burghardt, which he develops in the helpful essay, “Contemplation: A Long, Loving Look at the Real,” in Church ( Winter:1989): 14-18.
Co-authored with Katherine Dyckman and Mary Garvin, The
Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed: Uncovering Liberating Possibilities for Women (
 William Young, Letters of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1959), 51-52.
 Thomas Clancy, the Conversational Word of God (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1978), 19-20.
 George Ganss, Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works (New York: Paulist, 1991), 129.
 Cited in Young, Letters, 51-52.
Jones, L. Gregory, and Stephanie Paulsell, The
Scope of Our Art: the Vocation of the Theological Teacher (
Willi Lambert, Directions for Communication:
Discoveries with Ignatius of Loyola. Trans by Robert R. Barr, Marlies Parent, and Peter Heinegg