In these past years of living into my call as someone who walks alongside others on their spiritual journey, I’ll admit that I have struggled with the idea of where to begin. Not where to begin with my training, which is fruitful and ongoing, but about where to begin when someone actually finds you and takes the trouble to come to you and sit in the chair across from you. Yes, training courses teach you all about conducting an initial interview, creating a working covenant, outlining the ways in which you approach spiritual direction, and so forth, but there always comes that moment when your new friend’s face looks at you with expectation and the often unspoken question – now what? It is a sobering time.
I just read a book by Ann and Barry Ulanov, called Primary Speech:A Psychology of Prayer. The authors argue that prayer is our most primary form of speech, whether or not we believe in something bigger than ourselves out there. It is from a kind of prayer, a kind of conversation with our inner selves, that all other communication flows. You know, like the way that the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) form all other colors in the visual spectrum.
Funny thing, though, at the same time I was reading Marcus Borg’s The God We Never Knew, reveling again in the prose of another who so clearly and carefully delineates the thoughts that had been swirling in my head for months. In this particular book, Borg uses the story of his own theological growth to teach some important theology, a growth that guided his transformation from a picture of a God who is all judgement and requirements to a God who is all about relationship and justice. That is a vast simplification of this wonderful book, but the part of the book that is most relevant to our discussion now is that much of Borg’s transformation came to him from understanding what the most important question was to ask and answer.
And the question? It is simple — and yet not: who is God to you?
That my friends, is a primary question, perhaps. And a primary question, like those primary colors, is the question (and the answer to that question that probably evolves over time) that forms the stuff of everything in your life. For now, I’m going to hold on to Borg’s question — it deserves a deeper discussion than I can offer here. Rest assured that we will, however, discuss it.
Questions are, at least for me, the trickiest part of the spiritual direction process. When you train in the art of spiritual companionship, you learn to focus and to listen — listen to yourself, listen to your companion, and most of all, to listen for the movement of Holy Spirit (or, whatever name you would like to give to that unnameable essence that moves within us). You learn to suspend judgement, you learn to create a hospitable space, you learn to see your own assumptions and those of your companion, you learn to re-frame, you learn to wonder and to savor and to mirror. Ask anyone who has gone down this path, however, what the hardest part of the whole process is, and I will guess that they will answer as I do — the hardest thing is knowing when to speak, when to ask a question, and — oh, my God — what question to ask that will not try to fix or nudge or judge or damage your new friend’s sense of agency over their own life.
Such questions are often called open and honest questions, following the process that is outlined in the Quaker Clearness Committee model. The guidelines for this style of questioning were shared with the wider world by Parker J. Palmer in his important book A Hidden Wholeness and form an important part of his Circle of Trust (R) practice that has spread world wide. The most important quality of such a question? It is a question that cannot possibly ask if you are thinking that you already know the answer. It is a question that does not get ahead of your companion’s language, but sits behind it — “What did you mean when…” instead of “Did you also feel [fill in the blank here]?” And if you are not sure about the question, if you are not positive in the depth of your soul that the question needs to be asked and that you, and you alone, are the right person to ask it, then just don’t. Borg’s question, who is God to you, is just such a question. It is not a question easily answered — it is a question that two companions might struggle through for quite some time.
I think that, in their own way, open and honest questions will always be primary questions of a sort, but the art of finding the right question within this framework happens only after time spent listening to a companion or in a group. The moment that I have described here, that moment of first meeting, that moment when we are evaluating the possibility of relationship for spiritual formation, well, that takes a different kind of question — primary and foundational.
I know. I’ve been a bit mysterious here. But I think that I’m on to something. I want to explore this idea of a primary question, and, along the way, take a look at some specific questions that I might classify as primary. I do know this, that, like a primary color, these questions make a bold statement. And they don’t have easy or static answers…but those answers, when found, are well worth the journey.
Come along, let’s have a little adventure!