Jesuit Spiritual Director Shares his Experiences as an Active Listener

Jesuit Father Joseph Tetlow is the director of Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Dallas, Texas where he gives retreats, workshops and writes. Before his came to Montserrat, Fr. Tetlow spent several years in Rome as head of the Jesuit General’s Secretariat for Ignatian Spirituality, guiding the efforts of 250 Jesuit retreat houses.

Widely considered one of the Jesuits’ leading authorities on spiritual direction, Tetlow recently wrote this piece for the New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus’ magazine Southern Jesuit. You can read more article about the work of the Jesuits of the New Orleans Province by visiting Southern Jesuit‘s online magazine.

I really began listening to what people need when I was ordained in 1960. I was sent to the Cenacle Retreat House in New Orleans to give a weekend retreat. When I got there, Sr. Margaret Byrne, R.C., asked me what I wanted to do. Actually, she knew what needed to be done a lot better than I did, and she patiently helped me learn.

What I learned is this: my need of grace and yearning for God are gifts to be shared; they are not for me, alone. The prayers and desires given to me are not just for me. They are also for all to whom God sends me.

Realizing that gave me an insight into the Spiritual Exercises. They were created by St. Ignatius because he needed them. During his recovery from a battle wound, he began to experience “spirits” – joy when he thought about God, misery when he thought about being famous and powerful. How was he to understand these “spirits?” He needed order and method in his praying and desiring that would give him a sense of making progress. His needs, in God’s design, are also felt by all of Christ’s followers. We all feel, in a vague sort of way, the need for order and progress, and we are helped as Ignatius was by learning about discernment.

Guided by the Holy Spirit, he organized the prayers and desires into Spiritual Exercises, and as the Holy Spirit brought him clarity of mind and heart, the Spirit also opened his eyes to other people’s need for the same things. So Ignatius began sharing his spiritual experiences. At first, he went too far: the illiterate people of Manresa were not helped by tales of mystical experiences of the Trinity.

So Ignatius had to listen. And like him, I had to learn about others’ needs. Some need solid instruction. Some need a way to reform a life that has gone bad. Some need to hear what God wants with their whole lives. You find, when you listen to enough men and women today, that we all feel this same broad range of needs.

Very commonly, retreatants report a mild depression. They know that they are getting nowhere, sunk in consumerism. People find the same help that Ignatius found in feeling a sense of moving along, of getting somewhere. Ignatius organized the Exercises for that purpose, “to make progress.”

Before all else, Ignatius found that he needed Jesus Christ. He needed to know Jesus of Nazareth more clearly, love Him more dearly and follow Him more nearly. So the Spiritual Exercises begin, continue and end in Christ Jesus. The Principle and Foundation, we are learning, tell us to “praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord Jesus Christ.” Think what it means that the first colloquy in the whole thirty day retreat has us stand beneath the Cross and ask Jesus how He came to be there instead of us. We ask ourselves what we have done for Him, are doing, and will do, for Him.

Listening to people, you find out that we need that focus today. Our fussing about conservative and liberal, about liturgy and others’ sins, fades into hot air and fog when we stand under His Cross. That is what I had to learn and that is what the Exercises free us to feel.

We struggled with this for a while after Vatican II. We got serious about studying the text of the Spiritual Exercises and had to sort out what was authentic and what was not. We forgot that, at the beginning, there was no text. Ignatius and his companions, and a lot of lay people whom they helped, were giving Exercises for two decades before Ignatius ever published his text. And all this while, wave after wave of retreatants passed on the Exercises with nothing but their own guided experiences and whatever notes they had kept.

We had to learn this: the Spiritual Exercises are first of all an orderly, disciplined way of coming to know what God intends in and through us. They are a specific kind of experience of God in Christ. They are the living spirit of every Jesuit and now of many, many lay colleagues as well. They are the way we follow and pass on – a way to Jesus Christ, to know Him more clearly, love Him more dearly and follow Him more nearly – and each person to whom we pass that on makes the Reign of Christ stronger and deeper in this secular world.

2 Responses to “Jesuit Spiritual Director Shares his Experiences as an Active Listener”

  • For an article on listening, it seems to me that it spent most of its time talking. Obviously the article was to feature the priest’s ministry. But couldn’t the article have given some practical examples of active listening? Those who know about this process will be refreshed. Those new to A.L. will find new and useful tools for their own spiritual journey as well as new found skills to help others. Of course, everyone who has graduated from semnary is fully skilled in A.L. Thus, my omments are meaningless.

  • Cynthia B. Astle, OSL:

    With respect, I believe Fr. Robert Kaye misses the point. Fr. Joe Tetlow, whose student I have the honor to be, points out that active listening is only the start of the spiritual direction process. A single article that introduces the concept of active listening couldn’t possibly give a “laundry list” of ways to use it. Such a skill takes much more study and practice to be used effectively and safely for the directee.

    Furthermore, again with respect, I submit that Fr. Robert’s comment is in error when he states that everyone who has graduated seminary is skilled in active listening. The ministry of spiritual direction is not the same as pastoral counseling or psychological therapy. The actor in spiritual direction is God’s Holy Spirit, not the spiritual director. Therefore active listening must take a triangular, even Trinitarian, shape: horizontally between director and directee, and then vertically to God, who acts upon both along the spiritual journey. What’s more, the shape of this relationship is not an equilateral triangle, with all parts having the same significance. The spiritual director is to listen actively in order to know when and how to get out of the way of the relationship between God and the directee.

    Of course, it isn’t possible in a single article to plumb the breadth and depth of the ministry of spiritual direction. Active listening is but a part of the knowledge, skill and discernment needed to practice this challenging ministry of caring for souls.