For the last two weeks I have been at the intensive annual Llysfasi Spirituality Workshop, learning how to accompany people on their spiritual journey. It took place at the Ammerdown Conference Centre, U.K., and complements the two year Wiltshire Spiritual Direction Course that I am half way through. The workshop is so named because it was started, by Gerry Hughes SJ in 1985, at Llysfasi in Wales. The brochure for this year's course is attached below.
The workshop was split into three phases. In the first phase we learned about the approaches of Ignatius of Loyola, a sixteenth century Spanish saint, who modern psychologists are happy to refer to in the same breath as Carl Jung. He had extraordinary insights into psychology and spirituality which he derived from his own experiences. These turned into a set of exercises including tools for discernment – that is, tools to help an individual to really get in touch with what brings him or her fully alive. In keeping with his discoveries, the method is very much one of being in touch with, and reflecting on, experience.
The exercises help people to travel a journey of self examination to re-discover their own sense of identity and purpose. They are divided into four “weeks” – which could be of any length! What was amazing was that as I learned about his work, and experimented with exercises and art work, I realised that I was being nurtured on that self-same journey. This testifies to the ingenuity of the Llysfasi workshop itself.
Also during the first phase of the workshop we were put into groups of three (“triads”) to develop our skills in listening and spiritual direction. In turns, one was companion listening to another (“pilgrim”) while the third observed. At the end we gave feedback to the companion. St Ignatius encourages companions to see themselves also as observers, because the important relationship is between the pilgrim and the “Companion of their Soul” (God). As he puts it: “Let the creator care for the creature.”
In the second phase, half the workshop members accompanied the other half on silent retreat. I was on retreat. This time could be used in any way, but I used it to think through my own vocation, and became more in touch with that which seems to be growing inside me – namely a desire to accompany people on their spiritual journey, particularly those who are struggling with life choices or not fully in touch with the gift that they are.
In the third phase I accompanied another workshop participant while she was on retreat. Seminars were provided to help me to do that. The experience of being a companion in this way (which seemed to me to be a joint encounter with the living God), together with the feedback that I received, encouraged me to develop further my interest in this field of work.
Meditating on Jesus’ experiences in the Garden of Gethsemane, it seemed to me that what was most important for Jesus at that time was for his friends to be with him. I noted that in Jesus’ life the decisions that he made about who to be with were important, and often provocative. This seemed to me to further emphasise the importance for me of this journey of accompanying, or being with, people.
During most of the workshop we were part of Contemplative Listening Groups. We were told to do this, and wondered what we were letting ourselves in for! As a group of six we were told to be silent together for an hour, with each talking in turn when they felt ready. The listening was to be attentive (and thus active) but silent – without interruption or comment even for clarification. After each talk we held silence, to honour and to reflect on what we had heard. At the end, after this silence, we just left.
This was transformative. To listen to someone without any thought of making a response takes listening to a deeper level. To be listened to with such attention is a precious experience, and I found a new freedom in speaking and in listening. Also I found it extraordinary that I became more connected with my own thoughts and feelings as I listened to myself talk; and that a bigger picture grew through the telling of all the stories, which often answered some question that I had – whether or not I had formed or expressed it.
Naturally, the content of the talks was confidential within the group.
Once upon a time, I often saw my primary role in a conversation as problem solver or advice giver. So as I moved into spiritual direction I sought to listen more and to advise less. My experience at the workshop has been to rediscover the value of silence, and so to start from the other end of the spectrum: to be silent with someone unless there is a helpful need to say something!
During the phase when we were accompanying others we used again the model of the Contemplative Listening Group for supervision. That is, we listened to one another in turn as we described the feelings that had been evoked in us (and particularly any problematic ones) while we had been a companion earlier in the day. The only difference in the way of working was that we worked in groups of three, and used the final quarter of an hour to note insights and to share wisdom about any problems raised. This was fascinating, because we usually found common ground in our stories that made it clear what we needed to discuss or to develop.
The other transformation that I experienced was in my own prayer life. St Ignatius’ approach is to use the imagination when reading the Bible or doing other exercises, and so to encounter God in a more real way through these. He also encourages us to pay attention to our own feelings – moment by moment – and then to use our thinking to reflect on those feelings and where they are leading us. Since God is not just “out there” but dwells within us, I found that this led me naturally to pay more attention to God and to those around me as well. Similarly, in listening to another, we were encouraged to listen from our “guts” and to allow that to work through to our heads to find appropriate expression.
St Ignatius encourages a particular way of reviewing the day as we travel through it, and especially at its end. This examination of conscience, or of consciousness, he called the Examen. It involves letting our experience of our day play back, like a film, noting the feelings associated with our experiences, and reflecting on those. I had attempted to do the Examen before, and it can still feel like an effort, but at the workshop I felt at home with it for the first time.
Before the workshop, my own prayers had tended to be about asking God for things or to do things, often while worrying about some aspect of the day ahead. I enjoy journaling, and I had tended to write in the morning to help me clarify my thoughts. I had never quite understood how to put into practice the biblical encouragement to live daily – to “take no thought for the morrow” – I’m a great planner!
St Ignatius recommends that we ask for what we want, and in particular for grace from God according to our needs and the state of mind (or should I say feelings) that we are in. He assumes a starting disposition of seeking to serve (which may be expressed as a desire to build God’s Kingdom as distinct from any other) and to be open and generous towards God. So, for example, if I am struggling with what to do I should ask God for grace “not to be deaf to his call.”
So now I find myself living daily by asking God at the beginning of the day for the help that I want to grow in relationship with him, being attentive to that during the day, and then at the end of the day (sometimes with the help of my journal) reflecting on the way in which that prayer has been answered, and on any struggles that I have had. When I read the Bible in the morning I do so slower than before, and gain from imagining myself in the scene. A helpful tool offered by St Ignatius is the colloquy: having finished a Bible reading or other exercise one then takes time to chat with Jesus about the experience of it. This is a bit like the conversation recorded at the end of St Luke’s gospel, on the road to Emmaus, except that it is likely to be happening within one’s God-given imagination.
I’ll finish with a quote I noted while visiting an exhibition in Bristol during some brief time off during the workshop. This is Isambard K Brunel, famous locally and internationally as an engineer, speaking of his father Marc.
“My father was a great engineer. He taught me that to do new things, you have to think in new ways.”