Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community, 20th Anniversary Edition
by Suzanne G. Farnham, Joseph P. Gill, R. Taylor McLean, and Susan M. Ward
Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2011
Reviewed by Lilian Whitney
A highlighted, underlined, bent in the page-corners copy of Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community has lived on my bookshelf since 1996 when it was required reading during my spiritual direction formation program training. I continue to refer to, teach, and share the Quaker concepts and discernment process that Suzanne G. Farnham, Joseph P. Gill, R. Taylor McLean, and Susan M. Ward provided twenty years ago.
Spiritual seekers, seasoned spiritual guides, and everyone who teaches in training and formation programs will appreciate this newly revised 20th anniversary edition, with updated appendices and a new foreword by Parker J. Palmer, a Quaker. Why? Let me count the ways. First of all, Palmer is "grateful for a chance to say a few words about it because Listening Hearts focuses on a question that has been very close to my heart for a long time: How can we listen for our vocation, for God's calling in our lives, and listen for it in community, in the Body of Christ?" (xiv). Secondly, the new "Discernment Terminology Glossary" is excellent. The authors explain, "Different strands of spirituality and different people employ different terminology when discussing discernment. In some cases, two or more words may have essentially the same meaning. In other cases, words may have similar meanings, but with definite distinctions" (155). Categories with several terms in each include Calling; Discernment; People Appointed to Help A Person Who Seeks God's Guidance; A Person Seeking Discernment; Letting Go; Signs of God's Spirit; Consensus; and Other Resources For People Seeing Insight and Guidance.
Third, the book explores call, discernment, and community, interweaving the value of each individually, while offering wisdom and practical application. The result: wholeness and clearness for individuals and groups. More than fifty percent of the book is the excellent appendixes, notes, and bibliography. The chapter text is written in short paragraphs that can be read as a whole, or in small sections with pauses for study, prayer, and reflection. A spiritual director might consider reading this book as a form of prayer, allowing the concepts and insights to permeate deeply into his or her psyche and consciousness.
Many of the simple sentences are evocative, and speak to the essence of spiritual direction. Sample these: "Prayerfully formulated questions invite the movement of God's spirit. While there may be no clear answers, the right questions can be crucial" (53). "It is not possible to help everybody. Being endlessly available to anyone or everyone is good for no one" (40). "We need to listen with our bodies as well as with our minds, for God speaks to us through our pains and pleasures, through our wills, emotions and senses. To hear, we must listen with every fiber of our being" (27). And, "As weighty as the idea of accountability can be, we need not be intimidated by it. Accountability builds relationships of healthy interdependence. Support and accountability are closely intertwined, each being an integral part of the other" (65). Appendix 1 is a comprehensive "Guidelines for Discernment Groups" and the second appendix includes ten pages of the types of questions to raise when serving in discernment groups.
Listening Hearts is an excellent book, and will find fresh readers who seek God, and listen for the movements of the Spirit. Everyone who spends time in contemplative groups, discernment groups, group spiritual direction, one-on-one spiritual guidance, and spiritual practice will appreciate this small but mighty book. Palmer's appreciation in the foreword is clear: "I am deeply grateful for the ways a true community of discernment can help us sift and winnow the many messages we get from inside and outside of ourselves, separating the wheat from the chaff" (xv).
Lilian Whitney is a spiritual guide who lives in South Laguna, California, USA. She is particularly interested in world cultures and ocean horizons.