Author Invites Readers to Be Still in "Sacred Listening"

Joanne Potter

Author:  James L. Wakefield
Title:  "Sacred Listening"
Publisher:  Baker Books

"Achieve spirituality in 20 minutes a day."  "Seven ways to reconnect with God."  Do you ever wonder whether some guides to spiritual development make it all sound just a little too easy?  If so, you aren't alone.

Fortunately, Dr. James Wakefield has provided a welcome alternative in "Sacred Listening" (Baker Books), an adaptation for Protestants of the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola – a series of meditations on the Gospels that are often said in retreats.  Dr. Wakefield, currently Associate Professor at Salt Lake Theological Seminary and formerly a self-proclaimed cynic, encountered the exercises in 1984 when he volunteered to be guided through them by his mother, then a Roman Catholic, as part of her Masters degree project.

"At the end of the 30-week project," he says, "I felt I had been born again, again. ... The exercises helped me find a context to understand much of what I experienced as desolation.  I have seen God's work of slow transformation in my life, and I am now more confident of God's love and forgiveness than in any other season in my life."

Wakefield did not start out to write a book.  Instead, he wanted to guide others through the exercises in an effort to help them understand what had happened to him.  As he did so, he found he needed to make changes to the discipline's structure so that it could be appropriate for Protestants.

When Ignatius originally wrote the exercises during his own spiritual pilgrimage in the 1520s, he was a layman on his way to founding the Jesuit Society of Jesus – and the exercises themselves soon became the established path to finding holiness and the will of God in men's lives.  Dr. Wakefield replaced Roman Catholic doctrinal prayer patterns with direct scriptural references, encouraged participants to pray for personal discernment, and structured the daily pattern of reading and meditation around the strong step-by-step framework of the lectio divina.  Doing so gives the exercises power in a well-grounded format with a familiar feel.

Wakefield did preserve the exercises' basic structure and aims in four sections, or "movements."  The first challenges participants to confront their purpose in life as created beings.  They then consider the heinous nature of sin in the context of God's overwhelming love and are confronted with an urgency to respond with change.  The remaining three movements name the necessary changes, always aiming to conform the participant's life more and more to Christ's.

The key to the exercises – and what Wakefield courageously offers to a sound-bite world – is the innate slowness of this process.  Most of the discipline must be accomplished in meditation, which made for an uphill publication battle.  At first, the manuscript was refused as having "new age" associations, presumably because of its scripturally meditative nature.

"I have taken a lot of criticism over the years for leading people astray," says the author.  "But I have also received great encouragement from many people who found their spiritual [re]-grounding through this process.  More recently, there has been very little resistance.  I meet people with a deep hunger for contemplative prayer almost everyplace I go."

In the end, "Sacred Listening" delivers profound spiritual benefits for Protestants with the courage and call to practice a discipline that has, for more than 400 years, guided men and women to encounter the grace of God.  The exercises engage all our physical faculties and not only often produce profound change, but reorient permanently a participant's sense of God's world.  Wakefield says these results are typical.

"We all come with different issues," he points out, "and yet these are descriptive of much of what the Holy Spirit does with people in our increasingly postmodern culture.  There is a deep grounding experience, in the Gospels, in a tradition of those who dare to take God's forgiveness and love seriously, and in physical reality – both ours and others'. ...  I hope to help others experience a deeper taste of God's goodness and beauty -- God's greater glory in this wonderful and broken world."

The psalmist says to "Be still and know that I am God."  We can thank Dr. Wakefield and "Sacred Listening" for a practical pattern with which to make that happen.

© 2006 AgapePress.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.