An Anthropologist on Holy Ground: Exploring Spiritual Friendship

Photo by Bartosz Kwitkowski on Unsplash

Imagine An Anthropologist

I’d like to invite you to imagine that you’re an anthropologist who is researching a practice called ‘spiritual friendship’ that is common in a local community of people who call themselves Christians.

You’ve heard that the practice involves talking and listening and praying, in a peculiar and often free-form way. The practice is related to something that they call ‘spiritual direction,’ but you don’t know much beyond that. You may be a Christian or not, but you want to learn about the practice by observing and participating in a meeting, insofar as the local community invites you to participate.

As an anthropologist, you intend to learn about the practice using some of your training in ethnography, which involves adopting a mental posture of “methodological relativism.” This means that regardless of how strange their beliefs may sound to you at first, as an anthropologist, you’re happy to wait and analyze those later, after you’ve had an opportunity to observe them. Your initial goal is to simply understand their practices from the inside out, as much as you can. This means that for the sake of science, you’re going to suspend immediate judgment, trying your best to set aside your own cultural biases and assumptions, so that you can understand something of what is involved in this local practice, in its cultural context.

You reach out, and a group of these people warmly invite you to come along and observe. They tell you that the meeting will take about an hour to an hour and a half. They just ask that you consider anything that is discussed to be private, as long as it isn’t illegal.

What do you see, experience and learn?

Based on my experience leading groups like this for years, I’d like to describe the sort of thing you’d be likely to see. The specific details are invented because the practice involves an assumption of privacy. But the scenario I’m describing is typical and normal for people who are engaged in the practice.

Observing Spiritual Friendship From the Edge

You watch as a small group of 3 people gather in a bright, open, and quiet room. They enjoy some coffee and tea together, and offer you some as well.

Then, each person spends a few minutes describing what has been going on in their lives: they talk about hectic schedules, school, job transitions, and spiritual practices that include prayer, fasting and meditation. They describe feelings of nearness or distance from God, the details of caring for kids, and political and social issues that are drawing their attention.

So far, it is only mildly weird. You’ve barely leaned on your methodological relativism at all.

But then this happens: they stop and pray, and then talk for a bit as they come to a consensus about who they’ll ‘listen to.’ A woman who seems like she may subtly be leading the group says, by way of reminder, that they are there to give that person space, listen and ask questions that are generous, non-judgmental and open. They aren’t there to give advice, although they might describe some things that they experience. She reminds everyone that the purpose of the meeting is to help that individual explore whatever is happening in their life, and how it relates to God or spirituality, however they understand that.

Then, she says a short prayer, “God, please help us deeply pay attention to each other, and to you.” That’s it.

Then they sit there. The woman who prayed has her eyes closed, her palms up, her face calm. Sometimes, she opens her eyes to see what is happening with the others. Another person is staring out the window, smiling slightly. The man has his head gently resting on one hand, his eyes closed. Every once in a while he laughs a bit, maybe at some thought or some idea floating around in the air.

A calm settles on the room. Even as an observer, you notice that a profound peace slowly emerges: not a brittle peace that demands silence. No. You’re tempted to a bit of poetry, to try to capture it with any analytical precision: maybe it is an up-welling of peace, a silence that whispers of wholeness, unmistakable and gentle as it is incomprehensible and … maybe powerful? You weren’t quite expecting this. Out of nowhere, you feel a joyful tear welling up. You wipe it away, not feeling as self-conscious as you thought you might. Interesting. That might be worth further research.

Finally, the person who they are listening to opens his eyes and looks around. He starts to describe some things he’s grateful for. The details seem to matter a lot to him and the listeners, as he describes a story his daughter told him right before he came. The story involves fairies and a robot. He glows a bit as he recounts it. You gather, with your acute anthropological skills, that the story is fictive. And delightful.

He then discusses a dangerous situation at work that has been partially resolved. Then he talks about difficulties he’s had praying: once this week, he says, the experience was remarkable, and he feels like God gave him a fresh insight. But the rest of the week, it has been pleasant enough, but he drifted off to sleep. There’s no judgment from the listeners as they ask him to remember and reflect on these experiences. Sometimes, they pause for a long while, all of them seeming to listen to the silence. Or maybe they’re simply thinking.

Then, slowly, the listeners ask things like this: Can you describe how you felt when you faced the dangerous situation at work? Would you like to richly describe what happened? How does that relate to God, for you? After he explores the space opened up by these questions for a good while, one listener says that she notices he fell asleep quickly on the day that he had also managed to resolve the dangerous work situation. Are those related?

He sees some relationship, and then the conversation opens up from there: he begins to explore fear, and his fears about God, his fears for his family. Patiently, gently, quietly, the listeners are there as he unfolds it all. Always listening. Occasionally summarizing or asking questions.

Eventually, there’s a long and pregnant silence.

One of the listeners asks, “How would you feel about praying about your fears, and describing whatever happens?”

As if he is familiar with this question, the man nods with quiet enthusiasm.

The listener says, “Feel free to pray out loud, or silently, however you like, and we’ll silently pray alongside you.” He begins to pray, which apparently involves talking to God, as if their God is right there. He talks about his fears to God. He says he’d like to give them to God, and then he is silent.

They’re all listening again.

This time, for about four minutes.

In that time, he moves from mild agitation into a calm state, the muscles in his face and shoulders releasing. Eventually, he laughs a bit, and starts to describe what happened. He feels like his fears have been taken away. But not quite: no, he says, God turned them into something else. He feels like he saw them change from bats to mice, and he laughs.

The listeners invite him to explore that image, and he connects it to his daughter’s French class, where they had learned that “bat” in French is literally translated as “bald mouse.” And then he describes the delight that his daughter takes in her own pet mice at home.

“Yeah,” he says. “God turned the bats into mice.” He pauses, and goes on, “I felt something from God that resembles my love for my daughter. And then, the fears scurried away.”

And so it goes, a joyful, playful, occasionally tearful exploration of the details of his life. He describes his material surroundings and a spiritual reality that seems to be enmeshed in it all, as if it is all filled with meaning … a meaning that occasionally breaks to the surface, in the form of invitations to love and be deeply present to the people around him.

The listeners are consistently calm and gentle, but far from passive or emotionless. They quietly join the man on his journey. They ask questions that frequently cause him to stop, ever so slightly surprised. They might ask him how two things are related, or invite him to describe a situation or an emotion more. He’ll say, “Good question,” and then pause, reflect, and answer … apparently enjoying himself, even when the topics seem challenging.

Eventually, after an hour that seems to fly by, even as it also seems to float strangely outside of time, they come to a close.

The man thanks the listeners. They thank him too. It isn’t a ritual, as far as you can tell. They just seem really grateful, almost surprised, even though it seems they do something like this routinely.

Then, to your own surprise, the man turns to you and asks, “So would you like to interview us for your mini-ethnography?”

Yes, you would. And because you’re interested in the phenomenology of social systems, you decide to ask them to describe their experience in that meeting.

Spiritual Friendship From the Inside

The man who was being listened to goes first. He says that in one sense, it is pretty easy to know how it felt for him: he was describing a lot of what he was feeling as it all went on. He laughs and says, “So mostly, it felt like I said it felt.” Then he pauses, and adds, “And now that it’s done, I feel lighter. Relaxed, but energized. I have a sense of clarity about what to do next. And I can’t wait to see my daughter. She wanted me to help her make an illustrated version of her story about the fairies and the robots.” With that, these friends give each other a round of hugs, and he heads out.

So you turn to the listeners and ask them to describe their experiences.

The woman who seemed to be leading the session explains that she is what this community calls a “spiritual director”: a person who is specifically trained to help facilitate these kinds of groups, as well as individualized spiritual direction. And in a real sense, she says, it is as simple as she described it at the outset: she just listened to the person and to God, and asked open-ended questions to help him explore what was going on in his life, as it relates to God. She is there to help everyone on the team, including herself, learn to do this better … mainly by doing it together.

Before you dig into her experience leading the session, you tell her that you notice some similarities between this and counseling, and peer counseling. Is that how she understands the practice?

“They’re related,” she says. “Maybe cousins. Maybe spiritual friendship is the mother of counseling.” She explains that there is some work that counseling is specifically equipped for, mentioning EMDR therapy as one example among others. She doesn’t see this as a competitor to counseling, or a replacement for it, although they can be deeply complementary. Instead, she says, she thinks the best way to understand the practice involves connection with God and with people: it helps people do that.

“Why does that matter to you?” you ask.

She laughs and says, “Because I think God is in the business of liberating humanity, by making us friends of God and of each other. This is one of the ways we learn what liberation is, and it equips us to oppose oppression in all kinds of ways.”

You decide to leave that one alone for now, and ask her to describe the experience of ‘leading’ the session, as a listener among listeners.

She’s happy to oblige.

She says that there’s a real discipline involved in listening, or “directing.” Often, she’ll have insights, and sometimes she even feels like she hears something from God. But the discipline of listening involves holding those insights back, loosely and gently. However, sometimes toward the end of the hour she might ask for permission to share something that she experienced or noticed. She explains that our job as friends who listen is like the job of a “spiritual director,” although the job in both cases is not about directing the person’s life. Instead, it simply involves being for the person who you’re listening to, and helping direct their attention to God, because that’s what they’ve asked you to help them do. Asking open-ended questions, and giving people opportunities to pray and describe things, are the main tools she uses to help people do that. Part of the “magic,” as she puts is, is that by asking for descriptions, she can help people see God at work in the details of life: beautiful and painful, dull and delightful.

“Sometimes, we call it non-spiritual, non-direction,” she laughs.

As an anthropologist, one of the distinctions you’d like to clarify is the one between material and spiritual, and between “insights” and “hearing from God.” So you ask the leader of the group what she means by those terms. Are they really just parts of the same thing?

“Good question,” she replies. “And now you’re the spiritual director!”

She notices that this makes you just a bit uncomfortable, and then she pauses and smiles at you just a bit. “Thanks. It really is a good question.” Then, she pauses again.

For a moment, you’re afraid she’s going to leave it at that, pulling some Yoda business. You remind yourself that you’re trying to engage in something like participant observation. Is that what you’re doing?

Then she answers, “I think it is a useful distinction, between insight and hearing from God, even though God is intimately involved in both.” She goes on to explain something about her understanding of revelation, the notion that hearing from God is closely connected to Jesus and Jesus stories and Jesus prayers. And then she goes on to say that there’s also a clear but subtle qualitative difference: hearing from God often feels like a beam of sunlight is shining directly on something, and sometimes it even involves knowing details that you couldn’t just intuit. She says that her experience of life involves some of that, but that God mostly whispers to her in a still, small voice and encourages her to use the mind and heart she’s been given to understand things.

“God’s not a micro-manager or a dictator,” she says. “Maybe that’s why we’re mainly invited to use our own eyes and minds. God wants us to be adults: responsible, creative, engaged, and capable of humbly making decisions. And then apologizing when things don’t work out.”

You laugh and thank her for her time, as you realize you’ve been here for two hours now. You ask if you could observe and participate some more. For science.

“Of course,” she says. “When would you like to do this again? Let’s put it on our calendars.”



Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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Daniel Heck

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.