The Art of Holy Listening
Meet My Mentor
I would like to introduce you to my long-time spiritual director and treasured role model, Shirley Thibodeaux. Shirley was born and reared in the Catholic faith in Church Point, Louisiana. She has been married to Carroll Thibodeaux for over 50 years, and they have 5 sons. Two of her sons are involved in Catholic ministry, one being Fr. Mark, Jesuit priest and author, and the other being Greg, the business manager of St. Charles College in Grand Coteau. Shirley has been a spiritual director for 13+ years. She said, “I am so delighted to companion and support other souls on their spiritual journey to God and into self-exploration. Being a director has certainly fulfilled me. It’s been a beautiful way of tending to God’s lambs and feeding His sheep!”
Shirley’s introduction to spiritual direction came when her confessor recommended participating in a directed retreat. It was then that she found her spiritual home. She said, “This retreat provided me with a different experience than I ever had before, and I had many! At the age of thirty two, I had a spiritual awakening through being involved in the charismatic movement. Following this rebirth, I engaged in many spiritual practices such as Cursillo, Come Lord Jesus, spiritual workshops, seminars, conference-type retreats, personal prayer, study and reading. You name it; I did it. I grew and benefited from all of these means and am so grateful for all of them. I had no idea, though, that even more was in store for me. The ‘more’ has been the spiritual direction experience.”
Shirley shared that experiencing the directed retreat was a life-changing event for her. The personal attention she received during the retreat allowed her to gain insights into her own motivations and the desires of her heart and to experience God on a deeper level. She left that retreat with a “renewed sense of purpose.” Shirley recalled, “I went on several directed retreats after that, and eventually one director encouraged me to seek out a spiritual director with whom I could meet once a month. These spiritual direction sessions have provided me with the opportunity of discovery and growth on a continual basis.”
Over the years, Shirley found herself doing impromptu, informal spiritual direction as she visited with people at work, at home, and socially. These interactions came naturally to her. She recalled an occasion when she lent an ear to someone having difficulties in her marriage, “After the conversation I offered to lead her into visualization prayer, which she agreed to. The experience was so helpful and comforting that from time to time, she requested I do it again. She shared with me that this type of prayer served her well in that it kept her afloat, helped her to cope, renewed her hope, and gave her courage to do the difficult things required of her in order to get her issues resolved.” One of the people whom Shirley informally companioned asked her if she had ever heard of the ministry of spiritual direction in the Catholic Church. She then went on to tell Shirley that she thought she would make a good director. This wasn’t the first time that she had received this kind of validation. Her own spiritual director had also expressed that sentiment some time before.
In addition to the spur-of-the-moment prayer sessions, Shirley conducted a weekly bible study. She recollected, “One of the amazing things that happened as a result of our study, prayer, and sharing was that one of the members in this group began to desire to be reconciled to someone whom she had been estranged from for many years. She pursued this desire and courageously approach this person and asked that they forgive each other for the past and start renewing their friendship. Her former best friend readily agreed!” Shirley smiled, “I love to watch God do His work!”
At the time of life when Shirley was considering retiring from her job, she kept hearing a voice within her saying, “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep. Tend to my lambs.” Shirley’s response was a wholehearted, “I want to do that, God! Please show me how.” During a session with her spiritual director, Shirley shared that she was leaning towards leaving her work and listed all the reasons why. Her director reached for a plaque on the wall with a message saying, “Do not be afraid to step out on a limb; that’s where the fruit is,” and gave it to Shirley. That was an”’aha moment” for her, confirming that it was time to retire. After much needed rest, Shirley attended a two-year spiritual direction training program given by the Diocese of Lake Charles. Upon completion she received her certification as a formal spiritual director and has been offering direction ever since.
Shirley’s role as a spiritual director is deeply rooted in her desire to love unconditionally. Her aim is “to manifest God to them, to love them as God would love them, to affirm them, to be God with skin on for them.” She would like the session to be a haven for the directee in what might otherwise be a busy, stressful day. She stated, “They need time to put down their guard, let their hair down so to speak, and just relax, just be themselves.”
To facilitate this welcoming atmosphere, Shirley has dedicated prayer time before each session. She said, “I pray before they arrive that somehow God comes through the session and gives them a ‘saving word,’ something that will touch them where they need to be touched. That the saving message will come from something I say or do or through something that is revealed to them as they’re articulating their story to me. My prayer is always that they will leave the session with hope.” She also prays, “that I, myself, can be relaxed in knowing that I don’t have full responsibility for the session to go well. That it doesn’t depend just on me. God is there to help me.”
Shirley’s foundation is informed by Judeo-Christian scripture. It begins with Romans 8:31 that says that God is for us. Shirley asserted, “I truly want my directees to know this — that God is for them, and so am I!” And along with this message of allegiance, she desires to communicate the affection of Isaiah 43:4, that the directee is precious and she loves her. She seeks to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (see Romans 12:15), and intends to be quick to listen and slow to speak (see James 1:19).
Isaiah 30:20–21 is a fundamental principle for Shirley. It says, “Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” Shirley affirmed, “God does answer our prayers when we are trying to make a decision. He will guide us as to what to do. What a promise!”
As for her role in the session, Shirley relies on the providence of God as promised in Matthew 10:19–20, “Do not worry about what you’re going to say. When the hour comes, you will be given what you are to say. You yourselves will not be speaking, the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.” She believes that the ministry of spiritual direction is about rousing one another to love and good deeds (see Hebrews 10:24).
Shirley’s loving presence is the best training manual that I will ever read on the art of spiritual direction. But for those who have not been graced to know her, I asked her to tell me what advice she would give a novice director. She answered, “My biggest advice to them would be that they read everything they can on how to be a good listener. The reason for that is because listening is the most important thing you can do for a directee. When you can allow them to tell their story, they can then begin to see and find God in it. They can see how God may be inviting them to move forward or how God is challenging them.” She added that new directors must “remember that the session will not be about your agenda, it’s going to be about your directee’s. You cannot plan what you’re going to tell them because you don’t know what they’re going to tell you. You want to meet them right where they are. You want to listen to them without interrupting, advising, judging, preaching, or moralizing. You want to affirm them.”
Before her untimely death in 2014, my dear friend, Lena, shared the following testimony with me. She wrote:
“Shirley Thibodeaux has been my spiritual director for years. She encouraged me, challenged me, revealed things to me, had me look at things from a different point of view, suggested reading materials, helped me look at myself, my spirituality, and the world around me. She also helped me in making decisions. Four years ago I became very ill with severe depression which was diagnosed as bipolar disorder. She was there holding my hand, letting me just talk out, always a listening ear and never with a judgmental attitude. She made herself available to me going through the most difficult struggles. She really became a lifeline for me. She continued to support me in spite of my depression. There was a time when I did not want to see or speak with anyone. However whenever I was ready, she again opened her heart and ear to me. I felt comfortable and at ease when I was there. There was this open invitation to travel this journey with her — to find Jesus in places where I never would have looked for Him.”
A Valuable Ministry
Like Lena and many others, I have been immeasurably blessed by my relationship with Shirley. She has been my companion as I traveled through the 19th annotation of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, as I admitted my most shameful sins, as I worked through the 12 Steps, and as I rejoiced in God’s abundant grace. She has been my cheerleader at retreats and my shoulder in times of despair. Yes, Shirley, you have been “God with skin on” for me, and I am so very grateful.
The spiritual direction relationship offers a gateway to the Divine Presence in a directee’s life. The words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 11:28 sum up the reality of what Shirley has done for me and the potential of what this ministry offers, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It is through this time of conscious attention to God’s voice within, that I have heard Jesus assuring me, “Peace I leave with you. My own peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
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