There’s a story in the Bible about a man lost in some unremarkable bit of wilderness, with nothing better than a rock for his pillow. Halfway between waking and dreaming, he discovers that he’s fallen asleep, vagabond-like, in a heavenly stairwell. All around him, the angels are coming down and going up between heaven and earth. When he wakes up, he declares that he’s discovered a stairway to heaven—a “gateway to God.”
I’ve been thinking about that idea—Gateways to God—because I have, for several months now, been trying to understand a course in Christian spirituality by the same name. The course is offered by Rolling Ridge Retreat and Conference Center in North Andover, Massachusetts, where I too have been decamped, vagabond-like, for several months now. Recently I have become their “Writer in Residence.” “Why don’t you write about the Gateways program?” someone asked me. ‘I will,’ I thought to myself, ‘as soon as I understand it.’
Gateways to God is a 20-month program in “missional spiritual direction and companionship.” It’s offered at Rolling Ridge as a cohort program, which means that you learn alongside other practitioners, over the course of six different four-day retreats. It has a faculty instructor, small group mentors, a hefty curriculum, and take-home work—in other words, all the features of a class offered at a university or seminary. It’s also—and here is the head-scratching mystery, at least for people like me—almost entirely about listening.
Ask participants what the Gateways program is about, and they will say, “It’s about deep listening.” Or, “It’s about paying loving attention.” The course bills itself as training in “Missional Spiritual Direction,” but graduates often advise new students not to get too hung up on that particular phrase. “I don’t really direct anybody,” said one. Another told me, “Many people who take the class actually have no interest in becoming a spiritual director.” Perhaps you can understand my confusion.
What draws people to this course, I want to know. Why do seminaries, churches, and denominational bodies put up the scholarships to help pay for it? What’s more, why do so many of the participants describe it as “life-changing,” or say that it was “one of the handful of things that changed my ministry,” yet when pressed, confess that what it taught them was how to really listen. What is it about listening that the rest of us are missing?
I decided to talk to a few recent graduates of the program in order to find out. One of them, Milka Gonzalez, I met at the annual gathering of New England United Methodists. Milka is warm, relaxed, personable, with the ability to keep a conversation running and astutely attend to what’s being said. I found out that among her many identities—seminary student, newly-minted pastor, mom, and church-planter—she is also a professional listener. “I’m a translator,” she tells me, “an interpreter.” She works for herself, taking contract jobs translating in schools, hospitals, and legal settings. “You have to be present—one-hundred percent there with the people you’re working with—because one second, one distraction, and you can mess it up.”
She tells me that her work as an interpreter was one of the things that drew her to Gateways. “I started to think, ‘Paying attention—well, as an interpreter, I’m already working in that area. Could I put those skills into a spiritual kind of setting?’” She realized she wanted to listen to people—to bear witness and pray and open up new pathways for them—as a form of ministry. And, she admitted to me with a laugh, she wanted to grow a little herself. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a terrible listener!” Milka tells me that when she’s not interpreting, but simply having a casual conversation with a friend, her temptation was to quickly offer advice, or immediately share her own experiences. These tendencies—to help, to relate, to empathize—are perfectly natural. And, one must admit, probably more caring than average, since most of us (as someone once quipped) aren’t really listening during a conversation—we’re simply waiting for the other person to stop talking, so we can interject our own point of view.
These all-too-human ways to converse are antithetical with what Gateways teaches. “The most common failure for deep listening,” said Rev. Kate Atkinson, “is the desire to fix things; to advise; to direct.” Kate, who has been an ordained priest for twenty-five years, is the long-serving Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal in Concord, New Hampshire. We talked about her experience in the Gateways program, and she tells me that a key learning in Gatewates centers around this counter-intuitive emphasis. “Not only is it not a good idea to try to fix things—it’s actually the wrong thing to do.” She laughs when I ask her if there’s anyone who shouldn’t sign up for the program, since I keep hearing that Gateways is for everyone. “Well,” she tells me, “it isn’t for terminal fixers. If you’re determined to fix everything, and everyone, it’s not for you.”
So if they’re not fixing, not even ‘directing’ in a direct sense, what are they doing? I put the question to Kate. “What’s so important,” she tells me, “is helping the person see where God is in their situation, how God might be speaking to them. You’re asking open questions, not coming up with the solutions. Even if you think you know what they are—you’ve got to keep your mouth shut!”
Like Milka, Kate is also someone whose career has been shaped by listening. She started as an interim minister—a kind of intentionally temporary priest—called to help churches transition through times of deep uncertainty. It’s a job that requires a healer’s skill, and the patience to attend to where God is at work. Sometimes it’s a thankless task, and not without difficulties. “I’ve had different kinds,” she tells me, “I had the parish that was a complete wreck, and I had one that was very healthy. But I really loved all my congregations. Even when somebody’s been complaining that week, even when several people were new, and I didn’t even know them yet—I would have this feeling of overwhelming love. It’s physical, and it’s got to be God-given.”
Kate is the sort of person who believes in change, even if she doesn’t believe in fixing. She believes in the power of accompaniment, of ‘spiritual companioning’—which is the phrase that Gateways participants often use to explain what spiritual direction is all about. Both Milka and Kate saw this modeled during their two-year experience at Gateways, and learned over time to practice it with others.
“My first retreat was a little scary,” said Milka. “Meeting lots of new people, being in a new place.” Gradually, however, she told me that everyone opened up. There were times for intentional community: worship, prayer, instruction, and small-group discussion, and also scheduled times for silence. “That was a new thing for me!” said Milka. “The first time I’d been in a group of people, but needed to be silent. I really enjoyed that! The quietness, breathing, reading—just total silence. And it’s so beautiful there.”
Kate seemed to agree. “You know, it’s not on the brochure, but Rolling Ridge is an amazing place. The surroundings are beautiful, the staff is wonderful. The food is delicious.” She laughed, then told me: “You might sneak that one in somehow.” More importantly, though, Kate wanted to impress upon me the possibility for change. She returned to her earlier comment about terminal fixers. “You know, I’d hate to say, ‘If you’re a fixer, you can’t do this.’ After all, I was a bit of a fixer too. And I saw personalities altered during the Gateways training. I saw people being transformed.”
Everyone I’ve spoken to about Gateways tells me about how it changed them. They speak of the course instructors in glowing terms, about the bonding and healing that happened as they developed relationships with the people in their cohort. Some decided to formally become spiritual directors, meeting with individuals and groups to guide them on a journey of discernment. Others are happy to use their skills in less structured ways. But all of them talk about how they’ve changed. Because of the training, situations and ordinary conversations become richer, more textured, more alive with spiritual possibility. “I would think, ‘Woah! I didn’t see this before!’” said Milka. “It gave me an awareness that wasn’t there before.” Kate said the same. “You develop an openness, and awareness, and you become more intentional about using it. In a parking lot or… talking to the receptionist at the doctor’s office, you begin to recognize that what you’re really doing is spiritual direction.”
It’s these sorts of comments that, for me, give deep listening such an enigmatic quality. It suggests that most of us, most of the time, are missing what’s really going on—what’s happening underneath what’s being done and said. Perhaps that’s what makes Gateways to God so hard to describe. It reminds me of Jesus, who never tired of exclaiming, “Those who have ears, let them hear!” The implication, of course, is that lots of people have ears, but only some will trouble themselves to listen for the divine mystery cloaked in the everyday, the ordinary. It reminds me of Jacob, that man drifting off to sleep in a mundane scrap of wilderness, his ear pressed hard against a stone. Suddenly, he’s awake and hollering. “Surely the Lord is in this place,” he says, “And I did not realize it.” He had stumbled upon a gateway.
That, it seems, is what Gateways to God is all about. It’s about finding the gateways. Perhaps not finding them by accident, like Jacob—but certainly looking for them in places where others might not have noticed, or least expect them to be. It’s about learning to quiet the rational mind, with its self-importance and self-reliance, its desire to fix and to control. It’s about listening for where God is at work—in oneself, in another person, in the world around you. The people who have learned to do this—the people who the rest of us vaguely describe as “deep” or “spiritual” or even “mystical,” are simply the people who have their ears pressed up against Heaven’s door. They’ve learned to attune themselves to the sounds of another world—a world whose vibrations still resound all throughout this one. “Those who have ears, let them hear,” says Jesus. These are the people who are learning to open the gateways to God, and helping others to find them too.
If you’d like to learn more about the Gateways to God program at Rolling Ridge, please click here. Spaces are still open for the next cohort program, starting in September 2022.
Michael Reed is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, and currently serves as Communications Specialist and Writer in Residence at Rolling Ridge Retreat and Conference Center. Contact him at email@example.com
Associate Executive Director at Rolling Ridge