Only basic goodness gives life to technique

Years ago, I dipped into Stephen Covey’s book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I was hit between the eyes by this sentence:

Only basic goodness gives life to technique.

p. 21

I am not good, but I’d like to be, and this sentence has stayed with me as a standard to live up to. It chastens me.

I drafted the piece below a few years after that, early on in my involvement in training people to be spiritual directors. It is rather purple, but what I said then is a call to personal authenticity that still challenges me today.

Next Friday, 5th November, I am giving a formation day on Zoom as part of the Developing Direction course for the London Centre for Spiritual Direction. It is called “The self of the spiritual director.” I am hoping to convey that it is not more training, better skills, more reading, and so on that will make us better listeners and spiritual directors, but the cultivation of “basic goodness”, which is about presence, a centred self that is unself-centred, humility, and magnanimity, born from a soul looking to God.

It strikes me that there is a parallel here with spirituality in general. Some people are gifted with an Encounter with God in which they know that they are loved without qualification. This initiates a change in them. Over time people codify these experiences into writings and scriptures to try to convey their Encounters. The mistake is to think that reading what others have written will be sufficient to instigate change in me too. These writings are important. They can soften me up. They can make me think. They can engage my desire and open my heart. But in the end, nothing can replace the work of submitting to a regular and frequent practice of some kind of prayer (there is no right way to pray) in which I purposefully try to be open to God (a.k.a. keeping my eyes upon Jesus).


Once upon a time, a time before courses on listening and responding skills, on communication skills, on counselling, on spiritual direction, there were people who knew how to Listen. People would find them when they were in distress or confused or wanted to think out loud. They knew that they would be given a hearing, that they wouldn’t be told what to do or think or feel, and that, somehow, something could change as a result of the encounter.

Some realised they were Listened to like this by everything: by the grass and the stones and the great, still trees; by the sun and the moon and their first parents, the stars; by a poem or string quartet or a statue; and by that Great Darkness some call God. It was they who realised that they, too, could Listen like that: and so the gift goes round. They knew they were loved, so they could love: there was nothing to be done but accept the gift.

Well, there’s always someone who wants to analyse these things: we wouldn’t be human if we weren’t curious and creative. So a few set about working out what it was that these Listeners actually did. Of course, the trouble was, it wasn’t much, and what there was, was difficult to pin down. But up with lists they came: reflecting, paraphrasing, summarising, mirroring, images, body language, open interventions, acceptance, genuineness, empathy, and a whole list of other things to do when you get stuck. Of course, this was very helpful. Some even thought that if they could only teach people these techniques, then they could make Listeners.

There is one thing that cannot be taught. That is the one thing necessary to make a good Listener. Some call it ‘love’, others ‘goodness’, still others ‘the contemplative stance’. This cannot be taught; it can only be learnt or branded into you by the Encounter. Where can you get that Encounter? Nowhere. How can you make it happen? You can’t. What can you do about it? Nothing. All you can do is to wait, with the whole of you, especially with what is called ‘your’ body. And Listen.

You see, people can Listen like that because they are good; and no one is good except the Great Darkness; so only the Great Darkness can make us good. There’s nothing, nothing, nothing we can do to make ourselves good: no project we can undertake; no course of instruction or book to read; nothing we can change about ourselves. All we can do is to open ourselves every moment to that Great Darkness and let Listening happen to us.

And then, maybe, maybe, maybe we’ll become Listeners.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this, for preference in the comment section below, or privately if you prefer using the Contact page.

5 thoughts on “Only basic goodness gives life to technique

  1. It’s such a struggle to stay changed, in time I forget what I’ve learned and get caught up in the muchness and manyness (quoting Richard Foster) of work and family and even church. The change I think of came out of a year of intense and unpleasant difficulty, I find myself back there now although a bit better equipped, maybe some of what I learned did stick.
    I don’t understand who or what you are describing when you say the great darkness. It reads like you mean God, but suffering surely fits that title, is God ever described as darkness?
    And yes, the spiritual practices that I previously discovered which brought healing and change have fallen away, and your writing and some other readings, blogs etc are helpful for a time and do open me up. But it’s the authentic personal encounter with God that I need now and going forward. Thanks for the space to allow me to process this even as I write! I will attempt to make a start even now…

    1. Thank you for writing, Kathryn. These are difficult times.
      “The Great Darkness” is an example of what I meant by ‘purple’ prose. Yes, I do mean God. John of the Cross describes the ‘dark night’, not in the sense of anything bad, but in the sense of obscure. God, though always present, can be difficult to discern. This kind of ‘darkness’ draws us on to new ways of knowing God, not letting us settle for one understanding, which would be a kind of idol. The feeling of being in the dark is tough.
      May you encounter God and receive the grace you need to keep going forward.
      Blessings, Julian

  2. At some training recently, I understood the teacher to say that Jesuits, and I’m not sure when in history this referred to, used to go out in pairs. One was to preach, and one was to listen to the people’s response to the preaching. I found this most encouraging, as one who far prefers to listen than to preach. I like to think that the Great Darkness plants the desire to listen deep within some of us as a means to the grace of Encounter. Looking forward to encounter and wisdom this Friday! Julia

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