“He who falls alone remains alone in his fall, and he values his soul little since he entrusts it to himself alone.” - St. John of the Cross
Palmer begins the chapter “Living the Questions: Experiments with Truth” by relating his personal struggle with growing older and the fear of “becoming a 72 year old man who doesn’t know who he is when his books are out of print and the audiences are no longer applauding” (p. 131). Confronting this fear with a group of friends led him to develop a retirement plan for exploring who he might be besides a writer and speaker. This reminds me of a story well-known Christian author James Dobson told during a time when he put so much pride in being a good writer. His perspective on the importance of writing books changed after finding his first best seller Dare to Discipline (1970) in a garage sale for less than a dollar! Suddenly he realized the longevity of even his “best work” was not that long after all. This event triggered a time of soul searching for Dobson much like Palmer describes.
It is at these times Palmer recommends a person seek the help of a “clearness committee” – a concept from the Quaker tradition whereby a group of trusted friends gather around a focus person to ask the right questions that enable to soul of that person to arise and provide clarity. This concept reminds me of Proverbs 20:5, “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out” (NIV). For Palmer, the drawing out of the soul’s purposes comes through a structured session of open-ended questions, observing, confidentiality and prayer.
Such spiritual support has been well-known throughout church history and across many traditions. In many cases it has been referred to by the catch-all term “spiritual direction”, whereby directors help a person notice and respond to the movement of God. In my spiritual tradition, (Evangelical/Pentecostal) people have long gathered in small groups for cottage prayer meetings, as accountability partners, and so on. However, the dynamic of strictly following open-ended questioning, listening, observing, and drawing out the soul/inner teacher seems like a much needed addition. I would guess it is because Pentecostals are so drawn to manifestations of spiritual gifts of prophecy and words of wisdom or knowledge that there seems to be a lot more telling than asking in that tradition!
What seems common to all these expressions is companioning. The inner journey is probably best not taken alone. We are either too soft on ourselves or too hard on ourselves – I know I do. It has been suggested to most important things ever said are the things we say to ourselves. A fellow traveler often helps us find a better perspective.
Palmer. P. J. (2004). A Hidden Wholeness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.