To Help Others Find Their Way



In a world where best-selling paperbacks are snatched off the shelves by the millions, a book that sold 5,000 copies in its first year may not sound wildly popular.

But consider that "Listening Hearts" is being read and taught at seminaries and parishes from Baltimore to Australia. Written by Bolton Hill resident Suzanne Farnham and three co-authors, this book draws on spiritual writings from the last 2,000 years. Mrs. Farnham says it was written to help readers hear God's call and to distinguish his voice from all the other voices -- those of culture, peer pressure and ego -- that clamor at us in our secular lives. This unassuming little paperback is a collection of ideas on finding one's path in life, she says.

Since its debut a year ago, "Listening Hearts" has become a handbook for congregations and other communities wishing to offer their members a form of peer support that the book calls a "discernment group." The methods are rooted in the Quaker tradition of calling a group together to help individuals answer questions in their lives, Mrs. Farnham says.

Discernment groups are structured forums. Participants are encouraged to be non-judgmental; to ask questions rather than to dispense advice; to be equals not experts; and to listen with their hearts. "A person who is listening with their heart is listening with their mind and their feelings and their senses in a quiet kind of way," Mrs. Farnham says. "We're trying to encourage people to slow down and listen with their whole selves to other people's whole selves."

Mrs. Farnham, whose husband heads Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill, says she wrestled for years to find her own path in life, but never intended to write a book on the subject. What began as a personal research project quickly snowballed into a reading list of more than 100 books and publications. She enlisted friends and fellow parishioners, and eventually formed a committee that included Joseph Gill, R. Taylor McLean and Susan Ward to distill the information into one resource that became the book.

The book project today has mushroomed into something larger: Mrs. Farnham now publishes a newsletter and has assembled a manual to train others in the methods of discernment groups. "Listening Hearts" is carried by the Newman Book Store and by Cokesbury Books in Baltimore.

Q: How do you answer people when they ask what the book is about?

A: A lot depends on who's asking me the question. My generic answer is that we've written a book about trying to identify what one's true path is. Basically I believe that every person is created as a unique human being with a unique combination of qualities and talents. Everyone has the potential to make a contribution to the world. Really what we are doing is giving people the tools to get in touch with that potential.

Q: Since you didn't intend to write a book, what did you originally set out to do?

A: I was committed to discerning my path in life and to living that out, but I always found myself groping in the dark. In terms of the literature available, I knew everything I needed to know was out there someplace, but I was looking for something that pulled it all together. . . . What struck me was that if you could combine the Quaker process [of group discernment] with the wisdom and experience of other traditions, then you'd really have something. I came to realize that there are a lot of strands of spirituality that are relatively ignorant of other strands of spirituality, and I got very interested in the idea of pulling everything together.

Q: Can the book be used by someone who is not a member of a faith community where group discernment can be practiced?

A: The book can be helpful to almost anyone who reads it, reflects on it, and tries to apply the ideas to his or her life. If a person is a part of a community that reads the book . . . then the benefits multiply and the insights expand. . . . It can help people who are wrestling with any kind of decision of issue. For instance, it can help someone who is trying to reorder priorities, struggling with a personal relationship or trying to make a career decision.

Q: In some ways, it doesn't sound like a religious book at all.

A: We actually thought about writing it in all non-religious terms. But then we thought we, as Christians, sometimes read Buddhist or Hindu literature and we were able to draw from it and translate it into our Christian vocabulary. We are Christians, so we decided to write in our vocabulary, but the ideas are really quite universal.

Q: Do you think the din of modern life has made it harder for people to listen with their hearts?

A: I'm not sure that's necessarily true. I'm not sure that 50 years ago people were better listeners just because their lives weren't as complicated as ours, because you can actually live a pretty simple life and still be busy all the time. There are other cultures, such as the Native American and some Eastern cultures that are more geared toward this kind of listening. I think Western culture traditionally may just be less adept at it.

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