The Meaning of Words Matter, Especially In These Times By Linda Flynn

In our spiritual direction training program, we teach our student-directors the method of holy listening and the artful technique of asking questions that assist our directees (those seeking spiritual direction) to name and claim what is good, true and beautiful in their lives/belief systems and what is not.   We call this balancing our “espoused theology” (what we say we believe) to our “operative theology” (how we actually act in the world).  Students quickly come to understand that this way of listening and responding makes all the difference for an effective, spiritually liberating ministry but also in our daily lives.  It offers mutual dignity and fosters peace within our families, neighborhoods, and community.   It is times like these, post-election, when we notice how essential spiritual direction technique is to a wounded world.

In spiritual direction, we come to learn what our words mean to us.  We come to understand that our words are OUR words and that others may have different definitions for the VERY SAME words we are using to claim our individual truth.  This is a breakthrough moment for folks.  Think about how often you examine exactly what you mean when you say something?  On top of that, how can you be sure others understand what you mean in the way you mean it?

We are dialoguing as a nation.  It’s not sounding so pretty.  Just for accuracy, let’s recall what dialogue literally means from its Greek roots.  Dia means “across or through.”  Logos means “thought or principle.”   I wonder how we can have fruitful dialogue, thoughts going across and through to one another, if we do not share the same meaning of words?

Let’s take a few of the most common words we are reading in the news and on social media these days, post- election.  (Remember that while words can be harmful, their proclaimers are often innocent, so try to have mercy)

Racism: What do YOU mean when you use this word or a phrase like “I am not racist?”
Some would use that phrase because they have a few friends who are minorities.  Others would say racism is when you cannot even recognize the privilege system (even that phrase needs unpacking between people) that you benefit from.  Others might say it’s when you deny being racist.  Perhaps when we are discussing racism with another, we make sure to include our definition of racism and experience of it.  (Keep in mind this same rule applies to homophobic, xenophobic, misogynist, etc.)

Safe: What do YOU mean when you use the word “safe” or “you are safe with me?”    For some, safe means protection.  Others might mean it as “we are together in this.”  Yet others might mean “I’m here as your advocate if you need me.”  Perhaps when we are discussing whether or not it is appropriate to wear safety pins, we make sure to include our definition of safe and our experience of it.

God’s in Charge:  What do YOU mean when you use the phrase “God’s in charge?”   For some it means things are the way they are because God willed it that way.  For others it might mean we don’t have to worry because God is handling it all.  For others, it might mean despite any pain or fear, God’s love will win out. Perhaps when we are discussing about how our nation became so bitterly divided and where God is in all of it, we make sure to include our definition of God’s sovereignty and our experience of it.

There are thousands of words flowing about.  We hope you’ll feel empowered to use holy listening. We still may not see eye to eye on issues but there will certainly be increased good will and compassion in our conversations.  We welcome your comments.

*If anyone desires spiritual direction during this time of unrest, please come to the CSC for free monthly sessions.  Just email Linda at to make an appointment with one of our talented students.