The Third Chair


Mary Esther Stewart

I have a friend who is a spiritual director.  She attends conferences, reads, goes to workshops and has had years of experience.  We don’t live close so we talk on the phone and the e-mail.  She told me once about a process used in spiritual direction in which an empty chair is kept in the room where the director and directee meet.  This third chair is for the Holy Spirit.  By keeping the chair in the room and keeping it empty, both parties are reminded that the Spirit of God is invited, is present, and is active in the session.  “That’s really nice,” I responded politely, figuring that there may have been a purpose to this, or it might just be good imagining on her part.


My daughter and husband live about 10 miles from me.  They have a little baby about 1 ˝ years old.  One evening my daughter came over and we got into a conversation about practices in raising small children.  Our views are very different.  She was frustrated about something she was doing that wasn’t working with her little boy.  She asked me if she was doing the right thing and what I thought.  That left the scene open for me to tell her that she doesn’t take my advice, but rather listens to her peers and that I do not feel respected for my “wisdom.”  And the conversation escalated.  It was headed toward “you” statements, blaming, laying guilt, etc. 


For my own emotional protection, I withdrew myself from the conversation and just listened to my daughter.  If I didn’t get involved, I thought, I wouldn’t get hurt.  The verbiage wouldn’t escalate if I withdrew myself and it would give me time to get out of this potential mess.  So I just listened to her talk as if I were an objective third person.  Then something very interesting happened.


By looking at the situation in front of me and listening objectively, taking myself out of the conversation, I gained a magnificent insight.  Finally I said to her, “I’ve been listening to what you are saying and what I’ve said, and I’m hearing all this on a global level.  I associate my feelings with my peers who are past the age of bearing children.  You are in the middle of child-raising and need your peers who see things in the same context as you.  Maybe our generation’s criticism of your generation is our way of mourning the loss of our child-bearing years.”  She agreed that this made perfect sense, that we each had our own context and our own point of view.  I began to see my daughter’s life through her lens and she suddenly saw my values through my lens. We cried, hugged, and agreed that we were the best mother-daughter team we knew.


My point is . . . the third chair—to sit in the third chair.  To listen, listen broadly, to listen from the third chair.  Our prayer life can be very much like my daughter’s and my conversation.  We start out talking to God too much, airing our pain, and wanting things to go our way so that there will be no pain.  God should run the world from our context, we tell Him.  God’s values must be ours.  God should see things our way.  Of course!  We’re Catholic!  And God should be Catholic, too!


What if we just sat and listened?  What if we just read a line or two of scripture, a parable, a miracle, a psalm, and then just listened, just visualized it globally?  What if we took ourselves out of our prayer and just sat in the third chair, asking “What is God’s point of view here?”


In his Soul’s Journey into God, our brother St. Bonaventure described God as all being and all good.  God is the Summum Bonum, the Good above all that we know as good.  Everything and everyone exists because he/she/it shares in the being or existence of God.  What would happen if we said nothing, took ourselves out of the conversation, and just listened to All Being and All Good?  What if we realized that in the third chair sat All Being and All Good?  What if our prayer time were spent looking at a Gospel story, an issue, a facet of life and asking “What is going on here?”  What if we sat in the lap of the Person in the third chair and asked, “Where is the good or the good that we yearn for in this story, issue or facet of life?”


In removing myself from the emotion of the conversation with my daughter, I sensed objectivity on my part.  I felt removed, like a third person, listening intently, globally.  Does another presence enter when we remove our “self” from the center of life?  When the issue ceases to be about us?  Or are we just being open-minded? 


Or does the Presence in the Third Chair open our minds and our hearts?


From the writings of Mary Esther Stewart at