I watched the Robert Redford movie The Horse Whisperer last night. It is the story of a mother who takes her daughter and the daughter's horse, both injured in an accident and bearing physical and spiritual scars, to a Montana cowboy renowned for his ability to communicate with horses. It is soon obvious that the "uninjured" mother is just as scarred as her daughter and the horse.
As I watched the story unfold the thought kept coming back to me that Robert Redford's character, Tom Booker, the gentle cowboy who can heal horses, is a spiritual director. His way with the horse, the daughter, and the mother serves as an example of what being a mentor, a sage who nurtures spiritual formation, is really about.
Tom listens and tries to understand first. He doesn't start with answers - but with questions. He is extremely patient, not claiming to know when or how the needed changes will take place. He admits his limitations, but points back consistently to what is true and real - even when those are painful realities most would rather avoid.
He is deliberate in pointing out to each the personal responsibility inherent in embracing inner change. His "techniques" are like spiritual disciplines, tailored to create the setting for personal decision and change. Significantly, he contradicts the language of denial - especially when the mother wants to pretend that she can't do anything about her failing marriage. Tom makes it clear that she has a choice to return home to her husband and work on their relationship - that transformation is possible.
When the mother says she has to keep trying to fix things, although it never seems to work, Tom asks why she can't just let things fail. She says she can't, and he asks again, why not? To that she has no answer.
The character of Tom is someone with clear self-understanding, and who knows who he is and where he belongs in life. There is a kind of peace he has which others want, but which requires a type of sacrifice and journey they may not want to take.
All this isn't to say that the film is without some flaws - a notable one for me is that the rural community that Tom is part of is idealized and serene - as if that rustic Montana community is composed entirely of spiritually mature people at peace with themselves, their neighbors, and the environment. That romantic contrast between rural and urban life is not realistic.
But still, I think the Tom Booker character serves as a good archetype for a spiritual mentor . . . and gives us a useful image of how spiritual maturity can be expressed in ordinary daily circumstances.