Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’
Listening reminds me of a pool: just when you think you’ve plumbed its depths, you find more depths to plumb. Two recent encounters with listening brought this home for me.
First, some context. Dialogue only happens when we listen. Listening is not the same as hearing: we might hear any sonic input at any time—ignoring it, giving it fleeting attention, or focusing on it as we see fit—but we listen with a clear mind, an open heart, and our total attention devoted to the other person. That allows us entry, unfiltered, into the other’s way of thinking.
One treasure of contemplative spirituality is that listening becomes a way of approaching all of life—a habit of the heart, if you will. We listen to God, to the flora and fauna of the natural world, to the prevailing culture, to hidden messages, to everything that communicates. Every now and then, this listening stance produces some extraordinary discoveries, such as…
Listening from within another’s point of view. This, to me, is one step beyond listening open-heartedly to another’s perspective; it involves climbing into that perspective and thinking from inside it, the better to grasp its nuances and shake free more wisdom. When asking my Facebook friends about their experiences with Holy Week, I specifically addressed my query to Christians, figuring that people who did not identify as Christian would neither know nor care about the topic. That assumption nearly cut me off from the insights of one of my atheist friends, who showed a remarkable ability to think from within the Christian tradition and meld it into his own thinking. The Public Conversations Project published my article about this experience; feel free to take a look for the details.
Listening to our thoughts before we think them. Late last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing with Justine Willis Toms for a future installment of New Dimensions Radio. (The program is slated to run sometime this summer.) During the interview, in which we quickly established a deep listening connection with each other, she asked me a question about the nature of God, and I responded with my latest thinking. What stunned me, though, were the ideas coming out of my mouth that I hadn’t thought of before. I do not know where these ideas came from, but I had the eye-opening experience of learning from them. The beauty of listening as a habit of the heart is that we are listening to everything, even to ourselves as new insights emerge from us.
Have you had experiences like this—the word magical or miraculous may apply—when listening deeply to another person? Feel free to share them here.
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I will be with you.” —Exodus 3:11-12a
Next Sunday, I have the privilege of returning to my old home church to give a sermon and then, over lunch, talk about dialogue. Like a good Episcopalian, I started with the prescribed scriptures for that day, and what emerged for me was a message about change. Two aspects of the message were clear right off the bat:
- God asks us to change: i.e., to repent—to leave our less-than-best selves behind and grow into God. Jesus hammers that point repeatedly in the Gospel reading.
- We’re not very good at change. Actually, you don’t need the Bible to tell you that. Just think about what happens to most weight-loss efforts and New Year’s resolutions.
If you’ve visited this space for any length of time, you know how important change is to this effort. As I see it, inner transformation can enable us to dialogue with a clear mind and an open heart. But…we’re not very good at it.
So what do we do?
I think one answer—for people of faith in particular—lies nearly hidden in that exchange between Moses and God. Moses, a shepherd and fugitive from justice, dwelling in an invisible backwater of the world, is suddenly asked to stare down a mighty oppressor and lead an entire nation to freedom. In response, he asks the question most of us would ask: “ME? Seriously? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, bring the Israelites out of Egypt, insist on justice and safety for transgender people, write a book, deliver a message to thousands, [insert impossible thing that God is asking you to do here]?”
The extraordinary thing about God’s response is where it starts. Moses asks a question about himself. But God’s response does not start with Moses; it starts with God. The issue is not “who you are,” it is that “I will be with you.”
For people of faith, at least, this changes the game entirely. We do not have to make the change alone—because we are not alone. Our lives are oriented toward a Reality that holds the power to make inner transformation happen. All we need to do is respond, consistently, day by day.
Powered by that Reality, inner transformation suddenly becomes doable. We have hope that, as people of faith, we can change. And that change can reorient us to engage others—not only in dialogue, but also in love.
Steroid users should never be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Yes, I realize my position has its problems. What qualifies someone as a steroid user? Is one use, even for medical reasons, enough to disqualify the player? How about three years of use in a 20-year career? Should we only keep confirmed users out of the Hall? Strongly suspected users? And how strongly is strongly? Suspected by whom?
Legitimate questions all. Ultimately, however, they won’t change my basic conviction. Sure, we can talk about those borderline cases, like Alex Rodriguez. But in general, keep them out.
This stance may qualify me as a baseball fundamentalist.
Fundamentalists of all types, but particularly religious fundamentalists, take a lot of flak for the perceived rigidity of their beliefs. Many people—some based on first-hand experience, others on hearsay or stereotype—think of fundamentalists as overbearing, self-righteous, unwilling to listen or consider other opinions. True, when fundamentalists act in this way, they erect barriers between themselves and others. But the stereotypes of fundamentalists can erect those same barriers.
Maybe we could start removing the barriers if we realized that most of us—maybe all of us—are fundamentalists in one way or another.
Think about it. Do you hold any belief about which you are unwilling to hear other opinions, let alone compromise? Are there values or viewpoints where you simply will give no quarter? I didn’t think I had an inner fundamentalist—until I started thinking about Barry Bonds. Surprise, surprise.
So if I have an inner fundamentalist, I suddenly share some common ground with those other fundamentalists. I can get a glimpse into the mindsets and emotions that go into holding a belief or value or interest tightly with both hands. If I can stay mindful of that insight, perhaps I see fundamentalists in a different light—with a bit more empathy—when I next run into them. Maybe that opens the door a crack to hearing them out.
This is not about rushing to agreement with fundamentalists, or with anyone who disagrees with us. It is simply about finding a way into dialogue with a group of people who, in the minds of many, are impossible to engage in dialogue. To the extent that any given fundamentalist (or, again, any other person) refuses attempts to reach across divides, dialogue will not occur. But by considering our common ground, we can at least remove the barriers from our side.
So…in what areas are you a fundamentalist? How do you feel when these areas appear to be under attack? Can you imagine how others might feel the same about their fundamentalist areas? Feel free to share your thoughts here.
The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil. —Proverbs 15:28
One marvelous aspect of lectio divina (the slow, reflective, contemplative reading of sacred texts) is that it allows “weak signals” to come to the surface—connections between words, ideas, and glimpses of wisdom we might otherwise miss. I’m currently wading through the Book of Proverbs in lectio-like fashion, and it brought me to the verse above.
What emerged for me was the contrast between pour and ponder.
Pour, at least in this sentence, has an urgency, a volume, even a violence to it. Think of the Gatorade that gets dumped on the head of a winning football coach: it comes out fast, it drenches everything in its wake, one pour and it’s over.
Now think of ponder. It is slow, quiet. When pondering, we turn over ideas leisurely and examine them thoughtfully. The movement is precisely opposite that of pour. The outcome of ponder emerges more slowly, but it may make a deeper impact.
As I reflected on this verse, I couldn’t help but go back to my earlier post on the aftermath of the Newtown shootings. Think of the pouring that took place soon after the tragedy: certainly an outpouring of shock and grief, but then a veritable tidal wave of opinion on every issue that could possibly relate.
Unlike the verse from Proverbs, I’m not thinking in terms of righteous or wicked here. In fact, not all the pouring was unhelpful; some of it, on the contrary, is required reading for the dialogue we must have in the wake of tragedies like this. (I’m thinking particularly of the haunting and honest “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”) But I could not avoid the notion that all this pouring crowded out any space for pondering.
So it is with U.S. culture. We are “always on,” with advertising in every conceivable space, 24/7 news, instant access to the chatter of social media on demand. So many public places (doctor’s waiting rooms, bank branches) now come equipped with TVs, which are inevitably on. Everything seems to require background music.
In other words, we are an always-pour culture. We could use more pondering. Many of our personal and social ills can only come to resolution through pondering. Issues from climate change to the fiscal cliff to raising a difficult teenager cannot be solved when the pouring absorbs all our time and attention. They are simply too complex for that.
How can we make space for pondering? The only way I know is on an individual basis. Facebook and CNN aren’t going away just because we need a little space. That calls on us to listen carefully to our inner compass—to sense when we need to enter the fray and when we need to “come away and refresh ourselves.”
What do you think?
In case you’re wondering…the manuscript for Why Can’t We Talk? Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (available this fall from SkyLight Paths) was due June 29. Between that, my full-time job, and a few dialogue-related events, I never succeeded in finding a moment to blog. My apologies! The schedule is now returning to something like normal, thanks be to God. So, to get back on track…
It was only one word in an entire column. It wasn’t even a particularly important word. Yet it captured, in a nutshell, why I see dialogue as a matter of the heart.
Not too long ago, The Times Union ran an engaging profile of Rev. James Martin—a Jesuit priest, writer, and thinker—by one of its bloggers, Fran Rossi Szpylczyn. Right in the middle of the piece, Szpylczyn mentioned Martin’s pleasant and easygoing personality.
“With an ever-present smile, he is clever, yet perpetually charitable,” Szpylczyn wrote. “This alone is remarkable in a media culture where verbal swords are wielded in the name of some kind of justice or truth. Not for this priest. He is dedicated to keeping the conversation frank, but civil, at all times.”
There it was. Keeping. Keeping the conversation civil. It implied an attempt to restrain something powerful and potentially havoc-wreaking, as in “keep your temper,” “keep your head about you,” or “keep the children from running amok.”
Why should we have to keep conversation civil?
Because civility is not our instinct. Our instinct, rather, is toward defensiveness, anger, and debate. When people take issue with us, we often turn up the volume, which makes us appear more authoritative or more intimidating. To paraphrase Szpylczyn, we wield verbal swords.
Why do we lead with this reaction? Perhaps we’ve learned it over millennia of conflict with different people, tribes, and nations. Quite likely, it reflects our nature as a species, as exemplified in the fight-or-flight response.
This is where spirituality can help. Many of the world’s faith traditions focus on inner transformation: a fundamental turning away from self-centered concerns and toward an ultimate concern—which many people, me included, identify as God. As we turn toward God with our whole being, God transforms our whole being from the inside out. Transforms it into what? Faith traditions are well aligned on that too: toward compassion, toward wisdom, toward peacemaking.
When we practice this type of spirituality long enough, intently enough, our first reaction begins to change. We find ourselves instinctively reacting, not with hostility and defensiveness, but with curiosity, open-mindedness, compassion. Reflecting the God who embraces all, we start to embrace all—not just as an external practice, but as an impulse of the heart.
As a result, we no longer have to keep the conversation civil—because we already are civil. It becomes our nature.
And how much change can that make in the other? As it is written, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). If enough of us practice this spirituality, we can turn away wrath more broadly, on a larger scale. Maybe, just maybe, we can change the tone of our cultural and national conversations.
Not long ago, I ran across a blog post that provoked me. The writer’s assertions struck a raw nerve that brought up a few ghosts from my past. I felt compelled to respond.
The first draft of my response felt angry and haughty. I needed to breathe deeply, approach it from a more dialogic place in my heart, and tone down the language. So I did that, and the final result was OK.
Still, I was disappointed in myself. I’ve been on this journey with God for almost 40 years, on the monastic path for seven. Shouldn’t I have stopped getting defensive by now?
Alas, that’s not the way the spiritual life works. At least not usually.
Usually, the spiritual life is more of a one-step-at-a-time affair. Along the way, we cultivate habits of the heart. They take a lifetime to grow. Meanwhile, the old habits keep popping up. Over time, fewer of them pop up, and less often. We grow more into the habits of the heart that speak of God. But the old ways are always there.
The “way of dialogue”—which is itself a kind of spiritual path—is the same. We don’t walk it until we reach a state of perfection, and then dialogue from some lofty perch of perfect enlightenment. Rather, we dialogue all along the way, and to each dialogue we bring our vastly imperfect selves.
That simple truth calls us to be gentle with ourselves, in the same way that dialogue calls us to be gentle with others. Clearly, accepting my own lack of progress is not my strong suit. But when I can do it, I am in a better position to welcome others and hear their perspectives in authentic dialogue.
Is it a challenge for you to be gentle with your own progress (or lack thereof)? How does it affect your connections with others?
This is a bit self-promotional, but it may give you more insight into the spirituality behind the ideas you read here.
A kindred spirit, Lauri Lumby of Authentic Freedom Ministries, recently honored me with an invitation to submit a guest post to her blog. In response, I sent her “Living the Monk’s Life in the Real World,” which briefly describes my experience as a monastic associate—and the impact it has on my life. Because the “work of the soul” is a key component of my approach to dialogue, I thought you might like to read more about this work. Your comments, as always, are welcome, either there or here. Happy reading. (If you like what you see on Lauri’s blog, I suggest you subscribe. Her approach to spirituality resonates deeply with mine, and she communicates it with love and gentleness toward her readers.)
When I think of people who are certain of their beliefs—no possibility of compromise—certain strains of conservative come to mind. My conservative friends, however, tell me that progressives can be just as certain.
I think I’ve found a case in point: a compelling article by Candace Chellew-Hodge. In “Smashing Our Idols,” Chellew-Hodge—a pastor and editor of an online magazine for LGBT Christians—muses on her interactions with David Gushee, an evangelical and professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University.
The thinking from both parties is remarkable for its civility and nuance. Gushee makes clear that, while he is currently opposed to “all sexual acts outside of heterosexual marital acts,” the question requires a rethinking on his part, and that process is ongoing. Chellew-Hodge, meanwhile, affirms the humanity of people on the “other side,” is glad to have allies like Gushee with which to dialogue, and stresses the importance of patience.
I wish all interactions between adversaries were like this. It could easily serve as a model for the whole Church. One piece of it, though, doesn’t quite sit well with me: Chellew-Hodge’s sense of certainty—and what that might do to the dialogue. She writes:
…we must give people time and space to come to the side of full equality. Those who are making an honest effort, like Gushee, must be applauded and nurtured – not attacked. In the same manner, we who want full, unconditional inclusion in church and society need to be in relationship with people like Gushee so we can encourage them to keep whacking at the statues of exclusion and oppression until they are finally gone.
Her underlying assumption, as I read it, is that she is on the right side of the issue, and that the most gracious thing she can do is to “be in relationship with people like Gushee” until they come around.
Just for clarity’s sake, I happen to believe—passionately—that she is on the right side of the issue. I hope to God that the Church continues to move in the direction of welcoming all people. But authentic dialogue, as I see it, requires one more step than Chellew-Hodge has taken: a suspension of one’s preconceptions—however temporarily. Only with that step, I believe, can we be fully open to the other.
Suspending one’s preconceptions is a nod to one of humanity’s most fundamental realities: “I don’t know.” We may believe with passion. That passion may be enough (in some cases, it must be enough) for us to wrap our lives around the conviction and even attempt to steer the world in that direction. But especially in matters of the spirit, we know nothing. While this bedrock reality may not play a huge role in our daily lives, we can best extend compassion and a listening ear to the other if we enter dialogue with it in mind.
What would happen in a dialogue entered this way? We could create a space in which, no matter how much we disagree, we can listen for the value in the other’s perspective and for how it might make our own thinking better. It’s unlikely I will ever adopt Gushee’s current stance carte blanche, but if I am fully open to it, I might hear more about the values beneath it and how they resonate with my own thinking. Maybe what happens is that I reaffirm my current thinking on LGBT issues but reimagine the place of spiritual intimacy and commitment in it.
Dialogue rarely changes a participant’s position completely or instantly. In many cases, that’s not the point. The point is, more often, to grow together in love and reconciliation and to accumulate wisdom wherever we can find it. Goodness knows, we can all use more wisdom.
A few years ago, my wife and I had the privilege of visiting a monastery in South Africa. Like many monasteries, Mariya uMama weThemba observed the Great Silence from roughly 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. I relish this extended time of silence and was dismayed, when I awoke early one morning, to hear my wife (quietly) chatting at me.
I reminded her that we were in silence. Her response, with that impish twinkle I know so well: “I don’t care. I’m your wife. I’m going to talk at you anyway.” I couldn’t help but crack up (quietly).
Next story: From time to time, I have joined organizations that think big thoughts and do great things. They are actively seeking ways to make a profound difference in the world. And their contribution to the world is well worth the effort. Many times, however, these groups include a realist or two—someone whose role is to say, “I’d like that too, but here’s how this really works….”
I love these people. And here’s why.
On the dreamer-realist scale, I fall squarely on the dreamer side: the people who push for what could be. The realists remind me of what is. I consider silence a higher good; my wife reminds me that other people have other priorities. I love spinning lofty ideas out of not a whole lot; realists remind me that I have to start with the raw material of right here, right now.
What we miss sometimes, I think, is that we need each other.
Too often, dreamers and realists disparage those on the “other side.” Yet without the realists, the dreamers would, most likely, not make as much progress as they could. Without the dreamers, the realists would, most likely, not reach beyond current realities to envision, and therefore create, breakthrough change.
If they come together with a heart for dialogue, however—a heart oriented toward suspending preconceptions, hearing the other, welcoming a deep interplay of ideas—watch out. They could be a force for serious change.
This need for each other extends well beyond realists and dreamers. I see this in my faith tradition. Many Christians, traditionally identified as progressives, stress God’s concern for the dispossessed and for justice—God’s action in the world. Many others, traditionally identified as conservatives, stress the importance of sanctity and the joy of a personal relationship with the Divine—God’s action in each person.
These emphases often come into conflict. Progressives, for instance, see LGBTQ equality as a justice issue for a dispossessed group of people; conservatives see it as an erosion of godly personal behavior. What if they came together with a heart for dialogue—not tussling over the issue at hand, but listening and probing more deeply to understand, and appreciate, the other’s deeper beliefs? Both sets of beliefs (if the Christian scriptures are any guide) are close to the heart of God, after all.
With a heart for dialogue, we can dispense with our instinctive hostility and instead approach our adversaries with curiosity. We can be open to hear what they have to offer that we need, and vice versa. In most cases, I truly believe the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.
We Christians are notorious for fighting. We fight among ourselves over subtleties of doctrine. We fight with other faith traditions over what constitutes Truth. The Crusades, an extreme example of fighting if there ever was one, are a horrible stain on our history.
Fortunately, some Christians have made good progress in dialogue over the past few decades, especially in the field of interfaith dialogue. That is a very good thing indeed. It puts us in line with a Savior who, I think, would heartily approve.
It is true that the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life make no mention of dialogue. But Jesus in these accounts waxes eloquent about the ideals and objectives behind dialogue. In the Sermon on the Mount—perhaps his most sweeping single statement of his approach to faith—he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). A bit later in the same sermon, he exhorts his followers to “love your enemies…that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (5:44-45).
This label, “children of God,” fascinates me. It speaks, I think, not of mere familial relations but rather of affinity: people who, out of their deep connection with the Divine, reflect God’s orientation toward the world. People who reflect God are peacemakers. People who reflect God are committed to love.
What does this have to do with dialogue? Well, how can I love you most effectively—how can I act in your best interests, for your greatest good—unless I know you? And how can I know you unless I listen to you?
Listening also reflects what we read about Jesus. Among the numerous accounts of him preaching, challenging, probing, and delivering his message, several stories show him listening as well. He heard—and was amazed by—the faith of the centurion who asked for his servant’s healing (Matthew 6:5-13). He listened to the woman who cleverly parried his understanding of Jewish-Gentile relations (15:21-28). One might argue that he posed his famous question—“who do people say that I am?”—not as some test of his disciples’ understanding but honestly to seek their insight.
This same Jesus also prayed for another fruit of dialogue: unity. “I ask not only on behalf of [my disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21).
That’s what I hear when I read the Bible. What does your faith—Christian or from another faith tradition—tell you about the need for dialogue? I would love to hear your thoughts.