Listening with the heart: Contemplative conversation
What in the world . . .?
Confusing readers as they skim a new issue of HOPE is never the aim — quite the contrary. And yet, directions for our future as a community of Providence which emerged from the recent General Chapter are too meaningful and exciting not to be shared — even if some of the phrasing is unfamiliar.
“Unfamiliar”? How about contradictory? “Contemplative” is about quiet thinking, right? And “conversation” — well that’s obvious. And they go together how?
It may help to define “contemplation” as “a long loving look at the real.” This description was coined by Walter Burghardt, SJ. As such, far from being the exclusive domain of cloisters or ashrams, contemplation is actually practiced often by many people, in many circumstances.
Surely many of us have taken a long loving look at those dear to us — spouses, partners, parents, children — in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, musing about their needs, their struggles, their futures. Or, how often might we pause to realize that we have been prayerfully contemplating a difficult situation or turning an inward gaze on our own troubles, grief or questions? Who doesn’t ponder a problem or give deep thought to a decision, sometimes asking God’s guidance without even realizing it?
An illustration of contemplation from my own experience comes to mind, beginning years ago in the classroom, of all places.
Since my earliest teaching days in the 1970s (even before I came to teach at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College), I have shared brief prayer with my students at the beginning of class. In order to get the students’ attention, I found myself saying “Let’s compose ourselves.” (An English teacher’s version of “Let us pray”!) The classroom would quiet down — more quickly with the college crowd than the high-schoolers — and I would pray from my heart and invite students to do the same.
Sometimes they did and often they didn’t. Perhaps in the few moments of silence, they took time for a long loving look at the real or perhaps they didn’t. But of one thing I’m certain. Written course evaluations and conversations with College alumnae through the decades have shown me that these young people appreciated the opportunity to slow down and literally compose themselves in what may have been for them a moment of contemplation.
I still can’t understand how contemplation can connect with conversation. Silence and talking?
In contemplative conversation, talking follows contemplation. During our meeting days, sisters participating in Chapter engaged in a “Big Picture Conversation” — a substantial wide-ranging sharing — about four topics: justice, community life, direction for the future, and leadership. Then the facilitator invited all participants to listen to their hearts, paying attention to feelings as well as thoughts about the topic at hand. Quiet time lasted from two minutes to as long as twenty, and soon the group was practicing contemplation — as preparation for conversation.
Following the conversation, a table leader wrote down her group’s responses to key questions on the topic. These were eventually shared in synthesized form with the entire Chapter body for affirmation. That way, all members contributed to creating the Congregation’s direction for the days to come.
It’s finally coming together . . . So is this sort of Chapter new?
Not exactly. No major meeting of Sisters of Providence during the last 175+ years has been devoid of silence or prayer, and the General Chapter of 2016 was no exception. Nevertheless, most Sisters of Providence would undoubtedly agree that we were blessed to participate in this Chapter as in none before. The reasons for this were many: the whole-hearted preparation and engagement of each participant, planner, and pray-er; the process itself; the guidance of our superb facilitator Catherine Bertrand, SSND; and the presence of Sophia, the Spirit of Wisdom, speaking to us and through us every day.
So what sounded at first like a contradiction in terms (“silence and talking”), became amazing grace, enabling us as individuals and as a Congregation to infuse our conversations — and subsequent decisions and direction — with “a long, loving look at the real.”
As a result, we are going forward (as we have since 1840), supported by and sharing in the faith and good works of benefactors, friends, and ministry partners, embracing our emerging future — together.
Wow . . . and all as a result of “contemplative conversations” Who knew?
(Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of HOPE magazine.)