Conversation as a Spiritual Practice

IMG_3915The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter on friendship, I offer a brief reflection on conversation between friends as a spiritually formative practice.

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Talk is cheap: so the saying goes, and it’s mostly true. Our world is full of talk; loud, persistent talk that never ends. Too much of it self-serving, self-aggrandizing, self-justifying. We attend talkfests where “expert” voices are privileged over others. We visit political chambers and church sanctuaries where pulpits and lecterns give voice to those in power while the majority is silent. And we sit before our televisions watching panels where the cleverest and loudest voices win. Too often they sound like a gathering of egos shouting, “Look at me!” 

No doubt, this sort of talk can be cheap. What’s more, talk like this rarely changes things. Rather than transforming the minds of those who participate, it simply confirms the views they already hold and the choices they have already made. It is not altogether different in the talk of our everyday lives. How many times have you left an exchange with an acquaintance or colleague wondering if your presence was really necessary to it? We can be talked at, talked over, talked down to, or talked around, but rarely are we talked with. Rarely are we genuinely listened to, and seldom do we listen to others. 

At its best, conversation is different. Conversation is a meeting of minds, memories, and stories. It is a mutual meeting of spirits distinguished by its openness to the possibility of change. There is always the chance in conversation that we will be shifted, prodded, challenged, or moved to think and act differently. It is this, I suggest, that sets conversation apart from talk. In fact, if we do not come to conversation open to its transforming potential then all we have is talk. Open conversation is the oxygen of true friendship. It is the oxygen by which we breathe together, and it is good. 

The proposal that conversation between friends can be a spiritual discipline—a routine practice embraced with intention that leads us to the likeness of Christ—is, at first blush, as difficult as the others we have proposed so far; but its potential is rich. If conversation is allowed to be a tool in the deepening and transforming of our spirits, it may well impact our spirituality in significant ways. 

1. A Practice of Attending

“I don’t know exactly what prayer is,” the poet Mary Oliver confesses, but “I do know how to pay attention.” This is surely where all spiritual practices begin: they are disciplines through which we pay attention to our own lives, to the lives of those around us, to the world we inhabit, and, in all of this, to God. The more ancient spiritual term for this practice is attending. It is what I do when I engage in intentional conversation with a friend: I attend; I listen in the most deliberate way I can. 

To understand the impact of attending in friendships, philosopher Graham Little asks us to recall those moments when we have been “recognized, attended to and listened to well.” It is in those moments, he says, “those magnificently human moments” in which we feel “exhilaratingly alive” that we touch on the transformative power of attending. To be attended to is to experience the depth of what we give to others when we listen attentively to them. 

The practice of attending is built on a cardinal respect for the humanity, integrity, and worth of our friend. She embodies the truth of God in her story in a way I’ll not encounter in any other place. In my attending I honor that truth and I listen for it. I do not come with judgment or the need to convince or cajole. I only come with a sense of inquiry, a desire to hear, understand, and care. I want my friend to know again that I am here and that my support is genuine and ongoing. I want to see what she sees, to feel what he feels, and to know what she knows. And if he is lost, I want him to know that he has company. 

In recent years, I have experienced events that were isolating in ways I had not previously encountered. It had to do with public issues about which there is strong disagreement in the Christian church and in which I have a pastoral investment. I felt pressed to take a role that was more public than I was naturally comfortable with. The toll was considerable. I struggled to know what to do with that toll and how to carry it as I needed to. In the course of things, a friend invited me into conversation. He went out of his way to make generous time and to convey his concern for me. As I settled in to that conversation—what felt like a wide and open space—I realized its gift. The hours we spent together were some of the most healing I have experienced. He gave no advice, had no agenda other than to care, and no particular wisdom to share; but he attended to me with such generosity, I came away feeling both comforted and challenged. It was a small but significant turning point in my own well-being. 

Attending is not a complicated thing to do. There are only two rules that apply. Rule #1: shut up. Rule #2: listen. Really, it is not complex; but it’s not easy either. Good attending is a practice that takes some learning. If we think listening is easy, it is often because we’ve never done it. Good attending is a pastoral act that takes discipline and practice; the more we give ourselves to it, the more instinctive it becomes. That said, it is a practice we are all capable of. As a practice of our faith, it includes no secret pathway but is open to all. 

In exploring this practice for myself, I came across a book that had in its title the enticing phrase “conversation as ministry.” In the early chapters, the author defines the sort of conversation he has in mind, including its twelve essential components. As I waded my way through them, including such things as a grounded ecclesiology, a biblically informed character, a reflective self-awareness, I began to have a sense of something more complex than I had imagined, more the business of secret church squirrels than of regular people. None of the author’s twelve points are wrong. In fact, each is spot on and worth exploring. That said, conversation between friends is surely the most accessible and immediate business we are in. Perhaps all we really need to begin is the author’s final point: conversation gives body to the realm of God on earth. There is something about attending in friendship that makes the presence of God tangible. 

2. A Practice of Investing 

The real beauty of conversation between friends is that it’s ongoing. There is nothing momentary about it. Friends have history. They have shaped a story together. No matter how long-standing or recent a friendship might be, it builds one encounter at a time, one conversation after another. These conversations, building incrementally, sit within the context of our story and add to it. In time they develop a grammar all their own. The more we converse, the less there is to explain or divulge and the more we make room for challenge and depth. 

The idea of a spiritual practice as an investment is a helpful one. In all spiritual disciplines there is something about slow, persistent practice that is key. The practices of prayer, meditation, confession, worship, or Bible reading build over time. Not every deposit we make feels significant in its own right, but in time the worth of those investments grows into something substantive. To be honest, there are moments in my prayer life where I feel nothing of substance, where the rote and ritual act feels nothing more than that; and there are others when my heart soars. Yet I look back and know that the practice of prayer—the mundane and the exhilarating—has shaped my relationship with God like nothing else.

Conversations with friends can build slowly into a transformative practice, each one an investment into something larger. There will be conversations that sing and others that are monotone; encounters that thrill the spirit and some that are dreary. There will be intentional conversations that burrow away at particular challenges; and others that meander with no sense of purpose or destination. To use Augustine’s words, such conversations can “pass from lightest jesting to talk of deepest things and back again.” But, in all of this, we are investing, one conversation at a time, in something of greater worth. 

What investments need is time, time to mature so as to reward the investor with the greatest returns; so, too, with conversation. For relationships to flourish and for conversations to have their impact, there is no substitute for time. “Relationships are not best founded on efficiency,” Hugh Mackay observes, “nor are they best nurtured through the exchange (no matter how frequent) of inherently impersonal digital data.” When you surrender the art and discipline of face-to-face conversation, he says, believing that text messages and emojis can fill the void, “you’ve begun to lose your grip on what it means to be a social creature.” When it comes to spiritual practices, there are no shortcuts. In the practice of conversation between friends, the incremental investments require intention and time. There is no other path. 

3. A Practice of Confronting

In the opening paragraphs, I proposed conversation as a meeting of minds, memories and stories. In that meeting the possibility of change flourishes. The English writer and philosopher Theordore Zeldin argues that such change is not only possible within each participant, but can flow between and out of the conversation they share. “When minds meet,” he writes, “they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought.” “Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards,” he continues, “it creates new cards.” In this form, conversation is more than attending to each other’s stories. It is more than an incremental investment over time. It is found in the willingness of those who converse to tread territory that is risky, even confronting. It takes trust to flourish. “What matters most,” Zeldin concludes, “is courage.” 

Geoff and I have been friends for over twenty years. We met as students in the States, initially bound by our common status as “aliens” in a foreign land. Quickly, though, the relationship moved to firmer ground. We come from different traditions and different states. Our personalities are a study in contrasts, yet over two decades our friendship has remained. This has much to do with Geoff’s persistence and grace; he does friendship better than most men I know, and I have reaped the benefits. That said, we remain different, shaped by disparate contexts and communities. Apart from our years in California, we have rarely lived any closer than a day’s travel apart. Even more, there are issues about which we disagree and hold very different views. While I am accustomed to standing in the minority on some things, there are few people in my life, those with whom I disagree, with whom I can have conversation on these issues that is not marked to some degree by mistrust. With Geoff it is different. 

Friends have time on their side. When friends disagree, there is always more to the relationship and its conversations than the issue of difference. I cannot dismiss Geoff as merely “the opposing view.” There is more to him than that. There is more to our relationship than the disagreement at hand. What’s more, I cannot marginalize his viewpoint as I can with an acquaintance on Facebook. The respect we share more broadly touches everything about which we converse. Zeldin proposes that it is in these moments of difference we are faced with a choice. The direction the conversation takes from this point will shape us as much as it shapes the relationship. As friends we can choose to focus on our past—the memories and experiences that have made it—and keep on saying, “this is the way we are,” or we can set out to explore new and risky territory. That territory will necessarily include confrontation as we wrestle intentionally with what sets us apart. It is not an easy path to take.

Of course, the practice of confrontation is more than negotiating differences of opinion. It also means allowing conversations to name things that are difficult to name and to put our finger on things that are painful, even shameful, in our lives. When friends find the courage to traverse this territory, openly and sensitively, they touch on a spiritual practice that has as much capacity for transformation as any other practice we can name. 

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Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number for places.

If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository.

If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

 

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