Sunday, July 31, 2016

Politics, Spirituality and Silence

Politics, Spirituality and Silence

Years ago, when I was on retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York, I was walking about keeping the required silence. I came across a simple piece of art in a hallway written in exquisite calligraphy that said “Silence is the guardian of charity”. I stopped and thought about that for a while and wondered about the number of times I had used a hasty word or two and when others in my family or in my circle of friends had also used hasty words. There can be hurt, harm, and worse, there can be insult and injury. Carry that out far enough, and sharp words can lead to even more serious consequences, like actions that incite violence and even warfare.

As I thought about family history and world events I thought about the value of silence and how the keeping of it can guard the peace and kindle compassion and charity among human beings. I thought about the pursuit of justice among and between various races, ethnicities, nationalities, even in our more intimate relationships. Gender relationships are often strained and folks of various orientation can find themselves marginalized by thoughtless, insensitive and hasty words. Yes, silence is indeed the guardian of charity.

I thought of the art of listening to one another, and now, especially after the last two weeks of oratory in Cleveland and Philadelphia, I find myself "listened out". A friend of mine posted a meme on Facebook in which a large red circle was drawn. Green represented the number of times your opinion changed the opinion of someone else who disagrees with you. Red represented the times your opinions changed nothing at all but managed merely to incite anger in both the the writer and the reader. There was only the angry color of red in the circle.

Conversation is a lost art form particularly in our political life, it would seem. And yet, when practiced toward perfection, conversation can become a vehicle in which the ministry of reconciliation can occur. 

When I lived in Toronto, I remember living with a family while I attended college. In exchange for babysitting, I had a room and meals. It was a good deal. What struck me most about living with this particular family, though, was that during the evening meal there was a lengthy ritual of conversation. As the family sat down to dinner, the father of the family would preside. He happened to be the Department Chair of Greek and Latin Classics at the University of Toronto. He would call upon his children to share the events of the day. Sometimes it required a bit of encouragement. Sometimes it took a great deal of encouragement. But eventually he was able to elicit a good story or two from each of us as we recounted the events of the day. He was a masterful educator. He listened with care, he supported his children, he probed their thoughts he supported them and then he’d often challenge them to think more deeply and more critically about the convictions they were beginning to form. Dinner lasted for hours, particularly as we lingered over tea and biscuits. 

It was not an eat and run kind of family, but we have become more and more, an eat and run kind of society. We are more and more a fast food nation. We are very, very busy. 

Many years after college, I came to learn that in conflict management, listening is a primary skill. It takes time to listen. It takes a willingness to be quiet; to be silent. We have to slow down to hear each other. To listen, we have to suspend our own opinions for a space of time. Listening is hard work.
To help with the management of the communication process, I learned a convenient strategy. We called it the LAPS strategy. The acronym stood for four words:
Let me suggest to you that to listen means to repeat what the speaker says and to check that you have heard correctly. You may be surprised how often you will need to hear it repeated because you don’t always listen carefully enough, especially the first time or two.
Perhaps even more difficult will be to allow what the speaker says. You may vehemently disagree for instance, but how can you really show that you care about what anybody says unless you allow them the right to say it?
However, once you get past the first two parts of the strategy then you can probe what the speaker says. This is often when the speaker gets to hear himself/herself and often begins to wonder just a little bit about their convictions. They begin to hear themselves speak. In its better moments, probing, can yield insight to all involved in the communication process.
Then to show that you have the courage to listen, find something to support in what has been said. With any amount of imagination you can find something in what is said with which you can agree.
By the way, this method of communication can be useful in marriage counseling or any other conflict situation. 
Nevertheless what it takes to listen is to:

Now that you have taken the time to listen to the "other" it is your turn to speak. Can your counterpart extend the same courtesy to you that you extended to them? This is the essential justice question in any conversation.

For a parliamentary system to work we will need to learn how to listen to one another. The word parliament is based, as many of you know, on the French word, “parler”, to speak. It is easy to speak. It is harder by far to listen. Listening requires spiritual discipline. The idea of parliament, whether it is in Britain, Europe, The United States or the United Nations, is to provide a vehicle for us to share ideas, concerns and interests. It is the hope of diplomats the world over, that when we sit down at the table to reason together, we can avoid conflict and warfare. Sometimes that works. Tragically, sometimes it does not.

In today's Gospel, Jesus finds himself in a situation in which he is called upon to be an arbiter in a family dispute. Interestingly he uses the occasion to teach us about our relationship to our worldly goods and verses our relationship to matters of more consequence, such as our accountability to God and to one another. As Jesus clearly says; "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Paul follows up with his encouragement to seek the things that are above. He says;  "But now you must get rid of all such things-- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth." Really? Paul must have been listening in to some political speech making in his own time to come up with that turn of phrase.

There is hope you see. 

It sometimes takes silence. It always takes the skill of listening. Paul says that "There is a better way" when we "seek the things that are above". The ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us, according to Paul.~2 Corinthians 5:18. Jesus blessed the peacemakers.~Matthew 5:9. The dangers of these ministries are well documented. And while it is clear to me which of the two presidential candidates more faithfully represents Gospel values, I believe that what is even more important than my conviction is finding the pathway to peace and the route to reconciliation. 

Now that all the hoopla of the political conventions is over, a moment of prayerful silence is in order. After all, “silence is the guardian of charity”. And if we are to make our way back to a viable Golden Age of democracy we’ll need to learn to how to hold conversation. Such a discipline will require all the spiritual resources we can muster. 

May God grant us each a part to play in this sacred and holy ministry.

In the Name of God, the Most Holy, Undivided, and Everlasting Trinity. Amen.

Fr Paul

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