Let the Earth Keep Silence
Contemplation and Dialogue
In response to my article Fundamentalism vs. Contemplation, Teo Bishop writes:
I'm curious if you see a relationship between contemplation and dialogue within the context of religious community. I feel like there's a connection there, and I wonder if you could speak to that.
I'm reminded of a book that came out a few years back called Speaking of Silence: Christians and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way. It's a delicious paradox, isn't it—to speak (or write) about silence? And this in turn points to the audacity of trying to capture the Mystery in the puny confines of human language.
I suppose it is part of our nature to speak of silence. If a profound recognition of the Mystery found in silence is a key element of the contemplative life, then attempting to express that recognition in words—however limited and halting they may be—is virtually just as important. Why does the man climb the mountain? Because it is there. Why does the contemplative speak about silence? Simply because it is there.
But if it is human nature to tell stories about ourselves—including stories about the silence we embrace—then it seems just as natural, just as intuitive, for us to listen to each other's stories. Hence, if silence is the mother of storytelling, then storytelling is the mother of dialogue. But I think there are many possible ways of engaging in such discourse, such conversation with the other. A truly contemplative dialogue, it seems to me, necessarily looks and feels profoundly different from many other forms of discourse.
Consider how sometimes our efforts to speak with others is persuasive or coercive: I talk to you in order to obtain something from you, and I listen to you only to facilitate removing any obstacles you might raise to the goal I desire. This kind of conversation is not really dialogue at all; it is merely an effort to dominate through the use of language rather than force. How many religious speakers use precisely this type of dialogue when engaging in conversations with persons of other faiths? A Jewish friend of mine recently suggested that many Jews are wary of interfaith activities, especially when Christians play a prominent role in them. "We're wary of the bait and switch," he said. "You know, Christians who pretend to be friends with Jews but only to win our trust so that it would be, at least in their minds, easier to evangelize us."
Contemplative dialogue looks quite different from that. In a contemplative conversation, listening is every bit as important, maybe even more so, than speaking. And the effort to listen is not meant to serve some pre-determined agenda, but is more truly vulnerable, in the moment, and available for the surprises and unexpected treasures that only the undefended present will reveal. Contemplatives listen for the purpose of loving and relating to their dialogue-partner, not in any effort to prove themselves in any way. The power of contemplative dialogue is never the power of domination, but rather the shared experience of power-from-within, in which each person in the conversation relates to the other(s) as equals.
It takes tremendous mindfulness to enter into such a contemplative dialogue; we have all been so conditioned to reflexively adopt our cultural assumptions and prejudices regarding power and privilege, whether that plays out in terms of gender, race, educational or economic standing, ethnic, political or national identity, and yes, religious identity. If I think, even subconsciously, that being a Christian is "better" than being a Buddhist or a Sikh, such a hidden assumption of religious chauvinism—bolstered by a sense of entitlement that I might feel because Christianity is the majority religion where I live—will cloud any efforts I have at interfaith dialogue with members of those faiths. A mindfulness-based approach to dialogue will not magically erase all my overt or hidden prejudices and assumptions. But hopefully such an approach will help me to recognize my biases when they arise, empowering me to deal with them (rather than letting them dictate the course of my conversation).
I've been looking at contemplation and dialogue in terms of inter-faith discourse, but re-reading Teo Bishop's question, he seems to be asking about intra-faith dialogue as well (which makes sense, considering that my article was about how contemplatives and fundamentalists relate to one another within the same faith tradition). Here the challenge may be that your dialogue partner may not hold the same commitment to contemplative practice that you hold. But that's a risk in any form of dialogue. We can never control the motives or level of awareness of those with whom we speak; all we can do is strive to be as clear as possible in our own words, as well as to listen as mindfully as possible. It seems to me that a dialogue in which one person is striving to be mindful is certainly better than a conversation where all parties are trammeled by their own hidden agendas!
Truly contemplative dialogue is messy and imperfect, because it is open and unpredictable. Many possible misunderstandings or miscues can lead to a breakdown in the conversation. But for those of us who enter such conversations as people of faith, we can trust God—the Mystery—to carry us beyond the limits of our own abilities, and hope that clarity, goodwill, and truth will prevail.
Thanks for a great question, Teo.
Carl McColman is a Lay Cistercian, a blogger (www.anamchara.com) and the author of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism.