July 2011

Dialogue: a way of being authentic

As we continue to aspire to the call of the Gospels, to participate in the mission of God, then all the faithful, all those at the table will need to find ways of staying in dialogue, writes Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill.

BY Catherine McCahill SGS

For nearly 30 years I have been a teacher in secondary schools and tertiary institutions across the country, and over those years I have learnt much. As I reflect over those many learnings nothing ranks higher than the significance of dialogue – a foundational tool for living in a family, for being a member of the human community, for participating in the life of the Church, for engaging with people of different worldviews and cultures, for learning and teaching, for seeking God. What follows provides a cursory consideration of some of the influences in my understanding of dialogue and a brief exploration of its value.

I first learnt about dialogue around the family table; growing up in the sixties and seventies, we ate our meals at least twice a day around the kitchen table without radio or television or mobiles or iPods. We talked, we laughed, we argued and sometimes we listened. What we learnt is that each person was valued. We learnt, too, the importance of “staying at the table”, to coin a phrase of Parker Palmer’s. We learnt that no-one was right all the time, that each person, no matter how young or old, could contribute to the conversation, that the process was sometimes more important than the conclusion. It was by no means perfect: there were nights of tears, frustration and argument. No doubt some of us carry the scars and over the intervening years have had to relearn the art of “staying at the table” but we have “stayed” and we learnt, amongst many other things, to love one another in that funny, family sort of way.

In my adult life, I discovered the work of Sydney sociologists, Andrew Metcalfe and Ann Game. In their small book, The Mystery of Everyday Life, they describe the difference between simply talking around an evening meal and real conversation:

“The atmosphere is warm as we lean towards each other… Rather than being self-absorbed, our whole being is absorbed in this experience. Opening and relaxing into the spirit of the conversation, we feel very alive, yet it seems that it is the conversation itself that has this life. The space that embraces us is full and buzzing… communal sharing connects us, not simply to each other but to each other through the greater force in which we all share. A meal becomes a feast, an everyday occasion becomes a festival.”

Metcalfe and Game are especially interested in the “space between”. Good conversation, and I want to say dialogue, happens when the space is respected, when neither party controls and dominates the shared space, the place in which our word, our gestures and their meanings meet, and find a new and fuller meaning.

As a child of the Catholic Church in the sixties, I was aware that we were beginning to have new dialogues. I vividly remember standing intrigued one evening as my parents engaged in robust discussion with a visiting priest about the new ending to the Lord’s Prayer. Countless conversation were had as we, Catholics, began reading the Scriptures, going to churches of other Christians, and responding to the questions of the age – nuclear war, contraception, population control, the war in Vietnam. Again, it was far from perfect, and often could hardly be considered as dialogue, but we were already embracing The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) promulgated in 1965. It was years before I read and was uplifted by:

“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” (#1)

It is surely no surprise that dialogue is mentioned in no less than ten paragraphs of this document. For me, the crux of dialogue is echoed in the claim that “Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters” (#28, italics mine). So we learnt, often painfully and hesitantly, to dialogue with other Christian traditions, with other faiths, and with the world at large.

However, we remain challenged by and aware of the deep need for dialogue amongst us, within the communion of the Catholic Church. At the beginning of this century, John Paul II wrote of the “communion” necessary at every level of the Church, and called for “structures of participation” that will promote “fruitful dialogue between Pastors and faithful” (Novo Millennio Ineunte).

I find myself encouraged, and many of my colleagues and students surprised, by the insistence in the General Directory of Catechesis that “catechesis” is “communication of divine Revelation… radically inspired by the pedagogy of God… a pedagogy which serves and is included in the ‘dialogue of salvation’ between God and the person… which underlines divine initiative, loving motivation, gratuity and respect for our liberty” (#143).

Why, then, I wonder are we so prone to breakdowns in communication, to silencing discordant voices, categorising and ostracising those who think and speak differently, most especially within our communities?

The word dialogue comes from two Greek words: dia (between) and logos (word), so it is essentially “the word between us”. I want to extend this definition of Jane Vella’s to the “Word” between us, within us and between us and God. For us, who put our faith in the Incarnate Word of God, the Word is more than an ideological concept, it is God enfleshed among us.

Numerous narratives within the four Gospels provide us with an insight into the manner in which the early Christian communities remembered Jesus, the Word made flesh, teaching through dialogue. The longest sustained dialogue between Jesus and another character is the narrative of his encounter with the woman of Samaria (John 4:4-42). The starting place of this encounter is their shared humanity as she engages with the tired and thirsty “Jew”. Ever so subtly, he draws her into dialogue so that she admits her daily thirst for water and her desire to avoid the tiresome task of collecting water from the well. When the dialogue falters he once again takes the initiative, but the woman, encouraged for speaking the truth about her marital situation, is not shy in bringing to the dialogue her opinions and ideas about the promised Messiah and the nature of true worship.

As the dialogue develops Jesus continues to reveal himself to the woman, until with decisive action, she leaves her water jar at the well and returns to the village, wondering and inviting her community into the dialogue: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Having experienced respectful and liberating dialogue with THE WORD, the woman initiates dialogue with the people of her village, inviting them as well into dialogue with Jesus, the Word. He, who was too tired at the beginning of the narrative to journey into the village, is invited to stay with them and he stays for two days.

The fruit of the ensuing communal dialogue is the proclamation of the community: “We know that this is truly the Saviour of the World”. We, the readers and students of the Gospel of John, learn much from this and other narratives: the characters are free to participate and respond; Jesus never coerces or demands a response; and the fullness of truth comes when, under God’s initiative, the dialogue and engagement is communal.

Dialogue, engagement with the Word among us and between us, requires mutual participation. It is not possible when one or other party is coercive or authoritarian or maintains supremacy of knowledge or power. It relies on the premise that truth is communal and sourced in God. It is not possible when the “space between” is not acknowledged and respected, when one or more participants endeavour to destroy the difference or obliterate the space or control the truth.

Mutual participation, however, is not the same as equivalent responsibility but refers rather to the mutuality of dialogue with each other, a dialogue in which the ‘truth’ is pursued communally. Members of the community with particular responsibility must ensure that certain criteria are met: openness, boundaries, hospitality, silence and speech.

As we continue to aspire to the call of the Gospels, to participate in the mission of God, then all the faithful, all those at the table will need to find ways of staying in dialogue. This will be challenging for all: for members of the community with divergent views, for the community of all disciples and for those who hold teaching authority within the community.

It seems to me that together we are called to seek the Truth, the Incarnate Word, with openness, respect and honesty, without victimisation or silencing or dismissal. Then together we might come to know more fully the invitation to participate in the life of the Trinitarian God and to see and hear the world with God’s eyes and ears.

Catherine McCahill

Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She has served on the Congregation's leadership team since 2011. Catherine has been involved in education for more than 30 years, in secondary schools and, more recently, at a tertiary level in biblical studies and religious education.

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