A few years ago I stumbled across a journal entry of Henri Nouwen; and as so often before, his words deeply resonated with my heart. Nouwen wrote,
I have come to realize how hard it is to have a real spiritual conversation. I keep wondering how people with deep religious convictions can speak together at table about the life of the Spirit. What did Jesus speak about at table? It seems that for Jesus the meal was the place and time to preach the good news. For me that is a real challenge. It always strikes me how grateful people are for a good spiritual conversation, but also how hard it is to make such a conversation happen. Most conversations are chains of free association in which people simply drift from one subject to another, often guided by little else than what happens to come into their minds.*
In the circles in which I move, I hear a longing among people for more conversations about the things that matter most to them; and yet despite this hunger people experience so little real spiritual conversation.
We are people of seemingly endless communication. So much talk, so much hearing, so much noise, yet so little of it addresses our heart, so little of it emerges from deep within us. Our talk just seems to skim across the surface of life. A few years back a close friend of mine coined the term surface dwellers to refer to so many of us. We are persons who stubbornly accept the dynamics of our inner lives as “givens”—like blinking or sneezing, or the sky’s color, we do not need to seriously think about them. We consider them things that need not be explored, reflected upon, or challenged. Surface dwellers move through life like sailboats without rudders—vessels attached to the fortunes and misfortunes of the surrounding winds and currents—and have, as a consequence, resigned themselves to the hope of their inner lives ever really changing. For surface dwellers, transformation is like putting on a coat, simply a question of externals. Surface dwellers refuse to believe that there is so much more to see, be, and become—from the inside out.
For all of us surface dwellers who long for so much more, how can we deepen our companionship together? How can we enter, from time to time, into spiritual conversations with one another? These are large questions that require lifetimes to answer, but we can certainly consider a couple launching points from where we find ourselves today. Two dispositions come to mind in particular: courage and kindness.
Courage to be honest. Spiritual communication requires a willingness to bring to the table the whole of who we are. Openness and vulnerability with others are courageous movements. So many of us hide by compulsively injecting a cheery optimism into every topic or conversation. But this sort of optimism is a form of dishonesty that frustrates sincere faith and love. If we are to deepen our spiritual conversations together, then we must begin courageously to address the many masks we wear.
Kindness with each other. Kindness disarms the many fears that can so often distance us from others. We must put aside the interpersonal weapons we have grown accustomed to wielding. What are these sorts of weapons? Comparison and competition with others, quick personal judgments, gossip, always putting our best foot forward and expecting others to do the same, spiritual “pecking orders”. All of these—and, were we to brainstorm together a few minutes, I suspect a few others—only perpetuate self-protective and surface conversations. But it is kindness toward each other that allows these defenses and weapons to be slowly set aside. Ultimately, it is the Spirit’s kindness that transforms us into loving people. We must learn to extend kindness to one another in small ways if deeper conversations are to be cultivated and shared among our friends.
So as we sit with friends and long for deeper, soulish connections and conversations, courage and kindness are a good a place to begin. In fact, they are necessary conditions. They may not guarantee the sort of connection we are longing for, but their absence will certainly prevent such spiritual conversation from being shared.
A few years back VantagePoint3 developed a set of eight conversations around “the big 3 questions of spiritual mentoring” (Who is God? Who am I? What am I to do with my life?) as a way to invite people into The Journey or as a way to help graduates of The Journey extend the meaningfulness of their process to other friends in their context. If you resonate like me with Nouwen’s observation or with this surface dweller way of life, then you might find Growing Up: A Lifelong Journey** an excellent way to enter into some deeper conversation with friends about life and learning and faithfulness to God. May we all continue to pay attention to the ways the Spirit is leading us to exercise courage and kindness in our conversations with others.
*Henri Nouwen, unpublished journal, Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, (New York: Bantam Books), 63-64
**To learn more or purchase Growing Up: A Lifelong Journey click here.