Space for each other


6 Nov 2023

There is an unusual quality to the silence of true listening. Even as it fills spaces, it allows for thoughts and speech.

It is in the quiet moment, the hesitant silence. Not yet awkward, though some might fear it could soon become so. Gathered in a circle, praying. Ready for the space to open out with sharing. Deep, quiet breaths. The warmth of bodies gathered. More than just temperature, a warmth that settles and makes safe.

There is no apprehension that you won’t be listened to. No fear of off-hand rejection. If such fears existed, they recede as the silence holds the group. This is the space of synodality. It is not abstract, merely theoretical. It is gathering in a way that allows for listening.

This is a space well known to those who pray. Throughout Jesus’ life he is witnessed withdrawing into that space where a still silence might allow room for the voice of the Father. This is by no means always an easy space to be. There can be ‘anguish’ amid that silent space of prayer, as for Jesus on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:44).

Just as for Jesus, prayer creates the context in which we can recognise our deepest desires in conformity with those desires that God has for us. Just as we can do this as individuals, so we can do it as communities.

After Jesus’ Ascension, the disciples pray together. The women and men gather together in prayer (Acts 1:14). There are leaders, and their roles, especially that of Peter, cannot be underestimated. But there is a collective trust in the way the will of God is expressed in their community.

The depth of their fellowship is expressed in the sharing of goods and the time they spend together. Time spent together in public worship in the temple and in breaking bread and continuing their worship at home (Acts 2:46-47). This was a community, ‘of one heart and soul’ (Acts 4:32).

It is with this goodwill, this deep sense of connection that tensions can be registered and slowly resolved. As for the early Church when confronting the question of whether gentiles needed to become circumcised (Acts 15), people of goodwill can read the signs of the times differently. But the experience of having prayed together, having shared that deepest experience of life, allows a space for seeking God’s will beyond any one’s ego.

Returning to that silence, I notice the way in which it is a sovereign sacred space and a precipice for sharing. Sharing from the deepest self, from the heart. Many times that I have been in this situation it has not been with any decision in mind. Often, I have been with school or university students simply offering up a space for openness and so vulnerability.

It is a space we offer one another. It’s not mine to give or take away. It is ours together. That offering can make possible a radical sense of community. The levelling. Everyone must give themselves to this and one person’s withdrawal does not destroy, but does fracture, the group.

The process beyond the silence I use most often is identified as spiritual conversation. The communal is further emphasised as the first-time people speak, noting what they have experienced in prayer, how they are in their life, where and how they are experiencing consolation and desolation, they do so uninterrupted. Following the silence of prayer, each person speaks in turn, as much as they find helpful, without back-and-forth.

Then there is an opportunity for people to articulate and name what they have heard others say. This relies on the whole of the first part of the process being participatory, speaking in turn and listening in turn. People say, ‘When I heard x say, it resonated with me because . . .’, ‘When I was listening to y, I felt . . .’, ‘A common thread I have heard in the sharing of others is . . .’. The ego of each individual is subsumed into the spirit-soaked experience of the group.

From here conversation can unfold. If a decision is to be made, it has a new starting point. The group is not just identifying with the elements of options before them but with the way these options may be emerging in this context through the good spirit or the bad spirit. The decision making becomes a discernment.

Even where there is no particular decision to be made, though, this process can be extremely helpful. The time of prayer, the space of deep silence, the freedom to share, and to listen, provide a means for community to form, guided by the spirit. People emerge gently, with gratitude. A little more aware of themselves, others, and God.

All of this is grounded by the silence that allows for prayer, and so for an engagement which is deep.

The silence, as a way for God’s presence to be experienced, allows each person to engage from the same level. This is the grounding of a synodal process, one that recognises the faithful experiencing the movement of God, and admits them to express that experience as part of a process to recognise the Church’s communal call and the nature of her response.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 edition of Madonna magazine.

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