Contemplative Awareness: Engaging Collective Awareness through Contemplative Dialogue
by Donna Fyffe, Ed. S
Contemplative Dialogue is a way of being not a program.
It is an attitude and practice of being attentive and open to the mystery of life around us in a way that allows us to know it more intimately, more productively, and with a far richer understanding.
Contemplative Dialogue is about awakening the collective soul.
It is finding shared meaning out of deep understanding of the human person; how we respond to life’s situations; how we come to a greater understanding of our community and ourselves. It helps create the quality of noticing that supports expanding both our personal and communal awareness and freedom.
As we explore this practice, it is helpful to focus on the meaning of both contemplative and dialogue. For many, contemplative implies living in a cloister, being separated from the world. For others, it is associated with the heights of mysticism. At its simplest, being contemplative means taking “a long, loving look at the reality. Sister Nancy Bauer, OSB from St. Benedict’s Monastery in the USA breaks open contemplative by going back to its Latin derivation. She states, “The word contemplative: ‘contemplate’ means to look at, to look hard at, to regard, to notice, to observe, to consider carefully. A ‘contemplator’ is one who observes, who studies, who examines. A contemplative is one who looks long and hard at something.” The something in contemplative dialogue is reality. The something in community life is also reality – the reality of God, the reality of one’s self, the reality of each Sister in the community, and the reality of the world. In fact, we could describe religious life as ‘a lifelong loving look at reality’ because it takes that long – it takes a lifetime to wade through the fog of fear and unknowing to the sheer reality of God’s love, to see through our self-pretences to the awful and wonderful naked truth about ourselves, to see past our prejudices and preconceptions to the joyful mystery of each Sister.
Dialogue means through the word. Finding shared meaning in lieu of discussion which comes from percussion, hitting against. By embracing contemplative dialogue as a way of life, we choose to embark on a journey that is intentional, counter-cultural, and that clearly calls us to embrace inner transformation and conversion.
Starting the Journey
As a starting point, it is helpful to reflect on how we humans gather and store experiential information so we can then use it to make sense of things. Karl Rahner, SJ, a German Theologian, through his studies and observations, suggested that we have an amazing capacity to translate experience and store it as memory we can then pull on when needed. An image that is helpful here is one of a file folder. For example, imagine creating a file folder on someone you have just met. You attach a snapshot of what the person looks like. You might get their name straight and add it to the folder. As you speak with the person, you add additional information, characteristics… she is intense, has sad eyes, is happy, tall/short, thin/heavy, quiet/shy, she talks a lot. You meet the person the next day and you are able to access the file folder and remember key things about the person and their story. This is a tremendous gift.
We also create theoretical file folders (incarnational theology, family systems, capitalism, new cosmology, etc.). We have folders on being Catholic, being a woman religious. We have practical file folders such as how to drive a car, cook a meal, and make a bed. We have emotional and relational file folders that guide how we respond in relationships. These folders help us navigate through life, and this ability is powerful. Over time, we accumulate significant material and information. This information that we gather is actively created as we translate experiences and in a sense transcribe them into mental notes kept in our file folders. Rahner calls this objective awareness. The power of objective awareness resides in its capacity to inform and guide our actions. For example, driving a car, fixing a dinner, teaching a class, responding to a friend.
A danger of objective awareness is that we carry perceptions of others (file folders that hold information on self or others) that can be old, outdated or simply wrong. For example, impressions others formed of you as a young sister going through a rebellious time; perhaps a very different person than you are today. Limited by these outdated folders, we can misperceive others and ourselves. Worse yet, I may relate with my idea of who you are rather than the real person. We put others and even ourselves in “boxes“ without consciously choosing to do so. When this happens, I may begin to treat you as though I have you all figured out. In a sense I can deal with you as an that I have captured in my mind rather than the sacred person you are.
Objective awareness is a great capacity for us as humans; but used without awareness, it can be dangerous in that some of the information is accurate while some is misperceptions and wrong judgments. For example, if I am walking down the hall and Patty passes me without speaking I might naturally feel ignored. I might think, ‘who does she think she is? That’s the second time she’s done that to me.’ My file folder on her adds a new message: Patty is rude and downright aloof.
Probably the largest file folder you have is your own. Pause for a second and think of the messages in your file folder. For example:
1. How do you describe who you are?
2. How do you describe what you do?
3. What have people told you over the years about yourself?
4. How do you describe the kind of family you come from?
5. What is your description of your personality type?
6. What is your ministry or profession? How is it perceived in
7. What other information have others told you about yourself
that you haven’t filtered out but have taken in as ‘truth’?
Look deep in your file folder – what have you put in it? Is there anything that needs to be taken out and let go? Is there new information that you want to add?
As we all know, this is not the full reality of who we are. There is another place of our reality, a deeper and quieter place. Rahner calls this the subjective pole of human awareness. It is the self that is the true essence of a person. It is the true self that is more than just one’s accidental qualities (objective descriptions). Here the person is full and free. It is the place within us where we are most alive and touched by the Spirit. It is the place of the noble self, the authentic self. This SELF is sacred mystery.
An assumption about why contemplation is so critical is that without contemplation all of our acts risk being slightly off target and disconnected from what is most real. Without contemplation, we cannot accurately perceive what is real. Even our best choices miss the mark because they fail to see things as they truly are. They fail to perceive the whole. Without contemplation, we cannot notice the Spirit working within us. To contemplate, to ‘take a long, loving look at the reality,’ is to make a choice to see the more of whom you are.
During the next few weeks, allow yourself to slow down and to notice:
Who do you have file folders on;
what have you placed in those file folders;
what is old, dusty information that needs to be discarded?
Most especially take time to explore your own file folder and to clean it out.
As time allow, you might want to consider taking time to look deeply into the file folder you have on your community. Is there anything that needs to be taken out and let go? Is there new information that you want to add?
We are blessed with the capacity and freedom to make choices. Yet the quality of our freedom is limited by our habitual ways of noticing, thinking, and behaving. We may sleepwalk through our day with little awareness of the choices we make. Even our perception of our choices can blind us to possibilities because we get trapped in our
familiar and culturally ingrained ways of imagining them.
Be still my soul. Be still and listen.
In the depths of the silence you will hear God’s voice.
In the breath of the silence you will see God’s face.
In this most sacred silence you will be in the heart of God.
© 2021 Monica Brown
© September 2022, Donna Fyffe, Ed.S. CommunityWorks, Inc.