Not long ago, I ran across
a blog post that provoked me. The writers
assertions struck a raw nerve that brought up a few
ghosts from my past. I felt compelled to respond.
The first draft of my response felt angry and haughty. I
needed to breathe deeply, approach it from a more
dialogic place in my heart, and tone down the language.
So I did that, and the final result was OK.
Still, I was disappointed in myself. Ive been on
this journey with God for almost 40 years, on the
monastic path for seven. Shouldnt I have stopped
getting defensive by now?
Alas, thats not the way the spiritual life works.
At least not usually.
Usually, the spiritual life is more of a
one-step-at-a-time affair. Along the way, we cultivate
habits of the heart. They take a lifetime to grow.
Meanwhile, the old habits keep popping up. Over time,
fewer of them pop up, and less often. We grow more into
the habits of the heart that speak of God. But the old
ways are always there.
The way of dialoguewhich is itself a
kind of spiritual pathis the same. We dont
walk it until we reach a state of perfection, and then
dialogue from some lofty perch of perfect enlightenment.
Rather, we dialogue all along the way, and to each
dialogue we bring our vastly imperfect selves.
That simple truth calls us to be gentle with ourselves,
in the same way that dialogue calls us to be gentle with
others. Clearly, accepting my own lack of progress is not
my strong suit. But when I can do it, I am in a better
position to welcome others and hear their perspectives in
we cultivate the inner attitudes that facilitate
dialogueopenness, humility, a passion for truth
seeking, a willingness to riskwe will be ready for
these chance encounters. We will naturally respond with
an open spirit and a listening ear, no matter what comes
This is even more important when it comes to our
adversaries, because they set off the automatic
fight-or-flight response within us. As we cultivate
the spirit of dialogue within ourselves, we
will notice that response replaced with something else:
curiosity. How dare you believe that? is
replaced with How did you come to that?
I dont want to discuss it yields to
Tell me your thinking.
an intentional, shared exploration of an issue, whose
purpose is to deepen mutual understanding if not move
closer to the reality of the issue, and whose structure
requires participants to lay aside their preconceived
notions and participate with a clear mind and a listening
Lets unpack this a little:
- Dialogue is intentional. In this sense,
its not quite the same as conversation.
While conversations can dwell on a particular
topic for a while, there is no agreed-upon focus
and no specific goal in mind. As a result, they
can meander from topic to topic. Is that good and
healthy for the human spirit? Absolutely. But
its not dialogue, which has a set purpose,
- Dialogue is a shared exploration. In
this sense, its also not persuasion, or
proselytizing, or anything similar. Unlike those
modes of communication, dialogue requires us to
assume that we dont have the
answerand that we can work with our fellow
dialogists to get closer to it. However
- Dialogue doesnt always help us move
closer to the reality of the issue. It
certainly can, of course. But even the dialogues
that appear to get us nowhere can hold
inestimable value: drawing us into mutual
acceptance, clearing away old stereotypes, and
even assuaging the loneliness that is part and
parcel of the human condition.
- Dialogue requires a clear mind and a
listening heart. This is where spirituality
plays its indispensable role. By allowing the
Divine to shape us through spiritual practices
(like regular prayer and meditation), we become
more like the Divine: more compassionate, more
self-giving, more aware of ultimate reality and
our place in it. Our sacred cows and vested
interests melt away. Our inner transformation
makes us not only larger in spirit, but better
able to hear and share in dialogue.