dialogue is not for wimps

We find comfort living in idealogical bubbles, hanging around like-minded souls. But what if those bubbles burst? What happens when family or friends not only disagree with us, but have planted their banners in camps far across the ideological divide?

We are hearing more and more about the need for dialogue, both in the church and in the world.

Next week, this blog will be six years old. For six years I have been trying to explore and promote the concept of dialogue. Six years later, I feel I know less than when I began.

I spent almost 20 years travelling to continental and international leadership meetings of Marianist Lay Communities, an International Association of the Faithful. Respectful dialogue is a Marianist trait. We believe in “unity amid diversity”. We believe in “staying at the table” during difficult conversations. We believe in active listening and inclusivity of voices.

Nice words are easy to write or speak. They are much harder to live. I’m beginning to wonder if they can sometimes become a barrier to true, effective dialogue.

I’ve sat in too many meetings where we dance around the elephant in the room, seeking peace in platitudes and writing up nice reports. We talk of dialogue, but avoid certain issues at all cost if we know there will be disagreement. In a world that is becoming increasingly divisive, we desperately cling to unity by avoiding all conflict. We ignore disagreement, hoping it will go away.

Dialogue is not a “new age-y” form of conversation where all are affirmed in their oneness with each other and the universe. True and meaningful dialogue is tough. It is messy. Unlike debate it does not seek conflict for conflict’s sake, but conflict can’t always be avoided.

Conflict should energize, not silence dialogue.

Dialogue is not for wimps! This is one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in these past six years. I have written many articles on dialogue for this blog and other publications. I can write nice words. I often fail miserably at dialogue in real life.

I’m an introvert who hates confrontation. I clam up when faced with a bully, allowing them to dominate the conversation.

I obsess over each word I write. I obsess over words I’ve spoken. I sit on fences or straddle them so as not to insult or anger anyone. I tailor my words to the listener.

We need more civility and gentleness in the world, yes, but sometimes trying too hard to “be nice” simply feeds our need (my need) to be liked by all.

The first step of dialogue is to verbalize your own thoughts without fear. To speak your own truth with courage.

This is what I believe… This is why I believe it…

If these words are followed by proverbial crickets, then all I have done is provided myself with a soap-box and had a good rant. If a rant takes place in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, is it still a rant? Probably. But it’s certainly not a dialogue.

If someone hears my words and responds with their own words,

Yes, but this is what I believe… This is why I believe it…

Now we have the beginnings of a dialogue!

love in the family and between families


“A Big Heart”

In addition to the small circle of the couple and their children, there is the larger family …Friends and other families are part of this larger family, as well as communities of families who support one another in their difficulties, their social com- mitments and their faith. AL,196

The English title of Amoris Laetitia, the post-synodal exhortation by Pope Francis, is On love in the family. The basis of the document are the two recent synods on the family. Bishops, consultants and lay observers gathered from around the world to discuss modern realities facing families and how the church can help them.

But, perhaps it is time to move beyond the model of the church (and her male leadership) as an all-knowing body to turn to for answers to life’s questions and crises. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that, for most families, wisdom and support is more readily found among family and friends; in the love between families.

Last week-end, hubby and I spent a glorious evening with our faith community of friends. We are part of a Marianist lay community that has been meeting in one form or another for almost 40 years. Our life journeys have intertwined through university years, to newlyweds, and the parenting years. Our children are all adults now, and many of us are grand-parents.

We sat on the deck, enjoying the first warm evening of spring. Good food, good drink, good conversation, good friends…a touch of heaven! Talk came around to how our community was truly church for us.

Over these many years, we’ve celebrated the joys of family life, and found support for the many struggles and challenges. We talk of faith easily and naturally. We sing and we pray from the heart. We swap stories of parish and diocese. Many of us have had close ties and connections to the local church. Some still do. We never did “suffer fools gladly”, and do so less and less as we age.

Our faith community and many other long time friends have been both gift and life-saver over the years. Weekly Mom’s and Tot’s tea-times, rowdy multi-family dinners and gloriously chaotic weekend family sleep-overs; these are the “big heart” moments that fed and nourished us.

It is natural to look to peers for support. Newlywed couples seek other couples. Young Moms seek other young Moms. Empty-nesters seek other empty-nesters. Families facing health crises seek others travelling the same difficult journey.

We look for mentors among those who are further along in the family adventure. Mentors can be found a generation or two ahead or simply a few months or years. Parents of a three month old or a toddler can be great mentors for friends with a colicky new-born.

We see our children forming these same bonds of friendship and support. After long work-weeks and sleepless nights, they will schedule family time with their friends despite the extra work of travel or hosting.

When family life is discussed in the church, well-meaning souls wave the Catechism of the Catholic Church while deploring the present state of families, blaming it on a lack of catechesis. The simple and obvious solution, then, is to provide more adult education in parishes – preferably from the “official” teachers in the church.

Debate the theology of family all you want, but experiential wisdom will usually trump ivory tower pronouncements. Black and white rules no longer speak to many of us who are living in the messiness of the grey in-between. We learn more from personal stories than doctrinal diatribes.

Families are often best qualified to minister to other families. Churches could support this ministry by encouraging and empowering existing family networks and small communities, and provide opportunities for encounters where none exist.

marianist lay communities and synods – a reflection

2014 International MLC Meeting, Lima Peru
2014 International MLC Meeting, Lima Peru

I may never attend a synod of bishops, but I have attended four international meetings of Marianist Lay Communities; 2001 in Philadelphia, 2005 in Bordeaux, 2009 in Nairobi and 2014 in Lima. As I followed the daily news from the synod, I couldn’t help pondering the similarities with our MLC international meetings.

First of all, there is the mind-opening reality of any international experience. As brothers and sisters in a worldwide community of communities, our commonality is grounded in a shared charism and spirituality. Our diversity is present in how we live this charism in the day to day.

Beyond obvious differences in language and culture, there are differences in political realities and agendas. These differences affect the mission of each community. It is important to share one’s local experience. After all, this is one of the main reasons to gather across the many miles. It is equally important to come with an open mind and heart to listen carefully to the experiences of others. This requires checking in our natural, parochial mindset at the door.

This is especially true for those of us in the western world. Our issues may not be the issues of our neighbours in the global south. We are sometimes so ready with an answer to the problems before us, that we fail to listen, really listen, to the experience and wisdom of others.

MLC International Team, 2009 Nairobi, Kenya
MLC International Meeting, 2009 Nairobi, Kenya

Watching the bishops in the synod halls struggling with headsets reminded me of the long meetings listening to simultaneous translations through static sound systems. It required extra attentiveness to follow the English translation going on in your headset while you could still hear the French or Spanish being spoken on the floor. Add to that the deliciousness of a hefty midday meal, late nights and jet lag, fighting the mid-afternoon demons of sleep was inevitable.

MLC writing team, 2009 Bordeaux
MLC writing team, 2005 Bordeaux

Writing international documents is a major challenge. I was on the writing team at two of the international meetings I attended. We had the added disadvantage of not having a shared language to work with around the table. We struggled to make the necessary changes and edits in three languages. Our translators were our trusted and indispensable companions as they helped us to communicate in our discussions and in our writings. Late, exhausting nights were the norm.

Compiling the numerous statements, comments and edits was often a herculean task. The documents we were writing would become our foundational identity documents. We had to discern which statements reflected the general assembly, and which were indicative of a more individual or local preference. As Marianist Lay Communities, we value inclusivity. The challenge was to make the documents inclusive of our diversity while specifying the foundational characteristics that united us. It was not easy, and there was always a point where our efforts seemed doomed. Relief came when the final document was voted on and approved by the assembly.

As with the synods, our international meetings provided the dual challenge for delegates to faithfully represent the grass roots experience of their region, and to take the fruits of the meeting back home so that visions and carefully chosen words could be transformed into action.

Interest in our international meetings was often mixed at the local levels. Again, as with synods, international meetings come and go while the lives of communities go on.