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I recently got news of the death of a former colleague from my old world of priesthood. Vin MacNamara was, in fact, a teacher in that world: for me but also for many who passed through the seminary training process of St. Patrick’s Missionary Society. He also had a reputation in the larger religious field as a fine moral theologian. His focus on morality as rooted in desire I found truly helpful, perhaps because my central challenge as a missionary in Africa was always about avoiding any kind of neo-colonial imposition, and rather attempting to assist people in living their own unique lives and their own innate desires more fully, and – perhaps this is clearer in retrospect – doing so more artfully in the face of inexorable forces that would – and have already done so in many ways – sweep them away.

I picked up one of Vin’s more recent books – New Life for Old – partly as a gesture of respect to his contribution and partly to explore where our paths may have crossed in our otherwise separate lives since my departure. There I read about what he called an inner dynamism of the human, a thrust towards ever, greater consciousness, towards a greater aliveness to human potential, towards engagement with the true, the good and the beautiful. I was reminded again of my missionary challenge and how I had tended to resolve it with a similar perspective which suggested that God was natural in a sense to all of us. The divine was already embedded, as it were, in the human, or, perhaps more accurately in all life. More specifically, God was in Africa before I brought the Christian message.

Missionary work then had to be something more than promoting the beliefs and structures of a church. Vin, I think, implied another way when he spoke of how, in all of us, a little self masquerades as the whole self and that it is necessary, therefore, to create a context in which we can sit and attend and allow ourselves to hear echoes from deeper valleys in ourselves: literally make space for our true self to emerge. Spirituality, then, and, by extension, missionary work is about creating this space through practices that help people live more authentically and more deeply. A lot of religion, Vin implied, does not address the hard work involved in coming to the truth of oneself. Shallow religious practices, he says, will, in fact, seek to bypass the grim actuality of being human. The real task, he goes on, is the education of desire, letting go of the limited desires that take up our lives and allowing – trusting – the emergence in us of deeper movements…

The truth is hidden from us, not so much by the complexity of situations as by the veil of our prejudices and patterns. The challenge is in ourselves – how we see things. Becoming free from our ‘prison of perception’ involves an awakened heart which is usually a broken heart. As Leonard Cohen chants, the crack is where the light gets it.

What we need, Vin suggests, is a conversion of the imagination, a sea-change in consciousness. Religious stories and symbols, such as those of Christianity, can help, for the imagination of these great stories colludes with our deepest soul-intuitions that the other is sacred. My own experience, however, is that they may do so for a while, but the roots of our ignorance and related defensiveness mean that we have to do much more. The challenge of the kind of transformation experiences implied here is that their impact tends not to last and we find ourselves needing to go back again and again for another hit. The experience that makes the crack in our defenses needs to be cultivated by understanding and application.

Vin, in fact, acknowledges this when he notes that, In the face of the mania of modern life, we need even more help than of old. He goes further when he reflects on ‘original sin’ which, he says, was intended to highlight the challenges of being fully human in order to help focus our efforts, but instead undermined our capacity to do so with its burden of personal guilt. It is precisely our creation, he concludes – the long evolutionary trail out of matter – and not some sin whose guilt we inherit, which skews our relationships and makes our responses so ambivalent. His conclusion is that morality is a matter of intelligent listening to the experience of being human, and that the task for moral teaching is to engage with the actuality of living.

It is here that I found a complementarity in our approaches. My work with Dialogue has taught that what we need is to learn how to be in the world: to work WITH things, as my friend Rilke has said. What we need is wisdom, which is not something that can be communicated (by religion, for example): it has to be personally discovered and welcomed. We each have to learn that there is a different way, a different kind of knowing/consciousness born of a different kind of presence.

I have come to understand ‘consciousness’ to refer to the nature and quality of our knowing-awareness. I have come to see presence as being present to ourselves – our walking, eating, talking, meeting, opening the door – by connecting with the other person, plant, or place. We can facilitate the process with reminders that pull us back from our deeply ingrained – inherited – habits; create a way of life that gives space for other echoes of ourselves that nourish a richer life.

And who will teach us how to be? In the end, it is ourselves: through continuous exploration of our desires and processes. Meditation, which is one important way of exploring is not a matter of learning a technique once for all, rather it is an ongoing, graceful attention of humility and receptiveness, a disposition simply to be, to listen, to be open. It is more about allowing than doing. I can only create conditions of possibility and wait and trust. I can only learn how to inhabit my own vulnerability and (the secret that everyone knows), my own dying. Then together we can discover the glimpses that surface and continuously build a world that better reflects this expanding consciusness.

The part that is missing for me in Vin’s contribution, as in many religious writers, is the implementation of real insights that are often totally aware of the challenges of a distorted human nature, but, nonetheless, tend to lack the kind of strategy or training that other fields of human activity take for granted.

It’s as if simply seeing is enough. In a sense it is: salvation, to use a religious word, is more about realizing than becoming. But that takes learning and practice. It requires learning to connect and be present to the other we encounter. It is practicing how to listen skillfully to people and things: with true attention and refined self-awareness that enables us to achieve real mutual understanding. It means developing the capacity to explore the mental models and assumptions that constitute the lens that is the instrument with which we construct – and maintain – reality. It is discovering by listening FOR the new understanding that is generated out of the creative tension between differences that such mutual understanding allows. And it is creating shared meaning out of this process that directs the way we build our relationships and our institutions.

Anyone who has read anything that I have written over the years knows that I am referring to the art of Dialogue; to what I have come to call ‘Dialogue for Life’ which I have concluded is the heart of spirituality, the kind of spirituality that Vin describes as educating our desires, freeing them from our unconscious assumptions, and allowing our true self to emerge.

I wish we had been able to explore these two, clearly related approaches together. But that is another conversation.

4 Comments

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  2. Sue Wootton  - August 28, 2017 - 6:48 pm

    Danny –
    Just from the brief profile of Vin that you’ve written, it seems to me that you have lost not only a dear friend but a wonderful Dialogue thought-partner as well who would have been willing to explore these further dimensions with you if he had only known about them….These kinds of losses of long ago, far-away friends from our former lives are indeed hard, and one of the “via negativas” of the aging process, I find. May Vin rest in peace. And thanks as always for your very meaningful reflection…The “art of dialogue”/dialogue for life that you teach, i.e., dialogue as a spiritual practice is still such a relatively new concept that its many aspects can still be mystifying even to those who have been at it for a while – trying to live consciously, mindfully, find that authentic, true self & live from that place. Some of Vin’s words and yours reminded me greatly of a quote from Jung to the effect that (and freely translated here): Psychotherapy can help to relieve and heal certain diseases of the spirit, but don’t expect it to relieve you of the normal pains and terrors of life!

  3. Diane J Abatemarco  - August 29, 2017 - 10:05 am

    Danny your description of Vin’s work, Dialogue for Life, your loss of a friend, and both his and your contemplations leave me with a few thoughts. As I sit and wonder how we as a nation of people got to where we are today there are a myriad of societal factors, no doubt. I can’t help but think that most of the culture of distrust and anger, and mean behavior that results from that uncertainty is the result of a basic lack of real connection to others such as teachers, elders, family, neighbors, etc. For the last 20 years, maybe longer, there has been a de-emphasis on education in many parts of our country and the working class has been hit hardest by this hegemony. There are communities in the US that refer to public schools as “government schools” and parents warn their children against learning and trusting teachers and education in general. In the same communities there is a distrust of psychological care as well, yet we have a nation that is rife with trauma where psychological care is the only way to free them from their adversity.
    Education that focuses on expanding the mind, is seen as elitism, having little use. The children learn to be close minded and fearful.

    Education and preventing ignorance is pivotal to helping people grow to trust and necessary to empower them so as to be courageous in their critical thinking. There was a op ed piece in the NYTs within the last week that was written by a young man who grew up as a child to one of the leaders of white supremacy in the US. The young man broke away from the movement during college. I say “broke away” because that is what it took for him to come to terms with what he was taught at home and in his community. I listed to a podcast of him being interviewed and his story was simple although his transformation was complex. He met someone at college who was Jewish and the person, after finding out who he was, invited him to their Shabbat dinners on Friday evenings. After dinner the person would ask him about his believes and gently show him facts, figures, and truthful accounts of history. As each fallacy was debunked the young man grew more curious. One conversation at a time the former young white supremacist found that his thinking was changing. The lesson is that he was opening his mind and learning and these Friday nights changed him as well as threatened his connection to his entire family. Although you might not consider this man brave in actuality he was courageous. However, he is not unlike most humans who with a nurturing, caring, love develop a natural curiosity to understand the world and the Universe. We know that on an individual level by reaching out and having real dialog that we heal, learn, explore, grow and become even more curious about what we do not know or understand. We do this through trusting those we are in dialogue with whether they are elementary school teachers, our parents or grandparents, neighbors, clergy or other trust elders. So in my mind dialogue becomes this safe and scared place to touch into ourselves, to share what we are finding, to allow community to help the healing necessary for us to connect with each other, learn to heal ourselves, and be in a meaningful and spiritual relationship with ourselves and each other.

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