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.