Opening Address of Welcome to Formators

23 April 2009 – Philip Carter, Chairperson AECSD

I want to welcome you all to this very first formal gathering together for those associated with formation and training programs in the ministry of spiritual direction in this country.

At the launch of this Council – the Australian Ecumenical Council for Spiritual Direction – three years ago in Melbourne – I suggested, among other things – that the theme of dialogue or conversation might be helpful as we reflect on the work and ministry of spiritual direction. I suggested also that one of the Council’s chief tasks is to create and foster a culture of conversation – a culture where communion takes place.

It seems important to place this motif of conversation within as wide and deep a context as possible. John Paul II in his Encyclical “That they may be one” said:

The capacity for “dialogue” is rooted in the nature of the person and human dignity… we cannot fully find ourselves except through a sincere gift of ourselves… Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some ways it is always an “exchange of gifts”.

His successor, Benedict XVI, alluded in his first Encyclical, to the cost of such dialogue, the totality of such presence. “I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self. I must be personally present in my gift.”

Thomas Merton was equally as clear about “communication” or “conversation”.

True communication on the deepest level is more than a simple sharing of ideas, or conceptual knowledge, of formulated truth. The kind of conversation that is necessary on this deep level must also be “communion” beyond the level of words, a communion in authentic experience.

And he went on to say:

If I insist on giving you my truth, and never stop to become your truth in return, then there can be no truth between us.

This is the kind of communication which asks of us a costly presence, a self-emptying, a staying with – an experience even of poverty and dying, for the sake of the other. This is true of our ministry in spiritual direction: it is true in our ministry of formation: and I hope it will be true for us tonight and tomorrow, where we can be open to grace and to each other, and experience something revelatory and transforming, for ourselves and for our practice. “Conversation is our only hope” the post-modern theologian David Tracy says. There is always a challenge in conversation where we “risk our present self-understanding by facing the claims to attention of the other.”

Theodore Zeldin – a social commentator – writes extensively around the theme of conversation. He asks:

But how can conversations make so much difference? They can’t if you believe that the world is ruled by empowering economic and political forces, that conflict is the essence of life, that humans are basically animals and that listening is just a long struggle for survival and domination. If that’s true, you can’t change much. All you can do is have conversations which distract or amuse you. But I see the world differently, as made of individuals searching for a partner, for a lover, for a guru, for God.

And he goes on:

What is missing from the world is a sense of direction, because we are overwhelmed by the conflicts which surround us, as though we are marching through a jungle which never ends. I should like some of us to start conversations to dispel that darkness, using them to create equality, to give ourselves courage, to open ourselves to strangers, and most practically, to remake our working world, so that we are no longer isolated by our jargon or our professional boredom.

David Ranson says that, with the disciples on the road to Emmaus we might well claim “happy the person who has learnt to converse, for the future will be theirs.”

We see the world differently: we value persons as images or viceroys of God: we believe that every encounter with each other holds out the possibility of encounter with God. The vision that I have for this Council is one that embraces us all but extends us as well. The focus on formators and formation programs is not incidental to the life and work of the Council: it is rather integral to it. You will have seen in our documents over the past year, a change in wording from Standards to Guidelines. Here we are struggling to move from the language of law and boundaries to the language of horizons and possibilities. In the same way, I could suggest that a Code of Ethics could become a Code for Ethical Practice. In some thinking on contemporary religious life it has been suggested that a better understanding of the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience might be to reframe them as vows for poverty, chastity and obedience. This seems to me an altogether more dynamic and open understanding of what we are about and may in fact help us.

So tonight and tomorrow – we hope, in a little way to

Dispel the darkness – so that things are a little clearer – because we are a bit closer.

Work from the vision and for the vision of the inherent dignity and freedom of the human person – of every human person.

Take heart and live hopefully and face a future which shapes us more (even) than our past.And move beyond professionalism (though it is vital) and beyond jargon (which isolates and makes us unreal) to open ourselves to what is strange or new – for the remaking – the transformation of our world.

Two of our best teachers over the past decades in this ministry tell us that “the point of disclosing to God – and I would add to others – what is on our minds is the act of disclosing, not what we disclose”.

Disclosing whatever is on our minds [and hearts] however – whether the matter we talk about makes us happy, saddens us, or causes us to furrow our heads in puzzlement – is a way of revealing ourselves to God [and to others]. Setting out to disclose ourselves in this way, if only for a moment, promotes our relationship with God [and with each other].Madeline Birmingham & William Connolly

This is a ground breaking moment for the ministry and charism of spiritual direction in this country. It is the first time for so many of us – called to help in the formation of spiritual directors – to be together in this way – for conversation. As we are with others in the hidden work we do, so we can be with each other today: present, available, living and acting as congruently as we can, creating space for the other – for others – and at the same time affirming and renewing the mutual relationship which is the community of God in whom we share and live and move and have our being. The Council is a growing, evolving phenomenon. Today’s conversation is an exciting marker in that process.

Marge Piercy has a wonderful poem about speaking: It is entitled

Unlearning not to speak

She must learn again to
starting with I
starting with we
starting as the infant does
with her own true hunger
and pleasure
and rage.

May this time together be a time when we

hear another’s voice
hear our own voice
make things a little clearer by moving a little closer
have some of the darkness dispelled
and find heart by opening ourselves to the befriending
Spirit of God.