by Frank T. Griswold

Listening is an act of communion when our hearts are open to God's word in others.

FRANK T. GRISWOLD is Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church in the United States. This paper was extracted and adapted by Bishop Griswold from a transcript of his presentations given for Trinity Institute, which was held in May 1998 in New York City.


"Acquire a heart and you shall be saved." These are the words of Abba Pambo, a desert father of the fourth century. According to the desert tradition, the focus of ascetical practice and prayer was ordered to the acquiring of a heart, achieving purity of heart. Finding one's heart rendered one permeable and available to God's mystery. Historically there is a tension between the mind and the heart, which calls to mind an Orthodox phrase: we must learn to stand before God with "the mind in the heart." It suggests the profound unity that we are called to express in our lives as Christian persons.

The heart is not simply a physical organ or seat of emotions; it is the core and center of our personhood as well. According to Jewish tradition, the heart is the throne of God's glory, which is the place where the shekhinah, the presence of God, most deeply is to be found. Therefore, when Paul in the letter to the Romans speaks about the love of God being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, he is speaking of God's reality breaking through to the inmost chamber of our own reality. We experience it then as a unified and transfiguring and transforming love.

The effect of the heart's becoming the home of God's glory is wonderfully described by another ancient, St. Isaac of Nineveh. Writing in the seventh century, he describes what happens when the heart is rendered permeable to God's presence and God's mystery. It becomes compassionate. It becomes merciful. What is a merciful heart, St. Isaac asks?

It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for humankind, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons: for every creature. When a person with such a heart as this thinks of the creatures or looks at them, his eyes are filled with tears. An overwhelming compassion makes his heart grow small and weak, and he cannot endure to hear or see any suffering, even the smallest pain inflicted upon any creature. He never ceases to pray with tears -- even for the irrational animals, the enemies of truth, and those who do him evil -- asking that they may be guarded and receive God's mercy. For the reptiles he also prays with a great compassion that rises up endlessly in his heart until he shines again and is glorious like God.

In other words, to be given the gift of a merciful heart is to be transfigured, is to allow the mercy and compassion of God not only to find a home in us but through us to extend outward, embracing all the disparities and contradictions and paradoxes that exist in the world around us, even the demons and the reptiles. (The reptiles here are meant to stand for everything that discomforts us and makes us uncomfortable.)

There is, however, a problem: sklericardia -- that biblical condition we all suffer from in one way or another, known more commonly as hardness of heart. It appears in the Hebrew scriptures; Jesus also speaks about it as one of the stumbling blocks to receiving the mystery of God's reign: hardness of heart, having a heart of stone rather than a heart of flesh, an obdurate heart unwilling to make room for God's mystery and God's desire. Therefore, as the ancients understood so well, and many modern ascetics also, there is always the need for our heart to be transformed through an ongoing process of metanoia, of conversion, of -- to use the phrase from the French writer André Louf -- "relaxation of heart" -- that is, letting the heart be gentled in such a way can make room for God.

Repentance then is not always simply a question of looking at the discrete patterns of our sinfulness, but of asking the deeper question about whether my heart is a heart of flesh or of stone. How welcoming is it? The contemporary writer Kathleen Norris, in her book Dakota, gives us a wonderful description of repentance in terms of making our hearts permeable to God's mystery. She describes a conversation with a Benedictine friend, out of which comes this description of repentance.

Repentance means "not primarily. . . ." a sense of regret but a "renunciation of narrow and sectarian human views that are not large enough for God's mystery." It means recognizing that we have not always seen grace where it exists in the world, and agreeing "to turn away from a stubborn and obdurate position that cannot accept what is new and different and therefore cannot entertain God's mysterious ways." The word "entertain" is used advisedly here, as the monk goes on to speak of hospitality: "the classic sign of [our] acceptance of God's mystery is welcoming and making room for the stranger, the other, the surprising, the unlooked for and the unwanted." (Dakota, p. 197)

So here is the diagnosis and also the cure for a hardened heart -- or at least one way of looking at it. In the Abrahamic tradition, speech is the medium of divine self-disclosure; therefore, the fundamental stance of the person of faith is to listen. We hear this in the Hebrew scripture's Shema, the great confession recited daily by our Jewish brothers and sisters. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deut. 6:4). The servant of the Lord in Isaiah (50:4), with whom Jesus is identified, proclaims the Lord God morning by morning, as the one who "wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught." Jesus' own fidelity springs from his ability to listen. The New Testament word upakouo, which we translate as "obey," actually means to "hyper-listen," to listen intently. The prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict begins: "Listen carefully [Obsculta]. . . . and incline the ear of your heart."

Psalm 95 -- in which the psalmist cries out, "Oh, that today you would hearken to God's voice! Harden not your hearts, as your forbears did in the wilderness" -- became in the Rule of St. Benedict a daily invitation as well as warning. Calling members of the community to the service of Vigils in the early hours of the morning encouraged them to listen carefully to the day at hand and all that it might contain as coming from God. At the same time, they are called to be aware in that process of listening to their own patterns of resistance. The Hebrew word dabar means not only speech but event and circumstance. Therefore, in the scriptural tradition, word is not only spoken: it happens. It takes place and thereby becomes part of our experience. We live the word, as well as hear the word.

It is important for us in our efforts to listen to be mindful of some of the characteristics of the word God addresses to us. First of all, when God speaks or enacts word, that event is always creative and life-giving. "Incline your ear, and come to me," says God in Isaiah 55:3; "listen, so that you may live." The word is not primarily a word of information that we can safely receive and store away, something comfortable and comforting about God. It is in itself addressing us directly in all its liveliness; therefore, the word can be threatening because as God addresses us creatively and in the full power of God's own "livingness," our boundaries are extended. We are confronted by an abundance of life that we have neither asked for nor can in any way imagine. The word is larger than we are.

It is the ever-creative word "bringing forth life and giving growth, seed for sowing and bread for eating." God tells us that "it will accomplish that which I have purposed and prosper in that for which I have sent it" (Isa. 55:10-11). This word of creativity and boundless vitality appears throughout scripture and in the life of the early Christian community. It is a word that grows and prevails. As we read in the book of Acts, the word of God was happening everywhere. This desperate group of ill-prepared disciples was trying to catch up with it, trying to make sense of it. The word was constantly pulling them forward, expanding their notions of what it meant to be persons of faith, expanding their notions of what Christ had committed to their charge in terms of proclamation and life and community.

The word is also intimate. It is "more intimate to us than we are to ourselves," to borrow a phrase from Augustine of Hippo. Likewise, we read in Deuteronomy 30:11-14: ". . . . this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea. . . No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe." There is a sense in which the word is already present within us, waiting to be born into consciousness. Hearing this intimate word involves being intensely present to our own lives, intensely present to the ebb and flow of the events that make us uniquely who we are, rather than trying to escape the demands of our life by projecting our energies and imagination onto something seemingly more exciting or more noble or more worthwhile. Hearing this intimate word means accepting the fact that the hidden treasure of God's intent is to be found in the soil of our own existence, in the field of our own heart. If we are not present to our own lives, then we cannot be present to the word.

Again, borrowing from Augustine of Hippo, "How can you draw close to God if you are far from your own self?" Yet, so many of us live at such a distance from our own true selves that we cannot hear the authentic word God is seeking to address to us. This notion of the interiority of the word is also found in a different way in Romans 8:26, where Paul speaks of the spirit working below the level of our consciousness. "The Spirit helps us in our weakness," he says, "for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words."

This suggests to me that there is a deep interior word, the word of the Spirit that is seeking to express itself over time. Sometimes we cannot hear because of our own anxieties, our own self-distancing, our own unwillingness to welcome the word as it really is to be found within us. Yet if we are faithful, the Spirit turns the soil more and more deeply, and the word finally can emerge and become one with our conscious word and then be lived in a whole-hearted way.

This quotation from Romans also liberates us from any notion that we are responsible for the validity of our own prayer. Nothing is more destructive to an authentic spirituality than endless preoccupation with the quality of one's own prayer: "Am I doing it right?" Paul sets us free. He says clearly and unambiguously that we do not know how to pray as we ought. It is the Spirit who does. To pray is to be present deliberately and humbly to whatever the Spirit is doing deep within us. Sometimes a period of prayer will be a profound season of silence, and nothing will happen. Yet, as John of the Cross reminds us, if we were aware of the fruits of our prayer as we perceived them, we would assign the success completely to ourselves.

Clearly, the fruit of our prayer has to happen beyond our own consciousness, and then it shows up in ways that we had not expected: courage at a moment when we thought we would be absolutely devastated; a capacity to speak a word of truth when we are scared to death and do not know what the effect will be if we say what we really think. Those are ways in which our prayer is rendered valid -- not by taking our pulse and noting that this has been a delicious half hour of unbridled consolation. The word is personal and identifying. It reveals to us something of God's call, as in Jeremiah 1:4: "The word of the Lord came to me saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.' "

Here I think of Mary as the one who most profoundly lived the mystery of the personal and identifying word. We have a wonderful sense of this in the infancy gospel of James -- which, although apocryphal, is nonetheless important in the iconography of the eastern church. Mary goes to the well in Nazareth, where Gabriel first approaches her. She is horrified and disconcerted; she rushes home, whereupon she finds a purple thread which she frantically begins to spin. This suggests to me that she needed to go back to something familiar to offset the disconcerting quality of the angelic encounter. So by her spinning she is saying: "Life is back to normal. I think. I hope." And Gabriel shows up a second time. Then she says, "Be it unto me according to your word." In so saying, Mary was not simply agreeing to be used for a particular function: to bear the word. She was saying yes to who she was called to be. God's address to her had to do with the integrity of her own person. It was not just that God needed her womb. God's word was: I love you and care about you intimately, for you to live into the full mystery of who you are and are called to be. This is part of what I ask you to do.

In saying yes, Mary's whole world was turned upside down. There is tremendous risk in saying yes to the word. Mary found herself in a profoundly ambiguous situation, one that almost led her husband to divorce her. Why, if our God is a God of clarity and directness, did the Incarnation happen in such a paradoxical and ambiguous way? Does this tell us something about how God actually works and moves and speaks in our own existence? I think so.

Mary, as the gospel of Luke goes on, clearly is open to the word. After the shepherds and angels have come and gone and she has heard angelic song, we are told that Mary treasured all of the words she had heard and pondered them in her heart. But there was more to come. When Jesus was presented in the temple, old Simeon said to her: "A sword will pierce your own soul too" (Luke 2:35). This was another dimension of the word she had to bear, a word which was shaping and forming her.

It is my sense that her yes was unsure and that it was out of mercy and kindness that the angel Gabriel before flitting off said: Oh, by the way, your kinswoman, Elizabeth, great in age and barren, is about the have a child, and she is in her sixth month. The subtext was: Maybe you should go to see her. Indeed, we are told in the gospel that Mary rushed in haste to be with Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child in her womb leapt, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out: "Blessed are you among woman and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord" (Luke 1:42).

Hearing those words Mary said, I do believe, and a deeper surrender occurred at that moment. Out of that more complete yes, provoked by the very human encounter with her kinswoman Elizabeth, Mary was able to sing: "My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:46). The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth teaches us that as the personal identifying word finds a home in us or draws us out of some place of safety and protection into the wildness of God's own desire and imagination. We need human friends who are companions along the way. They are not always friends, for sometimes critics speak the word more deeply than friends -- but they are fellow travelers. They show up to confirm the word we think we are hearing, which invites us to a deeper fidelity.

This word we listen to comes to us from all directions. As Mary's life went on she must have heard again and again in the back of her consciousness the words, "a sword will pierce your own soul too." There is that curious moment early on in the gospel when Jesus called together a band of disciples and was curing people. When his family heard of it, they rushed to restrain him because people were saying that he was crazy. We can just imagine Mary's thoughts: "Oh, my God, what is he up to now! I brought him up properly. He learned his father's craft -- how to make chairs and tables -- and now people are following him around and he's performing extravagant acts and talking about God's reign." It was a first touch of the sword, which must have made her wonder where all of this was going to take them. "What is this going to cost me, and him?" At the foot of the cross there must have been a certain resolution because the question finally had been answered. No sharper sword could pierce her heart.

Yet she bore the word right through the cross into the upper room with the disciples as they waited in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit. This continuum is one of listening, of being shaped and formed by the word -- of living into the mystery of her own personhood, day by day. That same vocation is held out to each one of us.

I am struck by a character in Gail Godwin's new novel Evensong who says: "Your vocation is something that keeps making more of you." Obviously, the word that Mary heard kept making more of her, not less of her, even though looking at the flow of her life from a distance one might say: what diminishment she suffered. The truth, however, was quite the opposite.

The personal and identifying word is not always easy to bear. It is not always easy to make room for it. I think here of some harsh words from the prophet Hosea (6:4-6), addressed to a wayward Israelite. As the Jerusalem Bible has it: "O Ephraim, how shall I deal with you? How shall I deal with you, Judah? Your loyalty to me is like the morning mist. Like dew that vanishes early. Therefore, I have lashed you through the prophets and torn you to shreds with my words. Steadfast love is my desire, not sacrifice. Not whole offerings but knowledge of God."

This process of stripping is to be drawn to a place of deeper loving, of knowing and being known. As the French writer Antoine de St. Exupéry says, "in anything at all perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness." The living word that God addresses to us in a variety of ways strips us down to nakedness. It confronts us with our own poverty and teaches us the lesson that Paul learned from the risen Christ, that Christ's power comes to full realization in the midst of weakness. This is absolutely at the heart of an authentic life in Christ.

The word that is personal and identifying is also purifying and transforming as it draws us deeper into God's mystery. The Word is also incarnate. It happens, and the happening of the word is Jesus. For me it is more important to say again and again that the Word of the Lord is a person not a book, although the person we speak of is the Lord of the book. It is one of the functions of Christ in Christ's own risenness to be the Lord of scripture. We see this clearly in Luke 24, the story of the road to Emmaus and its aftermath.

We know it well. Jesus, the risen Christ, walks along with the disciples, who do not recognize him. He takes them back through Moses and the prophets and the Psalms. Later, after he is recognized in the breaking of the bread, the disciples say: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was opening the scripture to us?" It is one of the ministries of the risen Christ to open scripture to us. Later we are told he opened the mind of the apostolic community to understand the scripture. When the scriptural word becomes a living word for us, it is because the risen Christ has met us in that word, has encountered us through the words of scripture. This of course happens through the agency of the spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit who continually opens the word to us.

It was not by accident, therefore, that Bernard of Clairvaux described holy scripture as the wine cellar of the Holy Spirit. He also describes scripture as a vast sea in which a lamb can paddle and an elephant can swim. The Spirit is described by Jesus in John 16 as the "one who will come in my name and the Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth and who will remind you of all that I have said to you and will take from what is mine and declare it to you."

The Spirit is constantly unfolding the mind and reality of Christ in the life of the community through, among other things, the word of scripture. Jesus also says, in the gospel of John, "I still have many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now" (John 16:12). This says to me that we do not have all the truth. Truth is developmental. It is progressive and, at least in our human terms, can never be fully known. The Spirit continues in our own day to draw from what is Christ's -- who in himself is the Truth -- and declare it to us in fresh and new ways.

All of this leads to a sense of God's word as multi-dimensional, as very broad, as possessing a number of aspects that we need to be aware of. I have spoken of the word encountered in scripture. We also encounter the word in the enacted scripture of the sacramental life of the church; as St. Ambrose exclaims, "You have shown yourself to me, O Christ, face to face. I have met you in your sacraments" (Apologia prophetae David).

So the question comes to us: do we as we approach a sacramental encounter for a moment think of meeting Christ face to face? Do we as we plan a liturgy think of it as an encounter with Christ? Or is it a brilliant manipulation of the rubrics that we hope will be aesthetically pleasing?

Do we see worship as dangerous? If not, we should not be in the worship business. Bread, wine, oil, water, and human touch are all used by God in Christ in wonderful and sometimes incredibly eccentric -- seemingly eccentric -- ways to proclaim life, to draw us more deeply into the mystery of our own identity.

Sometimes, sacramental encounters work in ways we had hardly foreseen. Sometimes, dimensions of a sacramental celebration which seem completely subordinate, if not irrelevant, become the stuff that the divine imagination uses to break through and bring us to a new state of consciousness and knowing.

Some years ago I prepared to make what I thought would be the confession of a lifetime. I spent a week-long retreat preparing for it. I decided that the time was right for a brilliant review of Frank Griswold's consummate sinfulness. I scoured and ruthlessly explored every nook and cranny. As I made my way to the encounter with the priest who was to hear this outpouring, I thought to myself, "I bet he's never heard a confession like this before." That should have tipped me off to the fact that something other than repentance was at work in me.

In any event, I entered into the priest's presence and poured out my list of things. Then I waited to see what would happen. I hoped for at least a gasp, but it did not come. Instead, horror of horrors, he smiled. And he said, "Frank, welcome to the human condition." That was an instance of "quick-ey'd love," to borrow from George Herbert, palpably present. The sacramental encounter with Christ on that occasion was in the smile and words of my confessor. The rest was irrelevant. I had been caught in a place of self-deception, and his compassionate smile brought it fully to light.

You never know what is going to happen when you enter into a sacramental encounter. The sacraments and scripture, the formal faith of the church enshrined in the creeds, the cumulative experience of the Christian community that we call tradition are all expressions of word. But we also experience the word as it happens in our own lives, as it presents itself to us in terms of events and circumstances in which we find ourselves, in things that impinge upon us from the larger world. That is also word. Gerard Manley Hopkins, commenting on the Principal and Foundation of the Ignatian exercises, says: "God's utterance of Himself, in Himself, is God the Word. Outside himself is this world. This world then is word, expression, news of God."

We have the church, the sacraments, the scriptures. We have the world and all that is going on in it, which is also word. As well, there is the intimate word ready to be kept which is always present within us, which is a manifestation of the Spirit's activity, the Spirit working within us with sighs too deep for words. The interaction of these different dimensions of word bring into being at any given moment what I can only call "the word of God to me right now." It happens when a piece of scripture that has been lifeless for years springs to life for no apparent reason and suddenly connects with the interior word that is related to what is going on in our lives and around us.

Let me give a homely example of what I mean. Some years ago, as I was rushing for a train after giving a talk to a group of clergy on the need for solitude and space in our lives (on my day off!), I took a flying leap onto the station platform and ruptured my Achilles' Tendon. It was the week before Lent began. That afternoon I lay in a hospital bed awaiting surgery. Various clergy came to call, and I have to say that clergy can be terrible at visiting other clergy in the hospital. All I heard were comments like, "So Frank, what the hell have you done to get out of Lent this year?"

Finally, a sensitive lay person came who asked how I was. Did I need anything? Being a good Episcopalian, I said that I wanted a Book of Common Prayer. Soon, she reappeared with one, and I proceeded to read Evening Prayer for that particular Tuesday. As I read the appointed psalm (94), I came across the verse: "As often as I said, 'My foot has slipped,' your love, O Lord, upheld me." That became the word of God -- or rather unleashed the word of God to me right then and there. I burst out laughing. The circumstances of my life, the scriptural word, the word within me all came together. What could have been a dreadful season became one of profound grace because of the orienting word that I received in the context of Evening Prayer that afternoon.

In order to stay open to God's word, however it may come to us, I rely upon three sentences. They help me to stay grounded amid the complexities and contradictions that accost me day by day. The first is: "By means of all created things without exception the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us." This sentence comes from Teilhard de Chardin's The Divine Milieu. There are stressful and anxious moments when I say to myself: "This too is how I'm being shaped and molded. All things without exception, even this that I wish I could run from, escape from, get out of, is part of God's way with me."

The second sentence comes from a Russian Orthodox monk who lived in the forests of Finland. When asked by a layperson what he has learned from his many years of prayer and monastic life he replies: "The very circumstances of your life will show you the way."

The third sentence comes from James Finley, a disciple of Thomas Merton: "A simple openness to the next human moment brings us into union with God in Christ."

Word is more than speech. It is act, event, occurrence. Christ happens as word. The whole world is word, and the question is: Are we available to the word? Are we undefended enough to receive the word? Is our heart sufficiently a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone to welcome the word? "If you continue in my word," says Jesus in the gospel of John (8:31-32), "you truly are my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free."

I am also aware that the word does not present itself fully formed. The word comes to us in various ways in the ebb and flow of our lives. Walter Brueggemann makes this observation in David's Truth (p. 16) about the scriptural word: "The Bible makes the truth available to us only as narrative, even if we want more." We have to live the truth, and in so doing we are obliged to acknowledge that we are not ready, as Jesus said to his disciples, for everything Christ might want to disclose to us. We have to grow into readiness for the next manifestation of the word, and the deeper demand that the word will make upon us. Brueggemann continues: "The truth comes relentlessly packaged in ambiguity, inscrutability, polyvalence." He adds, "our truth always comes with scars." This suggests that the word lashes us, purifies us, and in many ways wounds us in order that we might come more fully to life.

Recall in this context Rainer Maria Rilke's words, familiar to many of you, about the need to live the questions life presents to you. Often, the word of God presents itself to us as a question rather than an answer, as something to live and struggle with. In the course of living and struggling with word, not only alone but with others, a clarity emerges that allows us to have a foundation upon which to stand in order to live the next word or the next dimension of the word.

In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes: "Be patient with all that is unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek answers which cannot be given to you now because you would not be able to live them now. And the point is to live everything, to live the question now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

In The Four Quartets T. S. Eliot observes that there are "hints and guesses,"

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood is Incarnation.

What I think is meant here is the whole life of fidelity, of permeability, of being shaped and formed by the life and prayer of the church, encountering Christ and being encountered by Christ in scripture, and undergoing a constant process of metanoia, repenting of our own narrowness in order to receive more fully God's mystery.

This process leads to thought and action and must be translated into commitment and decision. As we move into commitment and decision, we find ourselves confronted by new questions, by the word that invites us to begin the whole process again. And so we do. It is by living this process personally and corporately that we acquire a heart and receive God's word.


In quantum physics, relationship is revealed as the structure of reality and the nature of truth. One of the interpreters of the new physics in terms of institutions and relationships is Margaret Wheatley, who reminds us that everything is constituted by relationship and that we live with webs of relationship. Everywhere we look, she says, we see complex, tangled, messy webs of relationship. In science we move more and more from thinking in terms of object to thinking in terms of relationship. One of our bishops, speaking about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle* at a recent meeting of The House of Bishops, pointed out that ours is not a world of either/or but of both/and. It is a world of complementarily, of unity expressed as diversity, in which two irreconcilable assertions can be true at the same time. I thought about his observation for awhile and later reread the definition of Christ's nature promulgated by the Council of Chalcedon, 451 C.E., which is printed conveniently among the Historical Documents of the church in the back of The Book of Common Prayer.

In that ancient text defining orthodoxy, "Definition of the Divine and Human Natures in the Person of Christ," it is stated that the two natures of Christ are recognized "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union." Here we are confronted by irreconcilable opposites held together in one truth. This insight helped me to delve more deeply into the world of the new physics, as a world in which the church has been living for centuries without knowing it.

Parker Palmer, the Quaker educator, says that we have been trained in disconnection and taught to distance ourselves in an objectivist mode from nature, from God, and from our own souls. They become abstract artifacts. Leaders are schooled in disconnection -- objectifying, defining, describing, and disconnecting. He tells a story about a biologist, Barbara McClintock, working to develop new and better strains of corn. Highly regarded as a world expert in her field, Dr. McClintock was once asked to reveal the secret that made her so able in her field of research. She replied: "I lean into the kernel. I lean into the kernel."

In other words, she saw her life of scientific work in terms of relationship, not just disconnection and objectification. She saw the objective and the subjective held together, both/and. Fully human and fully divine. Both/and -- and therefore a paradox.

It is interesting to note as one looks at the early heresies in the life of the Christian community how many of them had to do with the inability to deal with paradox. Jesus either had to be fully human or fully divine. Because trying to live with both/and made no sense, heresies were born. One of the characteristics of orthodoxy, therefore, is a capacity for paradox.

Related to paradox is the notion of ambiguity. What could be more complex or tangled or messy in terms of good sense, logic, order, and clarity than the Incarnation -- the hint half guessed, the gift half understood. According to Matthew, an act of God, Mary's pregnancy, seems to Joseph as an instance of infidelity and sin. Only an angelic intervention can set the record straight. Why did God choose to enflesh God's own self among us in such an ambiguous manner? Ecclesiastes 7:13 provides a context for the question. "Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked?" Indeed, who can make straight what God has made crooked? So much of our theological enterprise has been an effort to straighten things out when God has said: Please, leave it alone. It is in the realm of mystery. You know as much as you need to know. You know I love you and your life comes to full term in response to my love. And as Thomas Merton has observed: "It is not a question of either/or but of all in one, of wholeness, whole heartedness and unity which finds the same ground of love in everything."

The question then is how we find the word in the midst of so many words. How do we find clarity in the midst of ambiguity? The answer is catholicity. God's fullness made manifest in Jesus Christ is what I mean by catholicity. God's fullness welcomes us and enfolds us in Baptism, whereby we are caught up into "solidarities not of our own choosing," as Rowan Williams puts it. Who indeed but God would have chosen some of the people who share membership in the body of Christ? We see here the divine sense of humor!

Catholicity is trinitarian fullness, and, of course, the life of the trinity is profoundly a life of relationship, and a life of truth that draws us into what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls "the dance of dispossession," which is the very life of God.

Fullness is expressed in relationship -- or more properly, fullness is expressed in the mystery of communion. The Spirit of truth who guides us into all truth, drawing from what is Christ's, is also the minister of communion. Truth is experienced in some measure as communion; indeed, the contemporary Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas observes that truth is discovered in communion. We discover truth together. Seeking truth is not a solitary occupation. Truth is discovered in communion with Christ and in communion with one another, Christ being the One in whom the fullness of God dwells. Christ himself being the Truth, as well as the Way and the Life. Therefore, communion is not only "mystic" and "sweet," as we sing in the hymn "The Church's One Foundation," but communion is also rigorous, demanding, and extremely costly. This communion, which is grounded in catholicity, is constantly evolving and deepening. Catholicity is never fully possessed by the church at any moment. It is an eschatological reality.

A characteristic of catholicity is that it causes walls of division to break down. All isms are overcome by catholicity in the fullness of time, and in accordance with to the divine intention, which expresses itself in Baptism whereby we are drawn out of our selves and our separate existences into God's all embracing fullness.

If, as we are taught, sacraments affect what they signify, then Baptism is indeed the ground of communion. As Merton says: "As long as we are on earth the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another. Because of this love is the resetting of a body of broken bones." This puts me in mind of the building up of the body of Christ, which lies at the heart of the Baptismal mystery. Ezekiel 37, which we read in the context of the Great Vigil of Easter, is about the resetting of broken bones. Through Baptism we are all caught up in this resetting of broken bones, which is the work of love in us. The Eucharist then is the unfolding of the mystery of communion over time, by which we are formed into a people of communion. The Eucharist is not simply an edifying experience. It is an act of Christ, whereby we are made signs and ministers of communion. We are brought together in the reality of Christ's own risenness, which is a costly and excruciating process of being formed and re-formed over and over again.

We have exhausted clubhouse Anglicanism. We are faced with the need to go deeper below the shifting sands of culture to the bedrock of a faith forged in communion, which depends not on whether we like one another or agree with one another. It depends on whether we have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, who is our rock. If that is the case then we are formed into a community that can only be true to itself as it becomes a genuine community of communion.

Baptism and Eucharist make us who were are called to be, but we have undervalued the power of the sacraments to shape and form us. We have become, in many instances, technicians of the sacred. Have we perhaps become like the church in Ephesus accused in the Book of Revelation of having lost "the love [they] had at first" (Rev. 2:4). Although we may be indeed forthright, stalwart, and committed, have we lost the ground of our being? Have we lost the capacity to listen and welcome "the implanted word" with an attentive and open heart?

The collapse of Anglican certitude, and the smugness that went with it, means that we find ourselves somewhere in the wilderness like the children of Israel. In that wilderness God is forming us more deeply into a community of communion. This is a harsh and dreadful process, but it is also filled with boundless joy. "What we shall be has yet to be revealed."

Integral to a life of communion is the capacity for conversation. In 1996, I represented the Episcopal Church at a conference held in Malines, Belgium, to commemorate the anniversary of a series of conversations held in that city between 1921 and 1925. They constituted the first formal encounter between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion since the Reformation. The principle participants in the conversation were the Cardinal Archbishop of Malines, Cardinal Mercier, and Lord Halifax, a leading layman in the Church of England. At the beginning of the conversations, Cardinal Mercier's intent was to gain the submission of Halifax, and thus then others of a Catholic sensibility, to Rome.

I arrived in time for an opening service in the cathedral and was seated at the head of the aisle. In front of me, before a Baroque high altar, stood a modest oval table made of wood. After the service, I went up to look more closely and saw a small plaque affixed to the side that identified it as the table around which the Malines Conversations took place so many years before. I suddenly had a sense of the domestic nature of the conversations. I had visualized lecterns and vast assemblies and ecclesiastical rhetoric flung back and forth in a grand hall. Clearly, however, this had been a domestic event conducted around a dining room table. Cardinal Mercier, Lord Halifax, and the others involved in the conversations would have read their papers, had their discussions -- and then the table was cleared for a meal, and the conversation undoubtedly continued over the meal.

It is interesting to note that in the context of the conversations Cardinal Mercier's intent was changed. By their end, he was saying: Anglicanism, yes, in union with Rome, but not absorbed. When he was on his death bed, he sent for Halifax. When Halifax arrived, the Cardinal took off his ring and gave it to his Anglican friend. The ring now graces a chalice in York minster which is used on ecumenical occasions. Clearly, the two men had become intimate friends through a process of conversation around the table, sharing food and their lives as well. The perspective of each, particularly that of Cardinal Mercier, had been profoundly altered by making room for the reality and truth of the other.

At the conference that followed that opening service, Cardinal Mercier's present-day successor, Cardinal Danieels, observed that "institutions do not make good lovers. People do." He went on to stress the importance of personal relationship and mutual affection in the ecumenical enterprise. Personal relationship and mutual affection, however, apply in all places in which we as Christian women and men find ourselves, particularly when we are with people with whom we disagree.

One of the saddest realities of present-day life, both in the church and beyond, is that we tend to lead with our conclusions. We do not stop to take the time to solicit from one another respectfully and with care the presuppositions that lead to those conclusions. In conversation, one has to take that time. One has to acknowledge another's conclusions, and then go on to ask: "Now help me understand how you got there -- and let me share with you how I got to where I am."

Conversation is a sacred enterprise because it is about living the mystery of communion. In conversation my understanding of the word who is Christ engages with your sense of the word who is Christ to you. My perception of truth meets your perception of truth. I am reminded not only of Brueggemann's words about the polyvalence of truth but of David Tracy's observation that truth is pluriform. It is multifaceted. Therefore, I need your truth, just as you need my truth, if my truth and your truth are to be enlarged and have any possibility of more fully reflecting God's own truth, God's own fullness, God's own catholicity.

In this way the Spirit of truth guides and unfolds the mystery of Christ's truth in the life of the community. Conversation is not only a sacred enterprise, it is a form of asceticism. It requires discipline. It begins with self-scrutiny and self-knowledge. According to the Desert Tradition, "unawareness is the root of all evil." How often do we enter into conversation in no way conscious of what we bring in terms of our own subjectivity? We simply are prepared to deliver the truth to another.

In this regard, I take seriously the significance of psychological typology in understanding how we perceive things, seek to assess them, and make meaning in the context of our own lives. There are those of us who live with a kind of open-endedness and are energized by notions of unfolding truth. Others ground themselves in the givenness of data and specificity. Whatever our personality type may be, it informs our sense of what is true and determines our sense of reality and the way things ought to be. Consequently, when we enter into conversation, we must be aware of our own biases and prejudgments, our own way of coming at things. How easy it is to become impatient when we are in the presence of those whose ways of making meaning are different from our own. Our impatience should warn us to slow down and remind us to allow for another way making meaning.

This awareness is a necessary part of the asceticism of conversation. Authentic community is built on the ground of conversation, which takes time and commitment. We cannot walk away from things. We cannot reduce people to a dismissive definition. It is unfortunate that dismissive language is used so broadly among us these days. Such language dishonors fellow members of the Body of Christ.

The necessary condition for conversation is that each person enters with self-respect. We honor one another's capacity for self-giving and also for self-restraint. We receive one another with reverence: Christ dwells in you as Christ dwells in me. We do not begin by saying, I disagree. We begin rather with, tell me more. We must learn to think with others and not simply about them. How did you come to this position? We think with others and not simply about them. How often we engage in conversation waiting for our moment to go in for the kill. That is not the way conversation becomes communion and leads to community. One has to acknowledge that one brings one's own bias and sometimes it's good to lay those things on the table and say: I come at this out of this particular history or I frame this question in this particular way because of these particular things.

Conversation is a form of sacred play. It has a certain to-and-fro quality about it. It is letting go, giving room for the risen Christ to enter in, play, and possibly surprise us through the truth of another, through our own capacity to accept the truth that changes us, that modifies our position, just as others find their positions modified.

Conversation and conversion, I note, come from the same Latin root. Conversation is related to the passive form of the Latin verb conversare which means "to turn around." In its passive form it becomes conversari "to be turned around." In the Rule of St. Benedict, conversatio is used to describe the fundamental dynamic of monastic life: being turned around again and again by the elements -- liturgical, human, and historical -- that make up life in community in Christ at a particular time in a particular place. It is the Incarnation once again.

John E. Lawyer, in an article entitled "Conversatio in the Rule of St. Benedict," which appeared in Cistercian Studies (1992:1), says about conversatio that it "means to be turned around frequently. By extension, it means to have dealings with, to live with, to be shaped by." According to Lawyer, conversatio has several aspects. The discipline of entering into conversation requires duration. It refers to something that is ongoing over time. It is dynamic; it stems from a verb of motion. It also carries a social connotation: we are shaped and turned through association with others. "It is usually other people who knock off our rough edges," Lawyer says. So, conversatio is really a process of conversion that requires a willingness to be turned and to turn. It presupposes that truth happens to us largely through relationship with others, in encountering their truth, which we pray reflects the truth which is in Christ, who is himself the Truth. To take a phrase from William Law, conversatio is "the process of Christ," the process of Christ mediated by community, the church, by the Body of Christ. Those who are willing to enter into the exacting and playful reality of conversation will find themselves deepened in the mystery of communion with the One who is the Truth. Conversation on this level requires continual repentance -- metanoia -- and change of heart. It requires deeper, more careful, and attentive listening with the ear of the heart. It requires the kind of repentance Kathleen Norris suggests: renouncing narrow and sectarian points of view which are not large enough for God's mystery.

The testing of spirits happens most effectively in community. We know that what we hear is indeed of the Lord by testing the spirits, as 1 John 4:1 makes clear. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God." We are called to discern whether we are genuinely seeking what is of God, or trying to bend God's will to meet our own. How easy it is for us to decide on a particular course of action and then say: God, isn't this a splendid idea? Won't you please give me some confirming sign that this is what you want? Discernment of spirits, however, requires means a genuine seeking for the authentic word of God, and that means listening openly and carefully to the various contrary voices that come to us -- voices that enlarge our own truth and point out its limitations.

The devil has no truth in him, we are told by Jesus in the gospel of John. He does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). Distortion, misrepresentation, and caricature -- maybe not an out-and-out lie -- are some of the ways in which the Evil One works among us. Once we have reduced others to caricature, we do not have to take them seriously. We can discount their truth because we have discounted them. They are an "X" or a "Y" or a "Z," and therefore I can dismiss them. It is my experience that in the life of the church it is not out-and-out misrepresentation of one another but our little misrepresentations, our exaggerations and the way we affix labels to one another that become the way in which we find ourselves in thrall to the Evil One. Given this propensity, we have to ask ourselves: What are some of the biases I bring? What are some of the pieces of caricature that I have simply made part of my own reality that keep me from more deeply hearing the authentic word that is being spoken by another?

"Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" (2 Cor. 11:14), a greater good, a more noble purpose, a more pristine church. Usually in the life of the church temptation comes upon us in the form of some all-absorbing urgency, some exaggeration of generosity.

Some of the idols we create for ourselves become so all-dominating and all-consuming that we lose touch with human reality, the human community struggling in its own bumbling way to be faithful because we imagine that there is unrelieved rectitude out there somewhere. It is a rectitude we cannot possibly manifest in our own lives. Nonetheless we claim that it exists and judge one another by it.

Because we know how easily we can get caught and entrapped, we need to seek God's word of truth together. It is a word that God speaks to us, inviting us into a life of community and communion, a life that allows the love of God to flow freely through us into the world. Thomas Merton says this about a life of conversation, conversion, and communion, "If I allow Christ to use my heart in order to love my brothers and sisters with it, I will soon find that Christ, loving in me and through me, has brought to light Christ in my brothers and sisters. And I will find that the love of Christ in my brothers and sisters, loving me in return has drawn forth the image and reality of Christ in my own soul."

It is our vocation to allow Christ to use our hearts. It is our vocation to come to maturity in Christ who is our Truth. We do so by attending to the Christ present in the truth of one another. We do so by being turned and shaped by the community of faith. Through conversation our hearts are expanded, and we can embrace more and more God's own fullness and catholicity. In this way we, in our own time, make the Risen Christ present in our world.

* [Back to text]  The uncertainty principle was developed by theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg in 1927. It, and its quantum mechanical view of the world, represented a radical departure from the Newtonian worldview. In sum, the principle states that the more accurately you want to determine an object's position, the higher the frequency of light you must shine on it. The higher the frequency of light, the more direction of the object is affected. In other words, the better you are able to observe the object, the more you change it.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.
Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1998-99, Vol. 49 Issue 1.