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Fraternity in Carmel - Dialogue in the Spirit

Fraternity in Carmel -  Dialogue in the Spirit

by the Carmelite Community of Pozzo di Gotto (Sicily)

Dialogue is an interpersonal communication where I reveal and give to the other person something of myself. The other person likewise gives me something of themselves. Giving-receiving; gift; reciprocal communication; welcome; reciprocal listening: these together constitute the nucleus and basic dynamism of dialogue.

On a spiritual-theological level, dialogue becomes the moment par excellence of a meeting animated by the action of the Spirit (which is why we speak of "dialogue in the Spirit"). It is in the Spirit (who is the meeting of the Father and the Son, the reciprocal giving of the Lover and Loved), "poured into our hearts" (Rom 5:5; Jn 14:16-17), that dialogue with another person and the communication of our faith with our brothers is possible.

3.1 Pedagogical options

In Ecclesiam Suam Art. 47, Paul VI wrote that dialogue is "an art of spiritual communication". Like any art it needs to be gradually assimilated by means of some basic pedagogical criteria. We will look at some of them.

Rediscovering the face of the other person as a mystery, as something authentically transcendent, as an "event". By the simple fact of being an "us", them standing in front of me as someone distinct from me, in all their richness and fragility, turns my horizons completely upside down; they call me to be responsible in their regard. They make me capable of giving a responsible reply. They enable me to rediscover my identity of "being-for another". They regenerate my openness to goodness. This rediscovery of the face of the other person requires a deconstruction of my egocentricity in order to build my "being-for-another". Concretely it requires the deconstruction of four types of attitude: an attitude of centrism and superiority (this graduates differences into a hierarchy); an attitude of friendship and enmity (this divides humanity into friends and enemies and lies at the root of the so called "ideology of the enemy"); an attitude of competition (this determines relationships with others on the dialectic of winning/losing and the sole objective is not co-operation or solidarity but simply winning); an attitude of conformism (this is the attitude of passivity, of simple alienation, of lack of creativity).

Placing value on silence as a gestation period necessary for any true and authentic verbal communication. Silence (which is quite different from remaining dumb!) encourages the individual to look inwards and to discover the truth inside themselves, face to face with the contemplative Word of God. Human words accumulated without reflection are simply mundane things, mere chatter and pure exhibitionism that only engenders superficial and banal communication.

Placing value on time and space, we cannot communicate at speed and in one fell swoop. Communication needs a certain amount of time to be delivered, gathered and assimilated.

Teaching ourselves communicative transparency: i.e., learning to erase ambiguities and hidden meanings. We should bear in mind though, that in this life our transparency will never be total. There will always be light and shadow in the sphere of interpersonal communication. Perfect clarity of truth will remain an unattainable goal. Hence the need to recompose the various "fragments" of truth which each of us carries in our lives and our choices.

Teaching ourselves the importance of listening. Listening means becoming receptive cavities, understanding and gathering what the other person is communicating; their reasons, feelings, "vibrations", to the extent of putting ourselves into their shoes.

Teaching ourselves about reciprocity. Dialogue is not a one way system. Quite simply there is no dialogue if communication does not invite a reply. This means that both the listener and the speaker must make the effort to put themselves into the world of the person to whom they wish to speak.

Teaching ourselves to deal with conflicts and overcome them through dialogue. "To overcome conflicts and ensure that normal tensions do not become dangerous for the unity of the Church, all of us need to be confronted with the Word of God. By abandoning our subjective points of view we can seek the truth wherever it may be; i.e., in the authentic interpretation of the divine Word given by the magisterium of the Church. Seen in this light, mutual listening, respect and avoidance of hasty judgements, patience, ensuring that faith (which unifies) is not subject to opinions, changing fashions or ideological bandwagons (which divide), are all characteristics of a dialogue within the Church that must be assiduous, undertaken willingly and sincerely."

Pointing everyone towards a superior gift: to a good offeredto all, which is the result of the richness and positive attitude of every speaker; showing that this good is not the property of any one person but is a gift offered to all, so that all may make it bear fruit.

Cultivating meekness. Christ Himself urges us to learn from Him; "Learn from me, that I am meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11:29). "Dialogue is not proud, haughty or arrogant. Its authority is intrinsic to the truth it expounds, to the love it spreads, to the example it proposes; it is not a command or an imposition. It is peaceful; it avoids means of violence; it is patient and generous."

Cultivating faith, "both in the virtue of our own words and in the listening attitude of the correspondent; promoting confidence and friendship; involving hearts in a mutual adhesion to a good which excludes all egotistic aims".

Cultivating pedagogical prudence, "which takes into account the psychological and moral conditions of the person who is listening (cf. Mt 7:6); whether they be a child, uneducated, unprepared, diffident or hostile, and to try to understand their sensibilities, in order to change one’s approach in a reasonable way so as not to appear unsympathetic and incomprehensible. When dialogue is conducted in this way we can see the combining of truth with charity; of intelligence with love".

3.2 The most common forms of dialogue in the Spirit today

Dialogue can come in many different shapes and sizes, from the daily and informal to the more institutionalised: walking with a brother or a friend, writing a letter, making a telephone call, working together, eating together, praying together, travelling together, spending free time together, taking part in a meeting; these are all forms of dialogue and communication which need to be taken into account and evaluated. Here we wish to limit ourselves to the so called institutionalised forms of dialogue employed in a group or community to help them grow as a fraternity in the Lord. We shall call them institutionalised because they are the mature fruit of a long experience of community and groups in the history of the Church. In fact there are forms of dialogue already found in the early christian communities, e.g., community sharing of the Word (1 Jn 1:3; Eph 5:18-20; Col 3:16-17); community discernment (1 Tim 5:21; 1 Jn 4:1), fraternal correction (Mt 18:15-20). We find other forms of dialogue that have matured in contemporary groups and movements e.g., revision of life, the elaboration of the community project, fraternal promotion, permanent formation. We will take a closer look at some of these.

a. Communication of the Word that has been heard

For the Word of God to become the corner-stone in building up the community, the Word needs to be circulated among its members. The Word needs the service of our voice, not just to be proclaimed, but also to be re-expressed and to ring out when faced with new situations and new personal and ecclesial journeys.

Each time a brother or friend shares the Word he has read, meditated upon, contemplated and experienced, it becomes nourishment for the community; it is the gift of the Word "made flesh" in the life of the community. Within this Word made flesh we can discern without prejudice, the community's hopes, joys, pains and expectations. It is the Word that speaks through my brother!

To experience this form of dialogue we need to practice epiclesis, i.e., invoking the Spirit to create an atmosphere of silence and prayer.

b. Community discernment

No matter how much the christian life tries to be faithful to the Gospel, there will always be lots of ambiguities. To deal with this we need spiritual discernment on both a personal and community level. This involves the capacity of learning to experiment with applying God's plan of salvation in the circumstances of daily life, the capacity of knowing how to perceive the creative action of God present in every created thing (the signs of the times) which is often hidden and side-lined by the decisions of individuals (1 Jn 4:1). On the community level, discernment is a spiritual process by which a community, putting together the opinions of its members within the context of an atmosphere of prayer, can perceive God acting and be aware of what is the best thing to do (Rom 12:2) here and now, so that the community can be guided by the action of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:5-8).

What are the fundamental criteria for discernment? First of all, the fruits of life. Discernment is authentic if individuals grow on a human level and on the level of faith, maturing in their vocation and mission. But these fruits are harvested only after a certain time and after detailed analysis. We therefore need other criteria for evaluation.

Listening to the normative sources i.e., the Word of God, the Magisterium of the Church, a particular tradition (in our case the experience of Carmel through the centuries) as signposts for the journey to be undertaken.

A comparison with other experiences, other disciplines so as to be able to make a more "global" comparative analysis of situations. The essential elements of community discernment are: dialogue, necessary to formulate the problem and identify all of its aspects by listening to various opinions and then making a decision; community prayer, to compare the Word of God with the ideal of the chosen way of life (in our case the charism and mission of Carmel); contemplative reflection and operative decision, to orientate the common action.

c. Elaborating the community way of life

The community way of life is the means by which a community outlines the characteristics of its identity, offers suggestions for improving itself in the sphere of being and acting, and gives us competent operative indications. In concrete terms, the community way of life attempts to translate the charismatic and spiritual patrimony of Carmel for our actual community socio-ecclesial situation, making the community the responsible subject of fraternal and apostolic life; creating a strategic frame of mind by examination, research, mutual regard and respect and community discernment. The aim of this is to identify priorities, objectives, stages, subjects and operative means that are shared by all; harmonising the primacy of the individual with the common good; placing the spiritual goods of individuals (attitudes, personal charisms, capabilities) in common and at the service of all in order to foster coresponsibility; harmonising community life and mission; situating the community in its particular context (local church and territory); keeping alive the memory of values to be interiorised.

But how do we articulate the community way of life? It is essentially based on three active verbs: seeing, judging and acting.

Seeing: starting with the analysis of the problems and situations that face the community; pressing necessities in the local territory; needs and requirements of the local church; directions from the provincial and general chapter. The help of experts, lay, religious, clergy, may be employed.

Judging: by referring to the values (Word of God, magisterium, charism and mission of Carmel) and coming to a community discernment of priorities. Here, too, the help of experts may be called upon.

Acting: establishing goals, objectives, specific areas, avoiding the imbalance of abstract idealism and appeasing the status quo, evaluating the actual resources, potential to be activated, the first steps to take and subjects and means.

We should bear in mind that the community way of life is not an absolute: it is simply a means that allows us to indicate a common purpose. After an appropriate length of time a valuation has to be made in relation to the objectives, the means and the quality (not so much quantity) of the results achieved. If made sincerely and responsibly, the valuation guarantees continuity and becomes the starting point of another journey.

d. Revision of life

We are a community on the move: a small portion of a people, the people of God, on a pilgrimage towards our homeland, the most perfect community of the Trinity, of which we have already tasted, but do not yet fully possess as our own. Our pilgrimage requires conversion and renewal i.e., a valuation of our journey of faith, of our individuality in the sphere of being and acting. This is what we mean by "revision of life". In general, the most common method is seeing, judging and acting. The object may be an event that has interested the community; each member of the community communicates how they have experienced it (seeing); the causes, reasons and consequences of the event are analysed in the light of the Word of God (judging); the community then attempts to identify the appropriate attitude and course of action to be taken (acting). Or as we saw earlier, it may be one particular aspect of the community way of life.

e. Fraternal correction and affirmation

We know that fraternal correction is a command of Jesus ("Go and warn him... bring it to the assembly.... do unto others"); it is a similar command to that of fraternal love (Jn 13:34; cf. Les 19:17-18). We must also know that correction made by us must be based on God's pedagogy; "He reproves the one he loves" (Prov 3:12; Rev 3:19) and behaves towards the person who errs like a doctor and a parent (Heb 12:7-11). For this reason Church tradition has always linked fraternal correction with charity. Indeed it affirms that we must correct with charity.

From this we can reach our first conclusion: in so far as we are not capable of correcting our brother with charity, we fail to fulfil the commandment of fraternal love. There is another reason that urges us to consider the importance of fraternal correction, that of responsibility. Every believer is called to feel responsible for the other person, to be a guardian of his brother's life and vocation (Eccl 4:9-11; Les 19:17;
2 Tim 3:5; Gal 6:1-2). This responsibility is, in reality, another dimension of the commandment of fraternal love.

From this we can reach a second conclusion; we are called to correct our brother because we love him and feel responsible for both his human and christian life. We also feel responsible for the evil he has done.

What is the fundamental criterion of fraternal correction? The answer is charity. This is the theological virtue that determines whether correction is appropriate. If correction runs the risk of dividing the community, or is not seen as a help, or if it provokes scandal, it is better to postpone it to a more opportune moment. However, it should not be postponed through laziness, shame, connivance, fear of comebacks or rancour. Nor should it be postponed when there is a danger that, by not correcting a brother, he may fall even deeper into sin with irreparable harm both to himself and the community.

Furthermore, it is not appropriate to correct someone who harbours hatred, revenge or a persecution complex. Rather, it is appropriate to correct someone who has the other's good at heart, who is patient and moderate, who hates sin and loves the sinner.

Seen in the light of this fundamental criterion of charity, what predispositions are required in the person who has to correct? We should explain at once that we are talking about predispositions for one simple reason; correction is not easy, neither for the person who receives it nor the person who gives it. In fact, it is the person who administers correction, (depending on the circumstances, another brother or the person responsible in the community), who experiences the greater difficulty. This is why he needs the necessary predisposition, recognising his own weakness and his own sin (Lk 6:39-42). He then needs to fast and pray so that the efficacy of the correction depends on God alone.

This predisposition allows us to approach another person in a disarming way without any traces of pride or vain glory, simply strong in the Gospel. Our method is that indicated by Matthew 18:15-20: first a personal approach, then a small group and, finally, before the whole community. But this method should be integrated, if we can say that about the Word of God, with fraternal concern. In other words, the erring brother should not just be criticised negatively. His positive and good points should also be acknowledged. Experience teaches us that personal and community correction should proceed in the following way: begin with the brother's positive attributes, then point out the negative elements (the reason for correction) and finally, conclude with another positive contribution so that evil is seen to be defeated by good (Rom 12:21). This is how we become instruments of God's will, which creates what is good in the people God loves. We can see how fraternal concern may be understood as something quite distinct from correction. Its aim is to embrace all that is good, true and beautiful which God is creating in our midst through life itself, through work and through the efforts of our brothers.

f. Permanent formation

There is no church document which does not recommend ongoing education. Lay people, religious, and clergy are all exhorted to revive the gift that God has sown in us. We are dealing here with being open to the signs of the Spirit visible in our present age in order to live our gift of vocation ever more faithfully by integrating all its aspects, human and christian, social and spiritual, cultural and pastoral.

As we know only too well, this undertaking is extremely difficult to carry out by ourselves. It is easier and more profitable to carry out together in community or in groups where everyone, with the help of proper communication, full of evangelical wisdom, becomes the teacher of others, a support and a prophetic stimulus. Through this communication we share not only more or less "up-to-date" ideas, but we also get to know each other better, understand each other better and so are able to collaborate more enthusiastically in pastoral work.

As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister." 


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