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Listening to the Holy Spirit: A synodal spiritual practice

"One of the most important features to emerge for our present understanding is the sense that synodality is not only a theology but a spiritual practice...To be a Christian is to have a 'synodal vocation' and this grows through the spiritual life." The International Theological Commission, "Synodality in the life and mission of the Church" (2018), 43.

This is the second is a series of blogs on the spirituality that underpins synodal practices. Why this and why now? As we approach the second assembly of the Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis has already warned us not to expect the hot button issues to be resolved. What should we expect then? Another experience of the spiritual practices that constitute a synodal Church. So these blogs will help us attune our ears and begin or continue these practices ourselves on the way to fully embracing the spiritual practices that make us synodal. It's my hope that we will also understand the content of the Instrumentum laboris and the activities that are part of each day because we understand synodality as a spiritual practice. We'll see if that hope pans out...

A wise teacher/pastor paved the way for my faith journey with these words, "There is a lot you can understand intellectually about Roman Catholicism. It has a rich intellectual tradition. But there comes a point at which that no longer suffices and you have to make the choice to drop into the Mystery that is faith...or not." I doubt he knew it at the time, but he gave me the roadmap for my journey, a map I've handed on to many others. I offer it to you today as we contemplate what it means to "listen to the Holy Spirit." There's a lot we can understand with our minds, and plenty of practices. But really, this calls for the kind of faith that drops into the Mystery of God-with-us, of Jesus Christ who ascended into heaven and of the gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus sent to be with us until he comes again. It starts with the faith statement, "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life..." Without this Mystery of grace, none of what we can understand or do makes a whit of difference. So, if you believe in this Holy Spirit, alive and at work today, then come along with me as we start to understand how to listen to the Spirit, a fundamental task of synodality.

I'm going to be drawing from two sources for this blog: the practices that were part of the first assembly of the Synod on Synodality, and the Vatican document entitled Towards a Spirituality for Synodality I'll be abbreviating this document with SS and citing its paragraphs so you can find them for yourself.

So how do we listen to the Holy Spirit?

  • We set the stage. We prepare. One of the potentially overlooked steps the delegates to the Synod on Synodality undertook was an extensive period of personal preparation. You see, we don't naturally listen to the Holy Spirit. We have to intend to do so and then enter into some particular practices to make it possible. We have to prepare.

  • We have a guide/spiritual director. This person or group of people provides us with Scripture, prayer practices, reflection questions, and metaphors/images to help us make space for the Holy Spirit to speak. And we follow their direction, trusting that all others who are going to be engaged in this type of listening are doing so as well.

  • We trust in the imago Dei in which we are all made, imbued with God's Spirit, and in the working of the Spirit through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation to make us new creations, capable of this intimacy with the Father. This means we know, deeply know, that every person who speaks breathes upon us the breath of the Spirit, so we receive their messages with reverence, respect and curiosity.

  • We continue our preparation to listen to the Spirit as a community, bringing our individual preparations together. Why? Because synodality is defined as "journeying together". The delegates went on a three-day guided retreat. during which they created the communal space within which the Holy Spirit would be able to speak. They lived out the truth that "synodality cannot be realized or sustained unless it is grounded in the prayer of the Church and the faithful people of God." (SS 25) During this retreat they continued their individual prayer, but did so in light of the powerful communal ecumenical prayer that sent them off, and within the graces of daily Eucharist.

  • We know how to identify and share the movements of the Holy Spirit within our own lives. We can tell the stories, share the circumstances, and give concrete testimony of the living presence of the Holy Spirit from our personal experiences, and we recognize that our faith is increased when we listen to these stories.

  • We revere the ways in which the Spirit has already spoken to us in the Scriptures and through our Tradition, searching them as a means to hear the Spirit speaking today through them. We know also that the Spirit is speaking in the signs of our times, through different knowledge streams that can foster understanding, and through the hopes, dreams, joys and sorrows of our fellow pilgrims.

  • We are learning how to classify movements of the Spirit. Ignatian spirituality gives us the terms consolations and desolations. Consolations are steeped in gratitude for what God has done, above all in the gift of Christ and the Holy Spirit who gathers, sustains, and guides us in our service of God and neighbor (SS, 34). Ignatius called consolation "every increase in hope, faith, and charity, and all interior joy which calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Creator and Lord.” (Spiritual Exercises 316). Desolations, on the other hand, are characterized by such things as a loss of faith in the process and of gratitude for God's consoling presence. Desolation can be observed when participants become overwhelmed by complexity and obstacles, become fearful and immobilized, or begin to seek their own security. Desolation finds participants wearied by the struggles, and soured by conflicts and distractions, and thus may want to find false consolation in things of their own construction or settling for less than what the Holy Spirit is calling for (SS 34).

  • We become familiar intellectually, and then through practice, with two specific synodal practices: Conversation in the Spirit and Discernment in Common.

I am going to stop here. The next blog will talk some more about how to listen to the Spirit by a very particular approach to beauty and through the practice of discernment. So I'd like to end this with a question: To what degree are you personally preparing to be able to listen to the Holy Spirit?

Why this focus on personal preparation? First, it's essential that we, the baptized, prepare ourselves for this most important work of discovering what the Spirit wants of us, the children of God, followers of Jesus Christ, at this time in history. There's a bunch of individual work we need to do before we come together.

There's a second reason why and it's my response to those who ask me what we are supposed to be doing while our ecclesial leaders are not focusing on synodality. THIS is what we do: we prepare ourselves to be able to listen to the Holy Spirit, we invite others into this preparation, we form small Christian communities intent on learning how to listen to the Spirit, and then we listen together. We create the space and provide the necessary spiritual dispositions for this listenng to be possible.

"A synodal Church is a listening Church." (Preparatory Document, p.34) It is attentive to all the ways God communicate's God's self. It is attentive to the movements of the world and the many voices that are raised in lament, protest, supplication and witness. A listening Church is attentive to the many different narratives of lives, cultures and peoples. One could say that it is a place of narrative hospitality (SS 25-26).

Friends, it's clear to me that this kind of listening will take preparation on both an individual and a communal basis. So, while we wait on our ecclesial leaders, we turn to this individual work, offering the gift of our intentional attention to our personal spiritual growth. Join us! Tell us what you are discovering. Share your stories here and we'll encourage one another with them as we wait in joyful hope for the voice of the Spirit!

Photo Credit: Pat Clement. Original art for the Pentecost Vigil Project by Jerry Dueñas

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