Continuing the conversation: diversity’s gifts and challenges

Posted on July 29th, 2019

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” James Baldwin (1924-1987)

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

God delights in diversity - the source of creation dazzling in its complexity and variety. Many people’s earliest spiritual experiences are of the natural world, and spiritual direction has rightly embraced methods that connect us again with nature in all its infinite variety.

Yet when it comes to human diversity, the challenges and gifts are less recognised and less wholeheartedly embraced. Indeed is there something in humanity and in each of us which turns human difference into a problem, rather than a blessing? How can those engaged in spiritual direction approach the realities of human diversity better? What has the contemplative tradition got to offer which cannot be found in other areas? And how can spiritual direction be part of the solution, and not part of the problem?

Grace Owen (Senior Programme Director at Common Purpose) and Mirjam Ngoy-Verhage (Learning & Development Manager at Salmon Youth Centre) - both students of the Encounter course - were wise guides in this difficult, and unfortunately seldom entered, territory during a recent Developing Direction day, a programme of ongoing formation for spiritual directors at the London Centre for Spiritual Direction.

We were invited through the practice of the Welcoming Prayer to “get comfortable with discomfort”. That is easy to say, but hard to do! I couldn’t help but recall the famous saying, God sends the Holy Spirit to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. I know from my own experience that we will only learn and grow when we step outside our comfort-zones, and into the shoes of another. That is not an affliction but an invitation to deeper encounter with ourselves, with the other, with the divine, with truth. We can experience discomfort as a blessing.

Both Grace and Mirjam avowed that, were it not for the safe and compassionate space provided by spiritual direction, they would not have been willing to share their life stories aloud in a group. Truly it was a holy experience to hear two hearts breaking with pain and hope of their journeys, so unique that they are beyond any labels or categories. It affirmed the power of listening and the importance of creating a safe space in which all can be their fullest selves - something which requires extra attentiveness and effort for those who are very different from ourselves.

There is a tendency in spiritual circles (and wider society) to want to jump past messy social issues to a transcendent truth - claiming perhaps too soon that ‘we are all one’, ‘I don’t see race’, ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek’ etc. This move can all too easily erase people’s experience, identity, and sidestep the very real questions of power and privilege. As directors we need to be alert to the risks here, and to honour the paradox of unity and diversity. I began to see more clearly that the path is through diversity to unity, not around it. Spiritual direction is not about quick fixes or labels, but attending deeply to the particularity of each person - whether Grace’s story, Mirjam and her family’s stories, or our own - in whose uniqueness God’s face is revealed.

As directors, our power and privilege - the patterns we are accustomed to, the things we consider ‘normal’, our blindspots - can hinder this encounter. The space we create is not for us to feel comfortable, but for the other. This might mean questioning how the images, languages, texts, and materials we use ourselves - or offer to others - are reflecting the many faces of God and variety of human experiences. Are we broadening our horizons of who we meet, what we read? Are we open to being surprised or challenged? Mirjam shared some beautiful reflections on the practices in her family which create space for the cultures of both parents equally and for the children to create their own new culture - whether from food or language or prayer or imagery. The practices might be particular to each person and group, but the spirit of them is inter-cultural and nurtures “inter-pathy.

Leaving this thought provoking and challenging day, I was left with “troubled hope” - as Grace named it. Troubled because facing my own privilege and the huge social forces which pre-exist us and will probably outlive us is a daunting task. Hopeful because there are so many gifts waiting to be discovered. I recognised that delighting with God in the diversity of the human family will be an effortful, costly journey - like swimming upstream, against the flow of social norms (even within our spirituality) which tempt us to comfort. I move onward not with all the answers, but with a renewed determination to keep swimming upstream.

Tom Vita

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