Friday 7 March 2014

The Helping Tango: The Art of Spiritual Conversation

By Santiago Rodriguez, S.J.


As a young adult minister, I often invite young adults to tune their hearts to the presence of God through three contemplative practices. I encourage them to commit themselves to prayer (including the celebration of the sacraments), to find a spiritual director, and to embrace their community of faith. These contemplative practices teach us how to love and serve – how to be more like Jesus. Prayer draws us closer to the Heart of Christ. Spiritual direction helps us to discern God's presence in our lives. Our faith community aids us to be joyful, humble, and accountable. But sticking to these practices often proves to be difficult.

A great many find it quite challenging to remain committed to their prayer life. At times, prayer becomes a chore or it turns dry and burdensome. Finding a spiritual director can be harder than running a marathon, as there aren't many spiritual directors in a specific area and the great majority seems to be over-committed. Cherishing and embracing one's community of faith can be as taxing as the first two practices: It can be hard to find a community that is welcoming and non-judgemental, while sharing our values and spiritual sensibilities.

For a while, when young adults talked to me about their difficulties with these practices, I simply encouraged them to keep trying. Then, something else came to mind. An article in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review made me think of another very fruitful contemplative practice – having a prayer partner. The article, titled IDEO's Culture of Helping, argued that by making collaborative generosity the norm, the design firm unleashed its creativity and productivity. According to the authors, collaboration among employees is of utmost importance to any business. As I read the article, it became evident to me that few things we do are more important than helping one another to increase in faith, hope, and love. It is critical for us as Christians to lovingly and joyfully help one another. Spiritual conversation between friends or prayer partners is one of the best ways to collaborate and to build God's Kingdom.

I've always been a fan of having a prayer partner – or a prayer companion – but I have seldom encouraged people to seek one. A prayer partner is a friend in the Lord – someone with whom we engage in spiritual conversation and talk about our prayer life. In the same way having a workout buddy helps us to commit to exercise more regularly, having a prayer partner strengthens our dedication to our prayer life. Spiritual conversation helps us to discern God's presence in our lives and to experience the main benefit of community life: Communion with one another and with God.

The selection of a prayer partner is an important decision. As you prayerfully ponder who can be your prayer companion, think of someone who shares your desire to grow closer to God. You might consider someone in your church or campus ministry who shares something in common with you and inspires you to pray. If nobody comes to mind, ask the Lord in prayer to place someone in your heart and mind.

Once you have someone in mind, approach that person and invite him or her to be a prayer companion. Tell that person you want someone to talk to about your prayer life – about the ways you encounter Christ in daily life. Being a prayer partner is a two-way street: tell that person he or she is welcome to share about his or her prayer life as well. You can meet once a month for about thirty to forty five minutes to engage in spiritual conversation.

These are some things to consider before you engage in spiritual conversation with your prayer partner:
  • Before each meeting, reflect on the ways you have increased in faith, hope, and love in the last month. 
  • Also, reflect on what gets in your way of being more faithful, hopeful, and loving.
  • Journaling can be very helpful in this process. You can jot down a few of the spiritual happenings of the last month: what brought you peace, joy, and freedom, but also what caused you sadness, anxiety or made you afraid. 
  • Think about your prayer life. What is your prayer life like? How are you praying? What styles of prayer do you find life-giving? What is happening in your prayer? How is God calling you to love? 
  • Consider also the ways in which you experience God's presence in your life – in the sacraments, in nature, in relationships, at work, or at school. 
Spiritual conversation is an art. It takes time to grow in our ability to converse at a deep level. When you engage in spiritual conversation, remember that this practice is not about solving problems or offering suggestions, but rather about helping others to discern how God is present in their life and to share the ways in which God is present in yours. In order to do that, you need to listen actively and empathically. It may take some time to open your heart to the other person and to foster a high level of comfort and trust, but don't be afraid to show a little vulnerability. Spiritual conversation is an opportunity to pay attention to what God is doing in your lives and to grow in awareness of each other's bandwidth and receptivity to God's grace.

A spiritual conversation with your prayer partner is like dancing a tango. Be patient. In a well-danced tango, both partners need to pay attention to each other and to the music. The art of spiritual conversation is all about helping each other to listen to the music – to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit – in order to gracefully dance for the sake of the Kingdom.

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