CALLED TO CARE: a Seminar Series on the Care of Our Planet and Each Other


Daniel Martin 

Thanks, etc.

This is the first of two presentations or, more accurately, conversations on mission. The word is one that we associate with church or the military or certainly with a deliberate project, like an expedition of some sort, but it also applies to the journey of our own lives. I thought it would make sense, therefore, to reflect first on what our essential mission is and then – next time – take a look at how we can serve it, what I would call ‘a spirituality for mission.’

So what is our essential mission? What are humans for, my old mentor, Thomas Berry, used to ask, meaning, I suppose, what do we contribute to the great work of life, which suggests that our mission is related to our sense of purpose.

Two thoughts: one is that this mission is both individual and collective; and two is that it is a work in progress, in the sense that it is evolving. It evolves through our expanding awareness, both individual and collective. Thus my sense of purpose and mission as a child isn’t exactly my sense of purpose as an adult (though it is hopefully consistent with it).

If you are a religious person there is usually a parallel mission which you have integrated or at least personalized: loving your neighbor, for example. This too has evolved, not only over your lifetime, but over the centuries, shaped by our expanding collective awareness. Thus, our sense of mission and purpose today as Christian people is beginning to include and integrate our growing empirically-based awareness of an infinitely interconnected world. And the reason that Pope Francis is touching so many people is that he is giving voice to this evolving sense of mission and purpose.

As a way of illustrating this but also as a way of engaging all of you in exploring your own sense of mission, I will share with you the story of how my sense of mission evolved from childhood to adulthood and from missionary priest to post-institutional priest and how that process reflected a parallel collective process in the world, including the world of religion. I’ll then invite you to do the same, beginning today but continuing between now and when I return in a couple of weeks.

So here is my story: I was born into a post World War II Belfast that was excited and energized by the gift of a new life but also still caught in a prison of old conflicts that we are all familiar with. I was the child of a mystic: my mother, who struggled all her life with difficult health, was in touch with other dimensions of life, and people came to her to help them make sense of painful experiences like the loss of a child or a depression.

My Celtic heritage added to my own sensitivity to an invisible inner continent. Even as a ten year old I would lie in the heather on the mountain behind our house and feel myself one with the birds and the animals who lived there. I was drawn to mass in our morning candle-lit church of St. Teresa by the same sense of an inner world. And once, when I was about thirteen, I had a profound experience of interconnectedness in a monastery I was visiting with my uncles that defined my first sense of mission and purpose as exploring this vast inner world, what I came to call ‘the infinite place’. Mary Oliver captures a little of this mission:

..It is what I was born for –

to look, to listen,

to lose myself

inside this soft world –

to instruct myself

over and over

in joy,

in acclamation…

My first challenge was to find a way to live this mission. In the defensive Catholic world of N. Ireland in the ‘60s some kind of religious life seemed like the only option: so I went to a seminary to become a missionary priest. The challenge then became, how to hold onto this personal somewhat animistic mission in the world of institutional religion with all its rules and structures. One rather humorous example of the many clashes I experienced throughout those seminary years happened when I had been in the seminary only a few weeks and we had been introduced to the regulated – monastery-like – world of formal prayer and structures: like ‘solemn silence’ which meant complete silence after night prayers until after breakfast the following day. I smoked in those days and so, one evening, after night prayer I went out to sit under an October moon with a prayer in my heart but also a cigarette in my hand. The following day I was called into my spiritual director’s office and asked why I was smoking during ‘solemn silence’ when I should have been praying. ‘I was praying,’ I said. ‘But how could you pray when you were smoking?’ asked the director. My response probably labeled me for years to come: ‘Well, sometimes I pray when I’m smoking; last night I was smoking when I was praying….what’s the difference?’

Not only did the exchange label me as ‘too independent’ but it began a new stage of my mission as preserving the independence of an inner life in the face of an intellectual journey – the eight years of the seminary – that challenged and often dismantled much of what I had taken for granted (in religion as well as everyday life). The saving grace was the Vatican Council in the ‘60s whose documents began to percolate down to our little Irish seminary world: documents that spoke of a new era, of a church of the people that would liberate the poor and challenge systems of injustice. It was these messages that allowed me to stay with the hope of a church that was changing and would eventually address the inconsistencies of righteous exceptionalism (‘outside the church there is no salvation,’ for example) that I had begun to find increasingly inappropriate, and make room for the many ways people had developed for making sense of the mystery of the ‘infinite place’.

This hope carried me to Africa as a young priest with a mission that I began to see as a dialogue between different experiences of life that would deepen our collective exploration of the ‘infinite place.’ In the drought and famine-ridden world where I worked in Eastern Kenya this mission translated into an attempt to integrate the Christian message into the culture of the people but also to integrate the beauty of their indigenous culture into Christian thinking and ritual. I vividly recall an amazing ‘harvest festival’ in the middle of a famine when people came together to express gratitude for the famine foods – the root crops like cassava and yams – that sustained them when the harvest failed as it often did in that world. There were many such examples of the sense of mission that these people had that sustained them in the face of life’s challenges. However, one powerful example of this dialogue-mission that impacted me deeply was my encounter with Martha.

Martha was an elderly lady who was a member of our remote parish of Kimangao. She came to mass every Sunday and during the week she would often drop by the house to say hello, especially if she heard music playing on our radio. Then she would dance, rolling her shoulders in a movement that caused her substantial breasts to rise and fall like waves on the sea. In fact, this was how Martha prayed when she was moved during mass, approaching the altar dancing in this wonderful way. And I, in my youthful exuberance, would come out from behind the altar and dance with her.

Martha was my friend, in other words, who taught this young missionary more than I ever taught her. One day, when I had been in the country about six months I experienced my first famine. Famine, I learned, was part of life in that region of Africa where crops failed often. People marked time by these famines, each of which had a name: Yua ya Mbua’ – the Famine of the Rains – was the famine that was remembered because of the ironic flooding that challenged famine relief efforts. In famine times, people simply tightened their belts and sent the stronger ones off to find work in neighboring regions where there was food in order to bring it back home. They were not the horrendous tragedies created by war and corruption that we came to know. Nonetheless, they were painful times for the people; they were also painful for me, for I found the exercise of distributing food to beautiful and intelligent people like these heart wrenching and depressing.

One day during this famine period I was out on my motor-cycle, heading somewhere through the bush when I saw a figure waving me down, and recognized Martha. The first thoughts that came into my mind were not thoughts that I’m proud to share with you: ‘I’m too busy to stop and chat…she’s going to talk about the famine…she’s probably looking for help…she feels she has an ‘in’ with me and can get special treatment…’ This theater was playing out in my mind as I pulled up alongside Martha, keeping the engine running to demonstrate my busyness. And, the conversation began as it always did in Africa with what I came to call a connecting ritual: ‘where are you coming from, where are you going; how is your family, how is the other priest; etc.’ Meanwhile I was feeling increasingly impatient as the conversation turned to the expected focus of the famine: ‘yes, the crops had failed and there was a shortage of everything; and my family is all grown and gone to the city and my husband is dead…’ And so on, as I waited for what I thought would be the inevitable request for a handout.

But just as I felt my patience could hold no longer, Martha reached out her hand. However, she didn’t reach it out the way I expected – with her palm upwards – but instead with her hand clenched facing downwards. Reflexively I put out my own hand and Martha put a Kenya shilling into it with the words, ’It is very hot today Danny; go and buy yourself a soda…’ I almost fell over with surprise and, probably because I was so shocked, I don’t remember the details of what happened next. What I do remember is that the encounter changed me at some fundamental level that I have never forgotten. It also changed – or more accurately – confirmed my evolving sense of mission as mutual exchange and learning: a dialogue that engaged and served both sides. Certainly, not the neo-colonial process, albeit well-intentioned, of traditional missionary efforts, but a true dialogue that generates new meaning that touches both sides, like the quality of mercy that blesses him that gives and him that receives.

The next stage of my evolving sense of mission and purpose was a period that supported but also threatened the direction I was taking. Partly because I was good at this dialogue-mission – though partly, perhaps, as a strategy to straighten out a rebellious soul – I was sent to Rome, the heart of the beast, to study what was going on in the world of mission. There, two things happened: one was meeting wonderful religious people from all over the world and seeing the amazing potential for enriching the lives of everyone on our planet home; the other was the election of a new pope who quickly emerged as an obstacle to the process of autonomy building and dialogue that I was fostering as my missionary method. In fact, when I returned to Africa after Rome I found there had been a sea-change in the world I had left a few short years before. I also began to realize that this was part of a reaction to the energies of change that the ‘60s had catalyzed that was happening all over the world in the person of leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. For me it meant another stage in my missionary evolution process.

I began to advocate for strategic withdrawal of missionaries, partly in order to highlight the way things were already changing – fewer new missionaries and the development of an inadequate western-like local church – and partly as a way of sparking a movement to foster a real transition to a local church that was not simply a replica of the western one. At the end of three years of making my case I made the strategic withdrawal myself and came to the U.S. to explore a new framework for mission.

It was here that my own deep transformation of personal mission occurred with a vengeance. For it was here that I went through my own dark night, caught between a world that did not want me to come here – my superiors had insisted I return to Rome to deepen my exploration – and a world (the U.S.) that was struggling with and reacting to change at multiple levels. I had protested that, in order for us missionaries to keep our mission relevant I/we had to go and learn where the world was addressing change more directly.

In the U.S. I found myself living in a parish world but studying and then working in the much bigger arena of ecology with Thomas Berry. With Berry I found language and form for my long-time awareness of the ‘infinite place’ but also an insight into how this comes together with religion in an ecological spirituality. I wrote a Ph.D dissertation entitled: ‘Emerging Theological Consciousness and a Spirituality for Mission’. The consciousness was of an infinitely interconnected universe – and earth – while the spirituality for mission was a dialogue between the multiple forms of this universe that would generate new meaning that would enrich all of us, Christian and non-Christian, human and non-human.

My sense of our essential mission then became: to be the self-reflective consciousness of the universe, since in us humans, the universe comes to awareness of itself. The universe has evolved to self-awareness in the form of human beings. As one poet puts it, through my eyes the stars look back on themselves in wonder.

In this framework, my missionary work took the form of developing an Environmental Sabbath project for the UN Environment Program in the late ‘80s, to engage the religious world in this mission; the creation of a non-profit organization to develop an explicitly spiritual Earth Charter for the UN Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992, and the proclamation of this Charter as the new – expanded – Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include the rights of all forms of life and the particular responsibilities of humans as the self-reflective consciousness of the universe.

For obvious reasons, perhaps, I realized I had to make another strategic withdrawal: this time because the gap between my mission and the organization I was part of had grown too wide. Or, as I used to say when asked to explain why I stepped out of formal priesthood, ‘the suit had become too tight.’

However, I soon realized that, as in the world of traditional missionary work, it was not enough to proclaim truths, no matter how self-evident; the real work was about helping people to address the challenges they faced and to integrate the expanding consciousness that had produced the Earth Charter principles into their everyday lives. It was this realization that inspired me to explore the skill of Dialogue with some folks at MIT who were using it as a way to enhance the capacities of corporate boardrooms. I developed programs to bring the skill initially to State and County Health Departments through the Centers for Disease Control, later to human service agencies, and today to a wide range of efforts that are trying to live and do their work in an increasingly complex and interdependent world. These include hospitals, social service agencies, schools, and various non-profit groups. I also brought Dialogue to my local community in New York in the form of Conversations for Action about Climate Change. These dialogues resulted in a Climate Action Plan which has won many awards, and a non-profit organization (Bedford2020) which was formed to implement the Climate Action Plan which has also been adopted by the Town Board as a set of fundamental criteria for its work of governance.

I will speak more about the art of Dialogue as a spiritual practice – a spirituality for mission – for today’s complex world in the next session. Suffice to say today that my sense of mission has evolved but has also continued to maintain a basic theme – a thread if you like. The American poet, William Stafford, describes this thread:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

The thread is essentially awareness – the cultivation of awareness – on behalf of the world from which we have evolved.

So, I would close by suggesting that our essential mission is to participate, through the cultivation of awareness, in the continuous – infinite – emergence of meaning. I might even describe it as giving birth to God.

We cultivate this awareness in all kinds of ways – immersion in other worlds, meditation, research – but in a special way through dialogue: dialogue with each other – other humans of all persuasions – but also dialogue with all life – the earth and all its creatures. Our essential purpose and mission is to learn to work WITH things in what one poet calls, ‘the indescribable relationship.’ In this way – perhaps only in this way – we will survive as a species but hopefully also thrive. I believe that this is what Pope Francis is saying when he calls us to take care of our common home.

So, there you have my story – my (still evolving) sense of mission and purpose – that has evolved a lot from childhood through adulthood and from formal priesthood to what I do today which I believe is still consistent with the original impulses of childhood, and, perhaps, still priesthood. I would like to invite you to share your story or at least begin to, for sharing our stories with each other is the first step in any true dialogue. I realize that this takes more than the time we have now; so for two minutes each in pairs, let’s share one thing that struck you as I talked. It may serve as a catalyst for your story.

SHARE for 5-10 m

By way of linking today’s session with my next visit in two weeks, I would invite you to make a date with someone for a half hour over a coffee to share your stories of your evolving sense of mission and purpose: what you believed as a child, things that changed that, what you feel now which may not yet have developed into clear thoughts or concepts. When we come together next time we’ll integrate this into my second presentation which I’m calling Dialogue as a Spirituality for Mission.



CALLED TO CAREa Seminar Series on the Care of Our Planet and Each Other

PRESENTATION 2:   Dialogue as a Spirituality for Mission

Daniel Martin

The art of Dialogue as a way of living creatively in today’s complex world

Thanks and….

Last time, I suggested that we human beings are the self-reflective mode of the evolving universe, because in us the universe has evolved into self-reflective consciousness. Our essential mission, therefore, is to contribute to the emergence of life and meaning. Today I’m going to focus on HOW we do this, what I would call a spirituality for mission.

Your responses to my personal story of my own evolving sense of mission highlighted a number of important things, including the depths of the ordinary – what some have called the ‘within’ of things – that we can all access, and an understanding of mission as sharing these encounters of the ‘within’ of things in a two-way, mutually enhancing process rather than the, mostly well-intentioned, neo-colonial forms of fixing or imposing that characterize traditional mission.

There is a poem by a Polish poet called Czeslaw Milosz that captures both aspects of this human mission:

Love means to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills –

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.


Then he wants to use himself and things

So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.

It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

One of your responses to my presentation last week stayed with me: one of you spoke of scattering milkweed seeds as a way of supporting the threatened existence of the monarch butterfly. This for me is clearly a response to our mission to participate in the emergence of life; as the poet says, to use ourselves and things ‘so that they stand in the glow of ripeness.’

However, intention is not enough to live our essential mission. First we have to cultivate and deepen our capacity to be conscious and aware by learning how to be present to the amazing mystery of an interconnected world. People who are present in this way tend to be grateful for the gift of the moment, and grateful people tend to be less fearful and therefore less violent, more secure and therefore more generous, more joyful and therefore more respectful of others. But we also have to learn how to bring the fruits of this presence to others in Dialogue so that together we can deepen our awareness of the ‘within’ of things and generate the creativity needed to address the complex issues, like Climate Change, that we face in today’s world.

The title of the poem is ‘Love’, suggesting that love, which we proclaim as our Christian mission, is much more complex than we think. For example, we were often told that we don’t have to like each other in order to love; that sometimes it is simply a matter or tolerating others. While there is some truth in this, I’d like to examine this assumption.

A colleague of mine just recently published a book entitled, Trust in a Complex Society, in which he suggested that modern society was founded on the principle of tolerance: letting be, agreeing to disagree, ensuring rights, etc. Not bad. In fact, such tolerance allowed modern society to achieve amazing things. Today, however, in a world that has become increasingly interdependent on every level, from the economic to the ecological, tolerance is not enough. Society today needs to be based on the social principle of understanding, for we need to understand each other across our differences in order to generate creative new ways of addressing our complex challenges. The skill of understanding each other, my colleague adds, needs to be taught in schools and in all our institutions. Today I want to focus on this fascinating idea by examining the art of dialogue. I will try to show that the skills of dialogue are the way to mutual understanding and therefore what we need to live out our essential mission: that dialogue, therefore, is the spirituality for our mission as human beings in the world today.

Let’s begin by defining the two critical terms I’m using: dialogue and spirituality. First ‘spirituality’ – which is perhaps the more complex of the two in the sense that it carries a lot of unexamined assumptions – tends to be understood by most people as a part of religion; or as the work of professional religious people like monks. Let me suggest, instead, that spirituality is rather a critical dimension of human life that addresses essential aspects like meaning and purpose – what’s going on and where we fit in – and things like practices and tools that help us in this fundamental area.

So we all already have a spirituality in this broad sense, even if we are agnostic about meaning and purpose, and football and beer are the practices that reflect this stance before life. However, most of us would agree that there is something more to the human venture than the distraction of sports and entertainment: things like family and kids, or even service of a cause. We might also agree that there is a self, deeper inside me, that is mostly hidden but that emerges in certain moments: a truer, more authentic self that a challenge or a crisis can bring out. We would probably not hesitate to jump into a river to save a drowning child even if we couldn’t swim ourselves. Edge-moments like this bring out something in all of us. In fact, we are probably our truest selves when we are on the edge, where there is no room for pretense. And we’ve all known what some call ‘crucible moments’ when life brought us to the edge of our capacity and we tasted something of this authentic self, even if only for a moment. My story, which I shared with you last time was essentially a personal history of this authentic self.

I would suggest, therefore, that spirituality is about cultivating this truer self. I would add that this truer self is related to what I called last time our sense of mission and purpose. Simply put, our purpose in life is to discover and live this authentic self, and in this way to make our unique contribution to the larger mission and purpose of the universe we all share. As someone succinctly put it:

The meaning of life is to find your gift

The purpose of life is to give it away.

I think this is what Pope Francis spoke about in his Encyclical – his recent teaching – and in his presentations to Congress and the UN and others on his visit to the U.S. I think the reason so many resonate with Francis and his words is that he is both speaking out of his own authentic self and speaking to our authentic self. He is simply calling all of us, whether Christians or not, to be more authentically human by breaking out of old assumptions and mental models that are actually the cause of the challenges we face, from poverty to climate change. It is because we have lost ourselves in a world that caters only to our more superficial self, that needs the illusion of control to allay its essential fears, and readily accepts the distraction of the many things that foster this illusion, that we have the problems we now face, from war to environmental decline; problems that now threaten our very survival. And it is because Pope Francis is able to speak to that deeper self that gets lost amidst these distractions that people are responding to him.

One of the reasons that Pope Francis is able to do this is because he himself has known both sides of the process of trying to live authentically. In his early years he was both conservative and authoritarian, which can also be a way of hiding from one’s authentic self. The fact that he evolved, as did his sense of mission and purpose, through an expanded awareness to a different way of being in the world, is what makes him so credible. And it is this personal experience of his authentic self – and his spiritual practices to cultivate and live it – that allows him to speak truth to power, but in a way that models a different approach that is both empathic and non- judgmental as well as creative and energizing.

I would say, in fact, that his spiritual practice – what he does to cultivate his authentic self which shapes his sense of mission and purpose – is what we were discussing last time: it is the practice of expanding our awareness through dialogue. Let me explain by doing a little exegesis of the word ‘dialogue’ and then demonstrating how Pope Francis applies and lives it, and calls us to do the same as a way of addressing the complex challenges we face today.

The context of Francis’ teaching and the focus or our reflections here is Climate Change which is our most immediate challenge, the most critical to our survival because it relativizes everything else from health to poverty and from environmental decline to injustice. We all know this intuitively even if some of us deny it, which is why Pope Francis’ Encyclical is so important: not simply because he reminds us of the challenge – which he does with good science; and not just because he points out the obvious causes, from individual habits to systemic processes, including unregulated markets; and not because he points the way – the only way – forward as ‘a change of heart’, an ecological conversion, a new – expanded awareness and actions that are informed by all of this. But even more important, I would say, he points to a simple but profound method for doing all this: Dialogue, which is a word he uses twenty five times in his Encyclical.

I’m sure he means something more the usual rhetoric that gets bandied about, more too than good intention that we all can subscribe to, and more even than good sharing of information. What he means, I believe, is genuine interaction that will generate new insights and creative responses; Dialogue that allow logos – meaning – to emerge – dia.

When we think of dialogue we tend to conflate the word with others, like discussion or debate. We also assume that we know how to do it, and, by extension, that all we have to do in order to address our problems is to bring people together. Let me examine these assumptions.

First let’s compare the forms of interaction that we tend to conflate into a general term but which are quite different: like debate, discussion and dialogue.

Debate comes from the Latin word debattere and it means to ‘beat down’. Debate can be useful sometimes but it tends to make winners and losers and even polarize the two more than they were before the exchange. Isn’t it true that often when you argue and are defeated or ‘beaten down’, you find yourself even more entrenched in your old position. Debate is the typical process of our public conversation, whether in Congress or on the streets.

Discussion comes from the Latin discudere which means to shake and break asunder. Discussion also has its uses when breaking down and comparing things but it seldom produces anything new.

Dialogue, however, is something else. The word comes from the Greek dia (through) and logos (meaning) and describes a process of interacting that generates new meaning; allows meaning to come through. This idea suggests that meaning is a work in progress, that no one has a monopoly on it.

For the ancient Greeks, logos had a sense of ultimate meaning which made dialogue for them a sacred act: a kind of giving birth to God, which was how I described our essential mission last time. The implications of seeing mission as Dialogue are amazingly apt for today’s world where we need new meaning, – where we need God (a new God perhaps) to be born – in order to make sense of and respond to the complex challenges we face.

Dialogue, you can see, is much more than a chat. Moreover, it is not something we really know how to do, despite the rhetoric about international or interfaith or cross-cultural dialogue that is bandied about. Dialogue is an art, which, like any art, requires the practice of skills over time. It begins with an intention, though good intention is never enough: the road to hell is paved with these. But it also requires skills that can enable us to interact in a way that is more than ‘beating down’ and ‘winning’; more than shaking apart and comparing. The skills of Dialogue which allow to us interact in a way that generates new meaning in the form of shared understanding, include connecting, exploring and discovering together. These skills enable us to bring our differences together and hold them together in a way that creates a tension but also – through this tension – generates new life and meaning.

Think of how electricity – which is already present in a general way – is generated (in the sense of being made present), through the tension between opposite forces that are held together. Think of how Jazz generates music that didn’t exist before by bringing together different instruments in a particular way: Jazz doesn’t happen just by bringing the different instruments together but by having them connect, explore and discover together.

We connect in a Dialogue context through the sharing of our stories: the way we connected with each other last time. Last time I also invited you to continue and deepen this connection by taking a half hour to connect with someone through sharing your story of your evolving/changing sense of mission and purpose since childhood as a way of experiencing this aspect of a Dialogue spirituality: What did you experience?


Story-telling is the way cultures sustain and grow; it is how people have always addressed collective challenges. It’s what we still use today with great effect in healing processes like grieving or the 12 Step program. Story telling is the art of skilled vulnerability which means the courage and capacity to share one’s authentic self. William Stafford says it very simply:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

When we connect in this way, we create the foundation for something new to happen. It’s why we do the opposite in war when instead of connecting we demonize in order to justify treating other people the way we do in times of conflict.

When we connect like this, however, something new WILL always happen. But we can go much further. Stage two of Dialogue is Exploration of our differences through listening in order to understand. This stage is about creating the conditions for new life – logos – to come through – dia. The conditions are essentially a creative tension. We all know uncreative tension in its various forms of conflict. What makes tension creative is mutual understanding. You don’t have to agree with me, rather simply listen to and understand what I’m saying. Instead of dismissing or rejecting you because your opinion seems to negate mine and me along with it, I can ask questions that get behind your opinion to your concerns and values which I may even agree with. Exploring like this takes us beyond simply tolerating to understanding. When we can do this – and we have all tasted such moments of mutual understanding – then something new begins to happen: germination, pollination; energy, light, music, beauty…..

This is what impels us into the third stage of Dialogue – Discovery – when we listen FOR what is beginning to emerge out of this creative tension. We find ourselves using language like, ‘this may sound weird but…’ or ‘I never thought of it like this before but…’ or ‘what if we were to…’ This is the language of the collective, of an authentic self that has transcended its individual form and expanded to a new level of awareness of interdependence. Then begins a building process with words like, ‘I like this direction and would add..’ or ‘I wouldn’t go that far but…’ This is the language of participating in the emergence of meaning which is how I defined dialogue at the outset.

Pope Francis is advocating this ‘Dialogue Spirituality’ when he calls us to immerse ourselves in the lives of others – he is thinking particularly of the poor – in order to understand how they experience the decisions of our culture, but also to discover, through this exploration, insights and new ways that can benefit all of us. The poor he is talking about are more than the economically deprived but also the nation-deprived, like the millions of refugees today. The poor are also the trees and the plants and the many species who have no one to speak for them. We have to immerse ourselves in their worlds in order to empathize by connecting, understand by exploring, and generate creative responses to the challenges we all face out of the tension of our differences.

When we do this we can address anything. Most of us are aware of the words of Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

This was certainly my experience, with people in the semi deserts of Kenya, with a small interfaith group in the Earth Charter project, with the people of Bedford NY when we created a Climate Action Plan, and with the organizations I try to serve today. All of these experiences demonstrate the power of this simple but profound method or, more accurately spirituality.

Margaret Mead’s daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, has a new book coming out entitled Love Across Differences in which she says that love depends on the recognition of something we have in common but also the valuing of differences. I think this is what Pope Francis is also advocating in his Encyclical in which he uses the word dialogue twenty five times. I think it’s fair to say that there is nothing new about the concepts he presents which are essentially an expansion of Catholic social justice teaching. What is different – and what is grabbing the imagination of people everywhere – is the HOW: how we are to go about fostering this justice. The word justice by the way in Hebrew means ‘right relations’: HOW we interact with each other and with all things.

Finally, Dialogue is something we can all do, which is why Dialogue is the true spirituality for living creatively today. For spirituality is nothing more – or less – than a way of living that addresses in particular the essential questions that we otherwise will avoid for many reasons.

Dialogue is a spirituality for mission that enables us to live as the self-reflective conscious mode of the universe. Dialogue is therefore also the spirituality for Climate Change that Pope Francis calls for.

Let me finish by highlighting a couple of implications of Dialogue Spirituality:

  1. Not everyone will meditate but everyone talks in some form: so all we have to do to change the world – our world – is to raise the level of our conversations
  2. We can start the Dialogue right now with whoever is ready.
  3. We can add more and more perspectives as we proceed.
  4. The Dialogue will result in decisions and activities that are increasingly comprehensive, more genuinely owned by the stakeholders and, therefore, more likely to foster commitment and accountability among them.

I’ll give the last word to the poet William Stafford once again, this time to highlight the urgency of Pope Francis’ call to take care of our common home:

For it is important that awake people be awake,

or a breaking line my discourage them back to sleep;

the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


Reflections on the Encyclical – LAUDATO SI

In the first place Pope Francis presents climate change not simply as a scientific issue or even an economic one, but as a moral issue. He speaks of the need for ‘an integral ecology’ that calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.’ (11). Thus, for example, he says that

‘…the urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development (13).

And here he introduces the word dialogue for the first time – I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet (14) – which becomes, as the Encyclical unfolds, the basic action he is calling for.

After that he lays out the evidence that we are already familiar with but which, in this context, takes on new meaning as the mission of our times, and certainly in keeping with how I have described our mission as participating in the unfolding of life and God. He strengthens his perspective by putting this evidence in the context of a broken human society where there is global inequality (43-52) and weak responses by the global community (53-59). It is here, he suggests that ‘the light offered by faith’ (63) can play an important role. Drawing on the Judeo-Christian scriptures he speaks of the mystery of the universe (76), the role that every creature plays (84), and a universal communion (89) with all its implications for sharing the ‘goods’ of the world.

He then demonstrates the human roots of our ecological crisis (101): the globalization of the technocratic paradigm (106), and the crisis of anthropocentrism (115). When he has done that he draws out the implications of a truly integral ecology: environmental, economic, social and cultural. In this context he speaks of the principle of the common good (156) and how doing harm to one part of our common body means doing harm to all of it, including the earth and future generations (159).

But it is in his final chapters with their focus on action that he emphasizes the critical nature of dialogue at every level, from the international community (164) to the national and the local (176). He also includes dialogue between religion and science (199). What he calls for ultimately is ‘an ecological conversion’ (216): a change in attitudes born of empathy and understanding that will lead to new shared understanding about how we need to live together with each other but also with the entire community of life. A radical dialogue, in other words.

He concludes with a reflection on Mary: ‘In her glorified body, together with the Risen Christ, part of creation has reached the fullness of its beauty.’ (241) I am reminded of the teaching on the Assumption of Mary, which Carl Jung saw as the integration of the feminine principle into the Godhead. And finally he speaks of ‘beyond the sun’ when we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God..’ (243). ‘He concludes:

‘In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast.’ (244)

I found myself moved in a particular way by what was a kind of postscript where Pope Francis states: ‘…at the conclusion of this lengthy reflection which has been both joyful and troubling.’ (246) It is in keeping with his authentic approach, that he acknowledges the magnitude of the issue we are addressing and does not attempt to gloss over it with platitudes, like God will provide, etc.


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