By Fr Donald Chambers
In this article, I bring together the main thoughts of my previous articles (CN August 1, 8, 15, 22, September 5) on the meaning of synod and apply them to a real-life experience.
I underscored that synod is not an event, but a journey of the people of God who listen to each other and the Holy Spirit with the aim of discerning the movement of the Spirit in the life and mission of the Church. On this journey, participants engage freely in telling stories of their lived faith and listen non-judgmentally to each other.
The narrative of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) reveals that the Holy Spirit is the principal guide and director of this journey, a journey that is characterised as an unknown, that is, an unpredictable outcome. The unknown nature of the journey, therefore, inspires participants to be humble, that is, confessing, “I don’t know, and I need to learn”.
Essential to a spirit of humility is also an awareness of one’s “shadows” (Carl Jung), those dark or unconscious areas of our lives that we deny, project negatively upon others, and are likely obstacles on the journey.
I will now apply these features of synodality to the experience of an editorial team preparing for a book publication.
The team consists of five intellectually gifted, talented individuals with strong personalities. In January 2021, the team arrived at the stage of the journey in which a decision on the title for the book was imminent. However, the gestation period for the decision lasted almost seven months.
How was synodality demonstrated within the group? First, the group was deeply aware of and relied on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, each meeting began with prayer.
Second, the meetings were guided by an integral agenda. In addition to the business component that engaged our intellect, there was an unwritten item entitled ‘Checking in with each other’. This meant tapping into each member’s emotional and spiritual state of being. This was an opportunity to share personal stories either about our day or any significant happenings in our lives.
In one particular monthly meeting, we utilised most of the time reflecting on the emotional and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on us. In another meeting, we spent time expressing grief due to the death of significant persons in our lives.
Those were the times when we exercised storytelling and story listening. Let us remember that the synodal journey is not only about business matters but discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit. Thus, on those occasions, the Holy Spirit led us to care emotionally and spiritually for each other.
Third, we practised respectful listening, that is exercising hospitality towards team members’ recommendations and reasons for the proposed titles. Objections or other perspectives were accommodated. Disparaging remarks were absent. In a word, the conversations were constructive.
Listening also involved an awareness of the feelings generated within ourselves upon receiving someone’s recommendation and realising that those feelings may be related to my “shadow”. Such consciousness allowed us to manage our feelings and balance it with our reasoning.
Fourth, our destination, that is, the final title, was unknown. There were feelings of anxiety, discouragement, and exhaustion due to the imminent deadlines for submission of the manuscript to a final editor and typesetter.
We often felt like the Israelites wandering aimlessly in the desert for 40 years. Indeed, in this cyclical movement, I remember the words of Austrian Jewish and Israeli philosopher Martin Buber: “All journeys have a secret destination of which the traveller is unaware.”
What sustained my hope was the analogy of the average nine-month gestation period for human pregnancy. Other times, I feared that the gestation period may be equivalent to the African bush elephant of 22 months.
Fifth, there was respectful dialogue to arrive at an agreed title. After sitting with a long list of titles for several months and having exhausted all essential items related to the manuscript, we were now in a quandary… a book without a title. We reviewed the list of titles and agreed on the best three or four. Some titles had words that precisely captured the content of the manuscripts, but were unappealing and unattractive to readers.
In another case, one section of a title was cut and placed with a section of another title. Some members advocated strongly for the use of a word or clause. As we were cutting and pasting, we gradually arrived at a point when we all recognised that we had reached the Promised Land, and said, “Yes, this title works!” . We finally discerned the movement of the Spirit.
This is an example of the synodal journey, an unknown destination that did not entertain voting or the moving of motions and resolutions. We arrived at a point in the journey when we “knew”, not just intellectually, but there was also a gut feeling, that the title of the book was born.
Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference. His weblog is https://belovedreflections.org/