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The art of conversation | March 12

By 8 March, 2023No Comments
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p. Luis CASASUS | President of the Idente Missionaries

Rome, March 12, 2023 | Third Sunday of Lent

Exod 17:3-7; Rom 5:1-2.5-8; Jn 4:5-42.

The Gospel today offers us one of the most striking dialogues of Jesus, who never hesitate to remain silent or to engage in conversation, always choosing what was most appropriate for the person in front of him. In Jesus’ time, social convention would not allow Him and the Samaritan woman to speak, as it was not proper for men and women to converse alone. Additionally, this woman sought water in the hottest part of the day. In that culture, the women collected water in the early mornings and evenings when the temperature was cool, but here was a woman seeking to avoid the crowds. Jesus also transgressed another cultural line when He, as a Jew, spoke to a Samaritan. Precisely because of these adverse and difficult conditions, it is worth paying attention to the form and content of the dialogue that Christ develops.

Always, our conversation should begin with a token of interest, of appreciation for the person, a sign that we value his or her life, his or her activities, his or her ability to give us a glass of water or lend us any assistance. Jesus’ conversation with Nathanael (Jn 1:45-47) is an excellent example of how Christ demonstrates admiration for this sincere and somewhat tongue-tied young man. This genuine interest in the life of our neighbor, if it is truly born of a disinterested and authentic love, provokes an impression of surprise and opens the heart: How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?

We should not think that the art of conversation, for a disciple of Christ, refers only to a dialogue with someone who does not have faith. On most occasions, our conversation takes place among brothers and sisters, with people we know, perhaps from our family or religious community, but in that context many of us are not good imitators of Christ. 

In the first place, the difficulty lies in the fact that we have not made the slightest effort to choose, refine, select the subject of our conversation. This does not mean that we have to go prepared to give a lesson, discuss arguments or tell a story. In fact, we can talk about anything, but the first criterion should be to initiate a dialogue about something that is truly relevant to the person in front of us. There are those who never take the initiative in a conversation; the most frequent excuse is that it is due to shyness, or that it is not necessary to speak at that moment; this may sometimes be more or less true, but when this happens to us with a certain frequency, when we take refuge in silence, we undoubtedly reflect an indifference, a comfort, a lack of sensitivity that is demonstrated in not discovering at that instant an opportunity to nourish, confirm, or to unite with a brother or sister by means of words that interest them, that mean something in their life. When Jesus speaks to the Pharisees, or to the young rich man (Mk 10: 17-31) he makes references to the Law, something they esteemed, meditated on and knew well.

Our mediocre listening to what our neighbor wants to express leads us to hastily dismiss from the conversation some topic that may seem to me – mistakenly – unimportant. I can’t help remembering how, when I was 21 years old, I used to talk to our Father and Founder about all kinds of topics that aroused my unbridled curiosity. But now I see that he never scorned my wild and presumptuous remarks about science, philosophy or spiritual life. I even remember how I dared to criticize the life of a saint (so much for my boldness) and our Father Founder, far from being astonished, patiently led me to contemplate the value of that saint’s example, his repentance and his sincere and exquisite conversion. I believe it was none other than St. Ignatius… who I hope has forgiven me.

We are not always willing to listen; not just because of a supposed lack of time, but rather a lack of compassion. In the midst of Jesus’ busy ministry, he did not let the urgent crowd out the important. In this sense, the, the story of the woman with the hemorrhage is very challenging. Jesus was on the way to see someone who was critically ill, and he was stopped by a woman with long-standing menorrhagia. She got his full attention and then, as if to vindicate his decision, God enabled him to raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead.

A second difficulty is impatience. At times, some of our conversations unfortunately lead to confrontation. Instead of dialoguing, we bring to the table the supposed lack of vision of our interlocutor or what seems to us to be his perverse intention to manipulate the dialogue. Only those who live an intelligent and serene abnegation are capable of not falling into this trap of our pride. Otherwise, we end up wanting to crush any manifestation that does not coincide exactly with our “thesis”. This is a trap easily fallen into by those who are older than their interlocutor or who have the task of presiding over or directing their brothers and sisters.

Due to our impatience, a frequent defect in our dialogue is that we feel trapped by the words, which are simply the wrapping of what the other person wants to communicate to us. We are not going to recall at this point the “techniques of dialogue”, of active listening and other very interesting matters. What we must try by all means is not to remain on the surface of a conversation, in my impressions or in the statements of our interlocutor.

What is deep down, in the depths of the person speaking to me? Undoubtedly a hunger for the absolute, a thirst for peace, for an authentic relationship of love that does not end. This, for example, goes beyond a person telling me “I am not a believer”. Perhaps, at that moment, the most convenient thing is not to offer him a convincing demonstration that God exists, but probably to give more and more signs of trust and admiration for his life.

Thus, in other famous dialogue, initially Nicodemus could not penetrate Jesus’ words and answered him: How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born! (Jn 3: 4). But Christ had clearly in mind what Nicodemus was really and honestly looking for, and that is why He said to him afterwards:  Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him (Jn 3: 14).

For the Samaritan woman, God is presented as water. Such image of God comes to her through her interaction with Jesus who introduces Himself as the Living Water. The imagery is existentially fitting and personally appropriate. In a dry and barren place, water is viewed as the most essential commodity. And for someone like the Samaritan woman who walks every day to collect water, finding a person like Jesus who could give her water that will never make her thirsty again would be a life-changing gift.

A recent example of apostolic conversation. Just a few days ago I witnessed the results of an unexpected apostolic dialogue, in which I was not present, but I was able to see the fruits, which were truly beautiful. A sister of ours went for a short walk in the area around our Manila residence, which is made up of public spaces, single-family houses with gardens full of flowers of all kinds. Our sister, attracted by a particularly striking shrub, picked up one of its flowers and walked on. Then, the owner of the garden came out to tell her that this was not allowed and she apologized. But she began to talk to the garden owner about how she liked the flowers and shrubs he had and the tone of the conversation changed, became more familiar and they shared about their life in the neighborhood. Finally, upon learning that our sister was a missionary… he accepted her invitation for an apostolic meeting we had the next day and…. there he was, even his wife is now in contact with our sisters.

Today’s Gospel is truly inexhaustible. The conversation of Jesus and the Samaritan woman concludes with a testimony of the latter to her fellow citizens. It is truly a model of what the apostle is to do, whatever his function, ministry or office in the Church; at all times, in some ever new way, he is to confess, like the Samaritan woman: He told me everything I have done. Somehow I have to show that my whole life is in God’s hands, that He gives meaning and direction to everything I do and everything that happens to me. It is to bear witness that we are not alone. It is a true confession that we have to make carefully. Even if they do not use these words, those who listen to us will say, like the Samaritan woman’s fellow citizens: We know that this is truly the savior of the world.

—ooOoo—

We cannot overlook the second part of today’s Gospel text, where Jesus dialogues with his disciples. Something similar to what had just happened in his encounter with the Samaritan woman occurs, although now instead of speaking of drink, the disciples speak of food and Christ responds that his true food is to do the will of the one who sent him.

One day a certain old, rich man of a miserable disposition visited a monk, who took the rich man by the hand and led him to a window. Look out there, he said. The rich man looked into the street. What do you see? asked the monk. The rich man answered: I see men, women and children, gardens and animals.

Again the monk took him by the hand and this time led him to a mirror. Now what do you see? The rich man replied: Now I see myself.

Then the monk said: Behold, in the window there is glass, and in the mirror there is glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver. No sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others but see only yourself.

We can often let money blind us to what is important, it’s silver sheen covering the glass we look through, hiding from us the faces of the widows, whom we are called to love and to serve. We can sometimes also get so caught up in working for what we want that we forget to see what we really need. Worse still, that little silver coating on the glass, which turns it into a mirror, makes it impossible to see the hunger of others, the urgent need for real bread that our neighbor has.

Like the rich young man, we make our life, even our spiritual life, individualistic. I want eternal life for myself alone. I am not able to realize how necessary and urgent it is for those around me. Nor can I imagine that the way to reach eternal life is with some community of faith.  Perhaps we each live solitary lives in our “comfort zone,” where there is room for religious practices, the efforts we know how to make for others, and even some exemplary act of generosity. But that can be the thin layer of silver that turns the glass into a mirror… that paradoxically blinds us.

Perhaps Christ rejected the kind invitation of his disciples to eat, because at that moment he acutely felt the hunger of others, the spiritual and emotional loneliness of those who do not know they are children of God.

May your thirst and my thirst increase today, your hunger and my hunger to fulfill our modest and indispensable mission.

_______________________________

In the Sacred Hearts of Jesus, Mary and Joseph,

Luis CASASUS

President