Time to talk to someone…

Chris McDonnell    CT Friday June 1st2018

We spend most of our life talking to one another, a few of us exchange letters, many more snap off the odd email and a small minority write in some extended form, exchanging ideas and making comment.

But it is the spoken word that is our basic currency of exchange. I remember talking with a friend many years back, who worked in teacher education in London, about a visit he made to a high school in Brooklyn. I asked him for some key differences when compared to our schools here in UK. His comment was immediate, it was about the quality of verbal exchange, how the pupils in NYC were articulate and forthcoming in their use of language. It made me realise as a headteacher how important it is that we talk with children as much as possible before expecting quality in the written word.

What happens when conversations take place? Well, first of all it is a point of contact, a time when we talk with someone and not at them, for valuable conversation demands listening as well as speaking. So much is about tone of voice and facial expressions that accompany our words. We pick up signals from each other that are missing through email exchange or other forms of social media. It is easy to misunderstand one another, to take offence when none was intended.

Words of compassion are shared face to face when there is a chance to listen to an understanding voice, to see sympathy in expression and maybe at the same time appreciate the tenderness of touch. When a child is upset or hurt the conversation through the spoken word is less important than the caring hug given by a parent. It is reassuring in a tactile way that goes beyond speech.

We have no written words that can be ascribed to Jesus, but Scripture records numerous conversations in which he had an active role. His teaching was verbal, his life the expression of that teaching, an example for us to follow on our Emmaus journey .

Countless men and women have walked their journey without leaving a single written record of their conversations. We find traces in the ground of their artefacts, materials they handled and used and when broken, tossed aside. We find too the remains of their physical form especially well-preserved in the peat bogs of Northern Europe, their skin the colour of dark leather; not knowing their tongue, we are left only with their diminished form. What an experience it would be to hear their lost and forgotten voices. In our own time the memory of voice is a vibrant companion to the image of the person, even though their journey is complete.

Our vocabulary within the English language is wide and expressive. Sitting reading in my daughter’s garden recently, near a large hedge that borders a field, I listened to the limited “baahhh”of sheep, ewe responding to lamb, lamb seeking its mother, all with seemingly one word, but it worked and they were reconciled in good time.

On the lakeside beach, a conversation between Peter and the Nazarene, used the image of feeding lambs and sheep in words that forgave and healed. We have their words, we have to bring to life for ourselves the tone and body language that was part of the occasion. Peter’s response, ending in exasperation shows impatience but then we know from other recorded instances, Peter was an impetuous man.

The immediacy of contact, when two people are together exchanging views, has enormous value, something we appreciate when that contact is lost either gradually through the onset of illness or with the finality of death.

On an alternative level, disputes can only be resolved through conversations if conflict is to be avoided.

We could describe the Books of Old Testament Scripture as a record of an endless conversation over many centuries between God and mankind, the telling of a continual story of teaching and reconciliation. With the writing of the New Testament that understanding of prophetic conversation has taken us a stage further. We are caught between old forms of childhood faith, yet waiting for a new dispensation to emerge.

In our own times, we have been continually reminded by Francis that conversation is important, that listening is part of understanding. That is why within parishes open conversation leads to involvement and pastoral care, one for another. At diocesan level we find ourselves at a distance from our Bishop and appreciation is that much harder. But we must not give up seeking conversation that is honest and purposeful.

The conversation of love is without end, is not limited by language but is sufficiently expressed by the occasional Baahhhand the wide open arms of a caring hug.


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  1. Brian Fahy says:

    Thank you, Chris

    Thank you to Chris McDonnell for a wonderful article on the power and beauty of the human voice in conversation. Jesus wrote nothing down, himself, but he is God’s word in conversation with us, then and now.

    I have a house full of written words from my time as a preacher and teacher and homily writer and I used to wonder what I would do with them as I get towards the end of my life. The answer is nothing. They can happily go onto a fire. They served their time as self-expression and communication but the living word is now and today and lives in us as human interchange of goodness and love.

    I went away to junior seminary at the age of 11, in September 1958. I came home for Christmas three months later and stood in the kitchen of our house on my arrival home. My parents and my two sisters and my brother gathered round and listened as I talked to them.

    My little sister, Sheila, was only six years old. She looked up at me with those wide eyes of hers and listened to me and then she turned to mammy and said the immortal words, ‘Oh, mammy. His voice!’

    She had not heard that sound for three long months, a long time in a child’s life, and now here it was beside her and she was so happy.

    Yes, it is the human voice in gentle conversation that holds and heals the world. We are blessed to hear the voice of the Lord and to be part of his life-giving conversations.

    Brian Fahy

  2. Mary Vallely says:

    “But we must not give up seeking conversation that is honest and purposeful.”
    Chris makes an excellent point and sadly we have lost the art of conversation, of sitting face to face with another, listening, engaging, and being listened to. There is no doubt that the endless online ‘ conversations’ lack real truth. How do we gauge tone if we don’t hear the voice, how do we really engage with each other if we can’t read the body language or see the expression on another’s face?

    It is something we badly need in the Church. Conversations. Maybe simple conversations at parish level leading to fora at diocesan and national level. Honest face to face engagement. In the aftermath of the Referendum we really need to talk. We need to have a safe place to let out the pent up emotion, the hurt, the anger, the misunderstandings that have arisen. Some parishes are fortunate in that they have gathering spaces after mass where people can come together and chat. Those that don’t have such spaces need to take a look and see how and where they could facilitate conversations. Honest and purposeful of course is the aim.

    I don’t want to see a smaller, purer Church as at least one bishop has called for. It is not a Church I wish to belong to and the prospect of closing doors to people who have different viewpoints or lifestyles actually frightens me. Where is the Church of compassion, mercy, love and gentleness? Let’s start talking and keep talking and never stop listening and talking to each other face to face.

  3. Phil Greene says:

    Totally agree with you all , well said !
    And Mary you are so right .. it must be honest conversation.. otherwise why bother..
    I also am with you about the smaller purer Church.. its going that way alright .. but to say that it a plus for the faith community is just dishonest.. it is an excuse not to engage.. there is so much happening at the moment with the Catholic Church that leaves people so badly bruised, and yet the institution is blinkered into looking only at the positive, let’s focus on the WMOF etc.. heads in sand.. and we are called the “holy joe’s” as people look at us in confusion .. why are we still part of THAT church?..
    I am reading 2 books at the moment “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, and “Walking away from Faith” by Ruth A Tucker and in between reading the traits of the covert narcissist (seemingly very common in spiritual and lay communities) .. so many questions to be answered, you guys already seem to have found the answers..you are lucky!
    Take care and sending blessings your way 🙂

    1. Brian Fahy says:

      After the joy of reading the article by Chris O’Donnell extolling the greatness of human conversation as our health and healing way of living life, I started to shred lots of my old writings that no one will ever read. They were good for their time but my life today asks me to concentrate of being a good conversationalist with every person I meet.

      However, I came across this wee story that I feel is worth sharing. It is a true story but the name has been changed to protect the innocent. I think it speaks volumes about how reverence for one another, no matter what, is the way of life that Jesus calls us to follow.

      Let’s call her Jenny, to protect the innocent. Her mother abandoned her. Her father was dead. She was left in the care of her grandmother who favoured her two brothers. She was raped, at 13, by the father of one of her teachers, after trusting this man and accepting an invitation to his house. She never told her mother. She never told anyone. She was raped at 15 by a cousin, while playing ‘blind man’s bluff’ All this was supressed inside her. She felt valueless, dirty and had no self-esteem.

      She married but was not able to respond lovingly in sexual relationship. She just endured it. She had many miscarriages and regarded them as a punishment. One child was born and stayed with her and another was adopted. She was regarded as troublesome. She felt pushed out of church work by the hostile attitudes of a woman in the parish and the priest.

      In this rejected state she was picked up by respectable married man, taken by car into the hills and used for sex. She did not resist. ‘This is all I am good for.’ She was very depressed. Eventually after five days she went to mass and communion and then to confession. The priest told her off very strongly for going to communion in a state of mortal sin! In this way the priest reinforced the message that Jenny is evil, wicked and rubbish and not worth anything.

      We feel good or bad about ourselves according to the messages we receive from other people. If we are treated badly we come to conclude that we are bad and also valueless.

      The priest was guilty of great cruelty, upholding the reverence for the holy sacrament by shouting at a human being. You cannot promote reverence for God by treating people irreverently. We have promoted objective reverence for sacred things at the expense of interpersonal reverence for human beings.

      Love of one another is the way we heal the world.

  4. Chris McDonnell says:

    I much appreciate Brian’s generous comments.
    I sincerely hope I will not be held responsible by future generations for his shredding a valuable archive!

  5. Frances Burke says:

    Brian @4

    I would like to meet Jenny

    Sexual abuse is a life sentence due to the psychological damage it causes. It takes oceans of therapy and talking to come to some kind of terms with it. I’m grateful that I have found a group of fellow survivors where I can go weekly and talk in complete openness about how I am feeling and know that i will not be condemned or judged. I know I will need this “talking therapy” for the rest of my life.

    If there are any Jenny’s or Joe’s reading this you are most welcome to our group.

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