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Breaking the Silence
Breaking the Distrust Doom Loop

Synodality, Spirituality and Silence

The documents of the 2021-2024 Synod on Synodality that are available online make for sometimes genial, other times frustrating, reading. One text is of particular interest, the document titled “Biblical Resources for Synodality,” organized and written by the Biblical Sub-Group of the synod’s Commission on Spirituality. Like many of the other documents, this one is quite accessible to a wide range of readers and pleasing to the eye. It posits the amenable—and familiar—claim that Scripture is “at the heart of the synodal journey” and is the physical and metaphysical space wherein the faithful can experience an authentic encounter with Christ. With that, the document seems to admit that a kind of Scriptural and spiritual illiteracy persists among contemporary Catholics. And so, it proffers as a remedy for such a vacuum in religious education and spiritual life two spiritual modes of engagement: the application of the “imaginative contemplation” to holy texts and personal experiences, and the monastic practice of lectio divina as a modality for the praxis of prayer. Such techniques, the document avers, are movements as much “of the heart as of the mind” and so enlarge the compass of reason with the rich creativity of the ensouled heart and original inspiration. It is worth noting that private contemplation reconfigures the space of spiritual engagement, properly, to encompass personal and individual, and not just clerical, authority.

One cannot deny the merit of cultivating “imaginative contemplation” and performing lectio divina as habits of devotion but also as habits of being in the world. As the document explains, “imaginative contemplation” is akin to a “heart that has eyes,” that is, being present with a spiritual, aesthetic and emotional openness before Scriptural texts that can inspire prayer. Yet how transformative for daily life to be present before the world with such openness, releasing the creative energy of a benevolent imagination to envision possibility and conceive in different directions and dimensions. While it is an important praxis for piety, it seems it might also be a vital practice for meaningful engagement with a confusing and chaotic world, especially for young people. For them, the world is so mired in hopelessness, cynicism and doubt, that we ‘elders’—and the Church—are obliged to encourage in them the quiet thoughtfulness of contemplation and the innovative potential of imagination. Imaginative contemplation defies the limitations of reason, excites hope and invites into daily life the extravagance of creativity: beauty, mystery and wonder.

Lectio divina is also a traditional practice of affective piety and constitutes a four-fold process of engaging Scripture (and reading in general): reading the text deliberately; reflecting on the text personally; entering into a prayerful state through the inspiration of reflection; and, finally, contemplating in silent (wordless) stillness the presence of God. Like “imaginative contemplation,” lectio divina is a private devotion and independent of clerical or ecclesial authority.

With regard to those referents, then, the document does merit consideration, especially since those two kinds of practice are relevant to the spiritual health of Catholics and are sorely lacking in the devotional lives of most faithful. Yet, there still remains a troubling lacuna, not unexpected (unfortunately), that might seem petty to mention, but that is still an omission that exemplifies the depth and persistence, and perhaps even acceptance, of the patriarchal culture of the Church, which is the most toxic obstacle the Church must overcome if it is to retain in its community women and their children (Gen Z and beyond). Without women, the condition of the Church will become (has become) precarious.

Although the group responsible for the creation of the document consisted of five men and two women (one religious, one lay), only men wrote the actual text. That seemingly minor fact, however, might explain how, in the 94 pages of text, there is not one mention of women (with the usual exception of Mother Mary, who of course does not count in this instance). All the Biblical passages incorporated as examples for study, for example, are about (and of course by) men. All the examples of spiritual teachers and practitioners of lectio divina that the document cites are men, and all the quoted passages included for reflection are the words of men: Bede; St. Anselm; St. Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, to name just a few. Where are the stories of Sarah, Rachel, Esther, Naomi, the Magdalene? Where are the references to female models of lectio divina: Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Gertrude the Great, or Bridget of Sweden? Why the persistent notation in the document of “the voices of the Fathers” and not one mention of the voice of a Mother?

This might seem a minor issue to some, but for women, it is not minor. In a document that purports to be a token of synodality, an invitation for community participation, women’s voices, women’s stories, women’s ideas, women’s reflections, are still not part of the major narrative. Rather, it seems now as ever, women are expected simply to amalgam their piety with the piety of men. Yet, if each individual has dignity and value, where is the woman to tell her story, to be the author of her narrative? What does the silence of and about Catholic women say to younger generations of women who ache to have some representation in the story of the Church or who know that there are voices out there but those voices are still ignored or silenced?

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.


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