The Spiritual Practice of Conversation

By Andrea Roske-Metcalfe

I’m a Lutheran pastor, and I’m not very good at spiritual practice, at least not of the genre that generally comes to mind—contemplative prayer, meditation, journaling, silent retreat, fasting, spiritual direction, reading devotional writers, etc. I know this list isn’t exhaustive, but these are some things that my religious colleagues, both clergy and lay, have found life-giving as a means to connect more fully with the divine. I’ll admit that I experience some jealousy in realizing that I do not.

I did a year of spiritual direction some time ago. It wasn’t the best match, and I simply wasn’t invested enough to seek a better one. When contemplative prayer and lectio divina and art journaling and other things pop up here and there in conference or small group settings, I always give it a go, but mentally I’ve already moved on to the next item on the agenda.

I’m a Lutheran pastor, and I’m not very good at spiritual practice, at least not of the genre that generally comes to mind.

I registered for a course on Zen meditation during seminary, but I’m not a morning person, and waking up at 5:30 am to sit very still on a small round cushion or to shuffle in single file across honking traffic on Broadway Avenue didn’t do for me what it was so clearly doing for my classmates. I dropped the course after a month.

I participated in an annual silent retreat for several years running when I lived in Mexico. One year, halfway through the period of silence, I made hand gestures wildly at my spouse, indicating that he was to come and kill a very juicy scorpion lounging near the shower. The next year, a volunteer in my charge had a severe allergic reaction to an antibiotic he was taking, so I broke my silence to help care for him; the following year, I caught a snake in my room—silently—with my bare hands and a plastic frisbee.

Let’s just say it hasn’t been a good run.

I should be clear that I don’t mean to be flippant. I really do envy those for whom these kinds of spiritual practices are helpful, and I realize that with a bit more discipline, perhaps they could be for me, too.

But other kinds of spiritual practice are also for me—perhaps more for me—and I’ve come to accept them as equally valid: cooking, especially soups (and especially the blended ones, for some reason); connecting ancient, sacred stories to current events, both for grown-ups and for small children; never missing a chance to see certain secular musicians live, if I have the resources to make it happen.

And participating in certain kinds of conversations, it turns out, though it took a while for me to recognize this.

I’m surprised, to be honest. I’m a storyteller, I’m an external processor, I live to make connections. And while I’ve recognized those aspects of myself as vocational for some time, I never recognized them as part of a spiritual practice.

Until, that is, I sat in a room with ten other religious leaders from five different religious traditions, over and over again for two years, while we did our level best to make sense of the world around us, for our own sake and for the sake of the communities we are privileged to serve.

As I said, I’m a Lutheran pastor. I trained at some of the best seminaries and divinity schools in the world, and to say that my training in inter-religious conversations was lacking would be generous. What I did have under my belt, prior to the fall of 2017, were two distinct things: one, I had relationships with people of other religious traditions—some of them dear friends—people with whom I had lived and worked and studied. In these relationships, our shared humanity is what drove our relationships; our religious differences were secondary. Two, I had formal training in inter-religious dialogue—the kinds of conversations that are often stiff and informal and scripted to the nth degree, because they almost always start from the assumption that the two people who have agreed to engage in such dialogue might just as easily have agreed to kill each other. (To be fair, our history gives us reason to assume exactly this.) In these encounters, our shared humanity was hardly paramount; our religious differences drove the discussion.

But this room with these ten other people (plus our phenomenal conveners) was different. Our shared humanity was of utmost importance, as well as that of the entire rest of the world. And our religious differences and commonalities were also of utmost importance, but always as a matter of interest and discovery, never as a wedge or a point of coercion.

Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations with someone when you’re both facing the same direction, like driving together, say, or going for a walk, or kneeling down to plant flower beds? Have you noticed that conversation flows in a different way when you’re both focused in the same direction than it does when you’re facing each other across a dinner table, for example, or from two ends of the same couch?

That’s what these two years were like for me, as a part of the Collegeville Institute’s first Multi-Religious Fellows Program. Even though the other members of my cohort and I were most often facing one another around a set of tables, the topics we were invited to engage made it seem as though we were standing together, all facing the same direction, exploring  questions and conversations with a level of trust and boldness and vulnerability that belied just how little time we had actually spent together.

Our religious differences and commonalities were of utmost importance, but always as a matter of interest and discovery, never as a wedge or a point of coercion.

I don’t know how it happened, but for the most part, we just clicked. We gathered for two days, every few months, to engage in conversations on difficult issues facing all our communities—aging populations, the flagging healthcare system, racism and redlining and poverty, among others. Our conveners—Rabbi Barry Cytron, Dr. Marti Stortz, and the Rev. Gary Reierson—used their own connections to bring in fascinating guest speakers on every topic.

We didn’t always agree—with one another or with the guest speakers, most of whom had years of experience in these complicated fields—but that was the best part. Every genuine (if sometimes loaded) question, every passionate disagreement was an invitation for everyone else to sit back and consider a familiar topic from a completely different point of view, as well as an opportunity to weigh in on what different religious traditions have to say about matters that shape how each of us lives every day. It never felt like we were ganging up on one another (though it was clear that a few guest speakers felt as if we were ganging up on them—sorry not sorry). It was as if we always knew that, no matter where the conversation would eventually take us, at the end of the day we would find ourselves there together.

This dynamic played out in the large group, but it was similar one-on-one or around smaller tables for meals, too. We would touch base informally about things we had shared earlier during our large group check-ins, or tend to those for whom the previous discussion had clearly struck a nerve. Often these conversations would start with two or three or four of us, and by the time we were scheduled to gather again as a large group, we had already been gathered for ages, still engaging these complicated topics and taking them beyond the scope of the formal discussion, doing the authentic work of inter-religious conversation without needing anyone to guide us.

No matter where the conversation would eventually take us, [we knew that] at the end of the day we would find ourselves there together.

That’s the kind of spiritual practice that feeds me, if I’m honest with myself—the kind that gets my blood pumping, the kind that gets me angry, even. It’s the kind that cracks wide open my understanding about God and myself and the ideas I held so dear, pushing me further out into the world I thought I knew already. It’s the kind of spiritual practice that forces me to step back and take stock of the ways in which I live and love and lead in my own community.

If you consider yourself a spiritual person in any way, then I hope you’ve found a spiritual practice that feeds you. And I hope even harder that you’ve also had the chance to form relationships with people who think and believe in ways that call into question most of the ways you think and believe, and that you’ve encountered the divine in the midst of it.

I have, and I consider myself lucky beyond measure.

Andrea Roske-Metcalfe was a member of the 2017-19 Multi-Religious Fellows program at the Collegeville Institute. She recently accepted a call to the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program in Nepal. Previously, Andrea served as the associate pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, MN. She holds an MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in New York, where she worked as a community organizer for the Poverty Initiative. She’s passionate about writing, storytelling (she won the 2017 Twin Cities Moth GrandSLAM), and making soup (blended ones, especially).