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Contemplation, dialogue can break impasse of polarities

Believing faith can empower people to move beyond the impasses they experience in work for justice in the world and their churches, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Nancy Sylvester urges contemplation and dialogue.

“We need to be hospice workers to the old paradigm and midwives for the emerging one,” she said during the November Catholicism and the New Millennium lecture at Gonzaga University.


Nancy Sylvester

Sister Nancy believes the world is at a critical moment that demands a new consciousness.

The issues we face and polarities we experience witness to the powerlessness of trying to change ourselves or society in the usual ways,” she said.

After 15 years as a researcher and lobbyist with NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby in Washington, D.C., Sister Nancy felt lobbying puts a finger in the dike of societal, economic, political and ethical issues by developing laws that can be changed and changed again.

“While it is important to change laws, laws do not transform people at the depths of who they are, what they believe, what they see as true and what they do,” she said, having worked with Democratic and Republican-led Congresses.

I thought there was an opportunity to make a difference when the Soviet Union fell,” she said.  “I thought we would shift from a high military budget to support human needs.  Instead, we continued to pour money into military programs and even moved to a pre-emptive strike policy.”

Sister Nancy, who grew up in South Chicago, entered the convent after high school and earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Louis University in philosophy and political science in 1971.  She taught secondary religion and social studies in Michigan for six years before going to NETWORK. 

In 1982, she was elected vice president of her congregation and moved to Monroe, Mich.  She also served three years on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

In 2002, she established the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue and developed its program, Engaging Impasse: Circles of Contemplation and Dialogue.  This work combines her background in the political arena and her work in the ecclesiastical arena.

Through Engaging Impasse, she has facilitated 13 circles that involved 170 people who met three times over several months.  In December, six circles with 100 people will begin in Cleveland.

In the circles, participants tell their stories of impasse, engage the impasse, dialogue on insights from it through a process of communal contemplation to help them imagine new ways of being and acting.

Participants shared feelings of impasse about such events as frustration at the failure to prevent the War in Iraq, ruptured relationships that don’t seem to heal, win-lose conflicts, abuse of women and children, religions becoming sources of conflict and industrial progress destroying the earth.

“When people who have been trying to integrate what they have been learning through recent decades of psychology, theology, science and the new universe story, a few face impasse.  They encounter individuals and systems protecting old ways of thinking and doing,” she said, “ways that have roots in our consciousness shaped by patriarchy and the Enlightenment .

 “Worldviews or paradigms offer us stories that have shaped us.  Although much good has come from these worldviews, today they are failing us.  They tell us we are separate, mechanistic, selfish and violent.  They promote ideas of either/or over both/and, might makes right, human domination over other species and earth, males over females, and identity based on possessions,” she said.  “We need new paradigms, new stories to move into the future.

Political debate of ‘this way or else’ limits our world view.  We can’t think of how to resolve the violence that comes from might makes right.  We can’t solve the problems from the same consciousness that created them,” she said, citing words of Albert Einstein.

So Sister Nancy promotes “engaging the impasse through contemplation,” a way to pray that loosens the hold of traditional stories that shape who we say we are as individuals, nations or Christian communities.

“These stories lock us into ways of thinking.  Contemplation opens us to take a long, loving look at the real,” she said. “Then we can see how our fears and insecurities make us complicit in the impasse.  We need to be vulnerable to create a shift that transforms our consciousness in a profound way.”

Sister Nancy believes people are evolving to a more global earth-centered perspective from former ethnocentric ways of viewing and responding to problems.

In this climate of division and polarities, some have become so dogmatic that those seeking to explore new stories of who we are and why we are here feel they have lost their voice,” she said.

Basing social and political structures on old paradigms inhibits people resolving issues they face, she added.

“Contemplation in a small group allows us to discern different responses,” she said, inviting dialogue.  “Absolute positions foster divisions that are killing us as a country, as Catholics, as families and as individuals.  We need to take time to converse, be curious and explore options.”

“We can make bridges through conversation and contemplation,” she said, contrasting that to her efforts in the Catholic social justice movement to appeal primarily to the intellect by providing enough data on poverty, racism and other issues that people would come to new understandings and change their views.

Now she sees a deeper shift is needed, one relying on the wisdom and spiritual insights of many sources which have often been less valued in the dominant worldview, including women and indigenous people.

Using the image of two islands sticking above the water, she said dialogue finds the unseen common ground, the land connecting them underwater. 

She believes this kind of conversation is needed “if we are to reimagine new ways of addressing the economic and political problems facing us.  For example, the environment cannot be addressed if corporations rely only on quarterly profits as the measure of their success.  Sister Nancy calls for long-term investments that may not show profit the first quarter. 

The government divides issues into a variety of committees, rather than looking at overall implications and the relationship of issues.

“We need to connect issues so we find creative resolutions with new ways of thinking,” Sister Nancy said. 

“We can change laws, but if we do not transform how people understand reality, the laws will not address the underlying issues,” she said.  “For example, we need laws against discrimination and for equality, but unless people believe black people and white people are one and are more alike than different, we will not shift from the racism embedded in our structures and worldview.”

Sister Nancy seeks to integrate psychology, theology, philosophy, politics and science in a collage of perspectives, so people can see how the pieces are related.

“We may not change the impasse, but we can change ourselves and how we engage the situations of impasse and, in doing so, change the world as well,” she said.  “By changing how we deal with impasse, we can live with integrity in this transitional time.

“Hope is not naïve if people know what we are up against and imagine new ways of doing and being,” she said.  “Contemplation is never a privatization of religion.  It always moves us to act.  It can awaken our consciousness to new understandings as planetary citizens. God is bigger than we imagine.”