They were talking together about all these things that had happened. As they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them.
Luke 24: 14-15
How does the community of believers come to know the meaning of those events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and their experience of him? How do we come to know how God is working in our lives and the meaning and call of God’s presence within and among us? The brilliant and beautiful story from Luke that we read today teaches us how a community comes to know “the needs of the times and the desires of God in their regard.”
The story of the disciples’ encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus is, obviously, set in a Eucharistic context. When the disciples return to tell the others of their encounter, they relate how “they recognized him in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24: 35). Yet this sacramental encounter could never have happened without its necessary preparation. That preparation is their shared attempt to investigate and understand what had occurred the past few days through shared conversation. They are “talking together,” says Luke, and in order to emphasize the significance of this he repeats “they were talking and discussing.” It is into the heart of this speaking together that Jesus enters.
Some of the saddest moments in the practice of the institutional church is when its leaders declare that there is to be no more thinking and speaking about a certain topic. It is out of desperation that any state, or church, or institution attempts to silence the voice of any human person of good will. Yet, if we are to be honest, we need to acknowledge how often each of us fails in the practice of dialogue. Blessed Paul VI once asserted that “dialogue is the new name for love.” So, to fail to dialogue is to fail in love.
Most of the hardened conflicts and sufferings in families and communities arise out of a refusal or failure to communicate, to honestly and vulnerably speak with each other. In truth, we are almost constantly in the position of the disciples on the road. What happens in our daily lives and relationships to others is often a mystery to us. It is very difficult to really understand the other. There is only one human way to come to understanding and that is through communication, by listening humbly and speaking honestly. In the gospel story from Luke we learn that it is within such engagement with others and through commitment to growing in shared understanding that “Jesus himself draws near.”
What makes such creative dialogue so difficult for us and what are the conditions that we need to foster to dispose ourselves more fully to its possibilities? Perhaps the greatest obstacle to such listening and speaking is mistrust. We so long to be understood by another that it is difficult to risk being misunderstood. Yet, in every deep desire lies its opposite, and so we need to overcome the fear and resentment of not being understood if we are to risk a truly honest self-expression. On the other hand, to truly listen to another we must be willing to set aside our demand for attention and dominance. True dialogue requires that we know what we think, feel, and believe, but that we are also willing to create a space (what Meister Eckhart calls “gelassenheit” or “releasement”) for the truth of the other to enter in.
The disciples in the gospel story are broken people. They are meeting and discussing in that place where they recognize that they do not understand. They are truly searching together for understanding. This means that neither of them is attempting to force their own “truth” on the other. The ground of true dialogue is such humility. It is when each party to the conversation puts aside his or her own version of the truth and opens to the unknown that the risen Jesus in the person of the Spirit can draw near and show the Way that is himself.
We suffer so much in our life of relationship with others because we dare not truly encounter them. We too readily come to that place in our minds and our hearts where we close down ourselves and close out the other. The more time passes in this self-imposed isolation, the more difficult it is for us to break out and to dare to honestly, humbly, and with care engage with the other. Too often our families and our communities are places where niceness and appeasement disguise a cold and resentful hostility. For the two disciples in today’s gospel, it took courage to “go on” in the face of “all that had happened” during the days of Jesus’ passion and death, as it took courage to dare to share with each other their fear, sadness, and incomprehension. So also for us. It takes courage to foster in true conversation and dialogue the true connection and intimacy we so crave. That connection and intimacy is actually our shared communion as the body of Christ. “Where two or three are gathered, I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). We are promised that those who honestly and humbly seek the Lord will find the Lord. This, to be sure, requires that we go within in silence and prayer. However, it equally requires that we also search together, encountering the Mystery of God in the mystery of each other.
Whether within or in dialogue with others, we must, in Martin Heidegger’s terms, replace our typical mode of “calculative thinking” with “meditative thinking”. If this transition from thinking only in calculative terms to pondering meditatively is difficult individually, it is even more difficult in conversation with others. Yet, it is by sharing such meditative thought that together we become available to the Divine direction which is always attempting to manifest itself at the core of our experience.
This meditative thinking is what we have in mind when we say that contemporary man is in flight- from-thinking. Yet you may protest: mere meditative thinking finds itself floating unaware above reality. It loses touch. It is worthless for dealing with current business. It profits nothing in carrying out practical affairs.
And you may say, finally, that mere meditative thinking, persevering meditation, is “above” the reach of ordinary understanding. In this excuse only this much is true, meditative thinking does not just happen by itself any more than does calculative thinking. At times it requires a greater effort. It demands more practice. It is in need of even more delicate care than any other genuine craft. But it must also be able to bide its time, to await as does the farmer, whether the seed will come up and ripen.
Yet anyone can follow the path of meditative thinking in his own manner and within his own limits. Why? Because man is a thinking, that is, a meditating being. Thus meditative thinking need by no means be “high-flown.” It is enough if we dwell on what lies close and meditate on what is closest; upon that which concerns us, each one of us, here and now; here, on this patch of home ground; now, in the present hour of history.
Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, pp. 46-7