David: I hope I have not embarrassed you by introducing you as Ate Thelma, but hearing you addressed in this way in your culture, I sense that spirituality remains more central to your culture than is true in the secularized West. You have lived in both worlds, completing some of your training in the United States. Does this generalization seem true to you?
Thelma: It’s amazing how you picked up on this use of the term Ate. The word does say something of the uniquely Filipino way in which we relate. Titles of respect reflect the way we esteem spirituality and community life in our culture. Within the family, we call older sisters Ate and older brothers Kuya, but we also use these titles outside our families for those whom we respect not just because they are older, but because of their authority or spiritual maturity.
Filipinos love to congregate, nurture relationships, and just be together. I remember Juliet’s [David Benner’s wife] making a comment about my having so many circles of relationships. My circles have multiplied through the years of my journey. In the Philippines, once you are a part of a group, you will always be seen to be a part of it, even when you are no longer involved in it. And if you were esteemed by that group as an Ate or a Kuya, you will continue to be esteemed. Over time, you collect more and more Ates and Kuyas, and you also become an Ate or a Kuya to more and more people.
Spirituality is more central in the Philippines than in the West. Our being so relational helps maintain this. Secularization in the West has distracted people from spiritual realities not just because materialism has falsely filled their inner void, but also because people are so individualistic and private. Materialism has made people more self-sufficient. If you don’t need others, then it is also easy to have less felt need for God. God is best experienced in people. Perhaps it is partly the lack of close relationships that makes Americans prefer sharing their deepest struggles with “professional” strangers rather than with friends. Filipinos prefer opening up to people close to us. This valuing of communal sharing has kept the fire of spirituality burning.
In general, Filipinos, like other Asians, are also more inward-looking than Western people. I think this is why other Asian countries also remain more spiritually oriented even though, unlike the Philippines, they may not be primarily Christian. Filipinos are more aware of affect and value what is inside us. I also think that, in general, we live with a greater sense of mystery.
David: Gerald May has said that mystery may not always be spiritual, but the spiritual will always involve mystery. So I don’t doubt that this has, in fact, helped Filipino culture stay closer to its spiritual roots. But speaking of roots, I know that your own spiritual journey as been somewhat what bicultural. You were raised Roman Catholic, but also spiritually nurtured by Evangelical Protestantism. How have these two streams come together for you, and what has each added to your experience of God?
Thelma: My elementary education was in a Catholic school. Looking back, I realize how foundational this experience was in cultivating a deep desire to connect with God through prayer. We would always start the day with prayers and had weekly novenas and Masses, and my first experience of a silent retreat was when I was twelve years old. We were also encouraged to make regular visits to the school chapel alone. This became my favorite daily practice. I remember being in the chapel, sometimes praying the rosary, but many times just sitting or kneeling in silence. I preferred attending the earliest Mass on Sundays, before sunrise, because I enjoyed the sacred stillness of the morning. Church was where we came to meet God, not simply to mingle with others. Even though I did not have a clear cognitive understanding of spirituality, I had some of my most heartfelt experiences of God during these years of childhood and adolescence.
I began to be exposed to evangelicals and their teachings while at college. Longing to be part of a community, I joined a Christian fellowship on campus, and it was during this time that I first began to read and study Scriptures. Small group Bible studies became a vital source of spiritual nourishment and friendship. In general, my involvement in evangelical circles satisfied my cognitive curiosity about the Christian faith and how to apply Christian principles in daily living and relationships. Most importantly, I have grown in my understanding of who Jesus is and what it means to have a vital and personal relationship with Him in loving and reaching out to others.
David: Tell me a bit about your more recent journey into contemplative spirituality. What exactly does this mean for you?
Thelma: Although I speak of recently moving more into a contemplative spirituality, I realize that I must have actually been a contemplative long before learning the language to describe it. It’s like coming home. It is new and yet familiar. When I attended the silent retreat that you and Juliet led in the Philippines in 2000, something in my heart resonated. I was immediately at home with everything I experienced during those days. Around that time, I was also trying to discern whether I should pursue further training in counseling. As I basked in the special way God touched my soul during that retreat, I knew this was what my heart was yearning for. “This is what I want,” I thought. After the retreat, I began to seek training in spiritual direction, and this training has taught me much about contemplative spirituality.
As I think about it, contemplative spirituality is essentially a posture of the heart—of being and not simply doing. It is an attitude of waiting upon God and attending to his presence in the deep recesses of my heart as well as in the people and things around me. This can happen wherever I am and at any given moment, whether I am reading the Scripture, lending an ear to someone in her journey, listening to music, or working in the kitchen or garden. I have found contemplative spirituality to be the most sensitive, peaceful, and authentic way of shaping my interior life. It has helped me cultivate interior silence, so I become more aware of God’s presence and respond to His invitation. It is about removing the inner clutter that drowns out the still, small voice of God and entering the inner space of my heart, where God dwells and has never for a moment left.
I used to think people needed to receive Christ because he was absent. I am realizing more and more that, like the prodigal son, it is we who have left home, not Christ who has left us. To receive Jesus means to trust in his abiding presence in the very core of our hearts and surrender to his unconditional, faithful love. This inner space is where true and intimate communion with God, who is Love, takes place. It is astounding to find out that this same space is also the place of my truest, deepest yearnings. It is the place where I can experience and relax in the warmth of God’s loving embrace; hear his tender, reassuring voice; and catch sight of his constant, compassionate gaze upon my soul.
I am surprised and humbled at the transforming impact this posture of the heart is having in my life and ministry. It is not my heart’s posture per se that transforms me, but Christ. A contemplative stance is simply one that is sensitive and receptive to God’s ongoing, transforming work in our lives in the process of our “becomingness” according to the likeness of his Son.