Conversatio Divina

Contemplation and Social Action

David Benner and Thelma Galvez Nambu in Conversation

David G. Benner

I asked Thelma to participate in this conversation because, over the years I have known her, I have always been impressed with the way in which her quiet, contemplative spirit directs her life of social action. She is a gentle and wise woman who is honored by her fellow Filipinos by the title of Ate, an informal designation of respect offered to a woman who is held in high esteem within a community.


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.

David:     I like your description of a contemplative posture as waiting upon God and attending to his presence in the deep recesses of your heart, as well as in the people and things around you. And I appreciate hearing how you have learned to trust the way in which God is present both in you and in the lives of others. But if this is a contemplative posture, what is contemplative prayer?

 

Thelma:  Contemplative prayer is listening prayer. It is a way of connecting to the depths of God’s heart by being attentive to his ways and actions in and around us. It assumes that God is actively present and communicating, moving and engaging with our world and with us. Often, we miss out on what God is already doing and speaking because our hearts and minds are cluttered with words and thoughts. We speak more than listen. To listen does not mean that we listen only to what we hear through our physical ears. Contemplative prayer has to do more with being open to God’s presence and communication through the ears of our heart as we hear, see, feel, taste, or sense his presence around us.

Solitude and silence are important elements of contemplative prayer, but as spiritual disciplines, they are primarily about creating interior spaces in our souls. Having been in the Philippines a number of times, you know how hard it is to find silence or solitude in our country, especially in Manila. But external silence is not necessary for internal stillness. It is in the interior spaces of our hearts that we hear God’s voice of love. It is also in the interior spaces of our hearts where we are most fully who we are to ourselves and to God. This is the place of our unspoken sighs, desires, joys and tears—the purest prayers of our hearts. This means that interior solitude and silence are possible even as I walk through the busy, noisy streets of Manila, sit inside a crowded jeepney [converted jeeps that serve as the most common form of public transportation in the Philippines], or gaze into billboard-riddled skies. Contemplative prayer is simply being aware and being present to the God who is always present and communicating.

 

David:     I have heard you say that you are learning to find God’s incarnational presence everywhere and in all people, regardless of their age, gender, or spiritual condition. That sounds important. Can you tell me more about what the shift has been for you in this? And perhaps you can tell me a story or two about people with whom you have worked on the streets and within your Samaritana community [in whose presence] you have encountered God with surprise or particular joy.

 

Thelma:  I used to think that God’s incarnational presence through humans was only when someone was living out the Gospel, so to speak, as opposed to merely speaking about it. In fact, this was my motivating conviction when I first began to minister among the women on the streets and in the bars. It was as if incarnating Christ is something only those who have been enlightened by the Gospel can do to make God’s love be felt by others. I am realizing this is just part of what incarnation is all about. As I learn to become more attentive to the reality of God’s abiding presence everywhere and anywhere, I am awed to realize that I can experience his incarnational presence in places, situations, and people whom I would have before considered “lost” and incapable of mirroring Christ. I have found that belief erroneous since I began working with the down-and-out and discovered that Christ was dwelling in them as well. Although I play the role of a spiritual caregiver and companion, I always come away with a sense of having been accompanied myself because I am humbly touched and blessed by God through their lives. Let me share two such divine encounters with women.

Lucy [not her real name] came to me one morning feeling distraught. As soon as she sat beside me, she laid her head on my lap and began to sob uncontrollably. “Why are things going this way in my life? Why has life been harder after I moved out of prostitution?” she moaned. Lucy wept over her five-year-old daughter, who she had just learned had been sexually molested by the son of a close friend. This brought back memories of her own abuse as a child. It devastated her all the more, realizing that her daughter had now experienced what she had experienced, and at an even younger age. As I allowed her to express her hurt and emotions and listened to her pain, I felt God’s outpouring compassion. I laid my hands on her head and shed tears with her. When she was a bit composed, I asked her what she was feeling towards the boy and what she wanted to do. What struck me was that she did not boil with rage. “A part of me also pities him because he grew up in a broken and unhealthy environment. He does not know what he was doing, and I forgive him,” she said. I felt I encountered Jesus in her as she incarnated Jesus’ own lamentation and compassionate heart. At the same time, I had the privilege to live out Jesus’ tender, comforting love towards her.

Yesterday, someone I will call Rizza was sharing with me how she stretches her meager income to provide for her needs and her baby’s. Impressed with her ability to live within her limited resources and still be content, I asked how she learned this. “My one-month stay in the jail taught me so much about life,” she said. “Before, I could manage, but I suddenly found myself in jail with nothing if not for the kindness of other people.” I asked her how she felt God’s presence in the congested, noisy, messy jail where she spent her seventh month of pregnancy. She said, “God took care of me.” She related how God used people to provide for her basic needs. Other inmates shared their extra food that their visiting friends brought. A female jail warden gave her maternity clothes. She learned Christian songs from visiting pastors and nuns. It was also there she met one of our staff, Mildred, who went to see other women she knew from the street after learning they were apprehended. When she was discharged from jail, Samaritana began to assist her and continues to do so. Rizza expressed her gratitude for everything she is experiencing in Samaritana. “I enjoy our morning prayers so much that I feel disappointed when I miss them. It is here I came to realize I can talk to God anywhere and at any time. I also like being able to talk about my story with you. My heart feels lighter as I share my past.” At the end of our session together, I did what I often do:          I thanked Rizza for entrusting with me a part of her story and for incarnating God’s presence to me, testifying that he is indeed alive and cares about us.

As I journey into a contemplative spirituality, it is these encounters with the divine in people’s lives that have given me fresh insights into what Scriptures say about God’s active involvement in our lives. That He is God Immanuel, the God who is with us, has never been clearer to me than now, especially as I contemplate this mystical reality among the chosen bearers of his image. Because Jesus chose to come in human flesh for the complete identification with all human pain and joy to accomplish God’s redemption plan, we get a glimpse of his face in any person we encounter in life. This, to me, is what incarnation is all about.

 

David:     Thanks for sharing those stories. Having met some of the young women you work with, I am reminded of the ways in which they also showed Christ to me. But your stories make me think of your commitment to a social dimension of the Christian transformational process. Are we missing something when we focus exclusively on the relationship of individuals to God?

 

Thelma:  Filipino culture values something we refer to as sakop and loob. These concepts refer to the idea of being part of something larger than ourselves and point to our communal character as a people. But this communal dimension can also be expressed in clannishness and exclusivity. If you go to the plaza in Central on Hong Kong Island, you will find Filipinos congregating in sub-groups according to their particular dialect and province of origin. Sadly, this is also seen in Christian communities. For instance, Catholics and Evangelicals hesitate to dialogue on issues that either unite or divide them. Domestic helpers and less educated people attend Tagalog worship services, while the more educated ones go to English services.

Prevailing evangelical theology that puts emphasis on evangelism and discipleship has influenced this sad state of dichotomy, marginalization, and segregation. The West, particularly the United States, which we tend to revere, has been very influential in sending us models of conversion and materials for spiritual growth. But because these are by-products of a dichotomous and individualistic culture, they fail to address many of our unique struggles, and contextualizing them to fit our situation has not been easy. For instance, the heavy emphasis placed on individual responsibility for personal growth leads to a focus more on the vertical relationship with God than the horizontal process of transformation. I see this happening particularly among large churches where people rely on Sunday preaching and charismatic leaders for personal growth and less on their horizontal relationship with the other members of the church.

There may also be a danger of practicing contemplative spirituality within the vertical dimension of our faith alone. True contemplation does not simply involve having our personal needs and desires met, even if this is sometimes graced with numinous experiences of the divine. True contemplation must result in loving our neighbors—particularly the least of our neighbors, those who are needy and dependent on others for their physical, emotional, or spiritual restoration. Unlike Filipinos, who prioritize their relationships among those who are part of their sakop, Jesus, who was born a Jew, extended love to anyone, regardless of his or her sex, age, and social standing. The good news he proclaimed was not one of words alone, but was accompanied with action. He reached out to people whom the religious, even his disciples, tended to neglect, despise, and ostracize. Today, Jesus continues to challenge us to incarnate him to our neighbors. I like the way Segundo Galilea describes who his neighbors are in his book Following Jesus. He said, “My neighbor is anyone who has a right to expect something from me, the one whom God puts in the way of my own personal history.” Although every human being is potentially a neighbor, our true neighbor is the one we meet in our life, even if only on one occasion. Such neighbors particularly include the needy, those in whom Jesus reveals himself as the needy one. “Whatever you did to one of the least of my brothers, you did to me.”

I believe the transformational process of which Jesus speaks is one that takes place not just when we are alone with God, but also when we are encountering the Other in the lives of others. Just as people encountered God in the human face of Jesus, we, too, can see and experience God in our neighbor if we allow ourselves to be still and notice the Divine Presence.

 

David:     I can’t think of anywhere better to find God’s presence than in people. Your story reminds me of a story that is often told about Mother Teresa, who, when asked how she was able to work with the most down-and-out of the down-and-out in Calcutta, answered something to the effect that it was easy because she saw Jesus in every face she encountered. This shouldn’t be a surprise for us since we believe that all persons are created in the image of God. But too often we forget that it’s all people who were made in God’s image, not just Christians!

But let me take you back to your work with the women whose lives you share in your work through Samaritana. What has that work to do with contemplation? Has your social conscience always had this contemplative dimension? How does waiting on God in stillness and attentiveness to his presence in yourself, others, and the Word lead to social action?

Thelma:  I used to wonder if God was truly concerned about the poverty and related social issues confronting my country. As a college student, I remember listening to student activists who said that Christianity was the opiate of the masses. Though I was not ready to give up my beliefs about God, I began to wonder if perhaps there are things that God had left for people to take care of themselves—such as doing something for the poor. Later, when I got involved in evangelical fellowships, I was taught that the most important thing about being converted was having a personal relationship with Christ. But my questions about God and the poor did not leave my heart or mind, and I would quietly bring these things that disturbed me to God.

Within the Samaritana community, we have become more intentional in integrating a rhythm of work and prayer, action and reflection. We have morning prayers together where we read a Scripture passage, sing Taizé songs in our language, and offer both verbal and silent prayers. We also have regular, semi-silent, protracted retreats. We keep our hearts open and committed to an outward journey of loving those God brings our way. As we practice it, social action is not so much having a big elaborate program, but responding in ways that speak of the loving presence of God to the people God brings to us in our ministry among women in prostitution. As a community, we believe that our most powerful words and actions are formed and nurtured from the deepest places in our hearts through contemplation, and that meaningful contemplation and reflection result in an overflowing of compassionate love to others.

 

David: Your trust that your most powerful actions come out of contemplation and stillness speaks deeply to me. And your life reflects these words. Thank you so much for sharing your story and journey, and may God continue to bless you and your work richly.

Footnotes

Thelma Galvez Nambu was born in the Philippines, where she continues to live and work. Trained as both a counselor and a spiritual director, she currently serves women survivors of prostitution through a non-governmental, faith-based organization called Samaritana Transformation Ministries. Her principal responsibilities are for the spiritual dimension of a community that seeks to offer psychospiritual healing for traumatized women.