Synodality and Vulnerability

I have followed the work of Brene Brown for at least 10 years. A social worker by profession, she has spent the last 20 years studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. To date, her TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, has had 16 million views on YouTube. On her website she describes herself like this: Reasearcher. Storyteller. Texan.

Her research story is an interesting one:

‘As a doctoral student, the power of statistics and the clean lines of quantitative research appealed to me, but I fell in love with the richness and depth of qualitative research. Storytelling is my DNA, and I couldn’t resist the idea of research as storycatching. Stories are data with a soul and no methodology honors that more than grounded theory. The mandate of grounded theory is to develop theories based on people’s lived experiences rather than proving or disproving existing theories.’

She shares in her TED Talk her experience of gathering stories:

‘… when you ask someone about love, they tell you about heartbreak; when you ask people about belonging, they tell you the most excruciating examples of being excluded; and when you ask people about connection, the stories they told me were about disconnection.’

I can certainly relate to this experience when asked to share on certain topics in a retreat situation or spiritual direction.

There is one idea in Brene’s work that stands out sharply for me: ‘vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.’ Her TED talk was so popular that she got many invitations to speak at large companies. Some of the initial phone calls followed a pattern. The company would say they loved her talk and would love to hear her speak to their company. And then they would add, ‘But don’t mention vulnerability, because we don’t so that stuff here.’ Often these companies had hit a block with innovation and creativity, but hadn’t made the connection with vulnerability.

As we begin our synodal process in preparation for a Synod in 2023, I wonder if it might be worth taking some time to look at vulnerability? I have started to read the Vademecum and this section took my attention straight away:

In this sense, it is clear that the purpose of this Synod is not to produce more documents. Rather, it is intended to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts, and restore strength to our hands for our common mission.’

What strikes me is that it is all framed in relational concepts and this gives me great hope. However, if we take any one of the clauses, there is vulnerability writ through the whole process. The Synod will ask us to look at three key concepts in being church: communion, participation and mission. There is a very credible anthropology and theology underpinning all of this. However, I am fairly certain that once we start to discuss communion, what will emerge are stories of how people have felt outside of communion. Likewise, with participation and mission. I think we need to prepare ourselves for the fact that this will happen.

The synodal process is a good deal more radical than we might realise at the moment. It’s a fundamental shift from a top down, hierarchical model, to a bottom up, grass roots model. Already in the conversations that I have had there is concern as to how we might include those who find themselves outside the formal structures. On this issue alone there is considerable vulnerability involved on both sides. It strikes me that the vulnerability of the laity is a given in this process. But I wonder if the cardinals, priests and bishops have any sense of the importance of their own vulnerability in this whole process? The majority of our Church structures and much of our language tend to guard against anything that might appear vulnerable. If we truly want to walk together (Gk, syn) on the same path (Gk, hodos) then perhaps we need to acknowledge the need for vulnerability in the whole Church?

Engaging in a communal process is not going to be easy. So often our desire for connection and communion flounders when we hit sizeable barriers. Perhaps two quotations from the Rule of St Benedict can help us here. The first comes from the Prologue of the Rule of St Benedict:

Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.

I quote this for several reasons. St Benedict has laid out his vision of monastic life in the Prologue and ends with a bit of a rallying cry. The monastic path is a serious undertaking, so too is the synodal path. I think St Benedict speaks here for anyone who has ever said ‘yes’ to a large undertaking and then got cold feet. His answer when we are daunted is not to sit on the edge of the path and get our breath back, but rather to run! I hope it’s not too grand a hope to see in the synodal path a chance for our hearts to overflow ‘with the inexpressible delight of love.’

My second quote comes from Ch 64, On the Election of an Abbot:

he must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from.

I hear in this short phrase the wisdom of a man who had guided his community through the good times and the bad. I hope that something of St Benedict’s words may be experienced by all of us in the synodal process. We will surely feel weak at times. Hopefully we will feel strong too. We are on the threshold of a process that has the power to transform. Let’s hope we all have the grace to be vulnerable and to allow the work of the Spirit.