“What are you discussing with each other as you walk along?”: NCB and Sacred Consciousness

Jesus wants to know what’s on our minds and hearts. He wants us to pay attention, too, and helps us notice our, so often unconscious, awareness of the holy in our everyday lives and in our hearts. Jesus cultivates, as it were, our sacred consciousness.

On the Emmaus road he approached the couple fleeing Jerusalem with this question: What are you discussing with each other as you walk along? They hedged in their response—after all, he’s a stranger and they’re part of a persecuted group. But he got their attention. In response to his question, they stood still and looked sad. This may have been the first time they really paused and felt the depth of their sadness. His holy listening enabled them to do so. 

Jesus persisted in his questioning, and they poured out their confused thoughts and feelings. Over time and in his company, they became conscious. Their thoughts and feelings came into focus. They were able to extend hospitality and, finally, recognize the presence of God with them. Even in grief and dangerous circumstances, God is present. So we trust.

The post-Resurrection stories are among my favorites in Scripture. We live in post-Resurrection times—hoping and doubting, seeing and not seeing, and, in the end, trusting. We see the Holy One with us, and then—poof!—God vanishes from our sight. 

The couple returned to their community. They shared their epiphanies—"We saw the Lord!”—and heard expressions of hope and confessions of doubt. Together as a community, they considered the circumstances of their lives—socially, politically, and communally so much more challenging than what most of us experience—and they pondered how they should live.

We, too, live in tumultuous, divisive times. The media bombard us with conflicting stories which engender fear, suspicion, and worse. We are often out of touch with what’s deepest in our hearts and are disconnected from communities of honest conversation.

Many social researchers have documented the decline of civil society in the USA, the encroachment of work consciousness and connectivity demands on most hours of the day, and the growing disconnection from community in our culture.

Churches and theological schools hope to offer formative community. Yet researchers have expressed concern that even those who participate in Christian small groups are not being molded as disciples. In 2010, Barna reported that “22% of church-going Americans are in small groups, and only 7% of those felt the groups held them accountable for integrating their faith in their lives” (https://www.barna.org/congregations-articles/454-study-describes-christian-accountability-provided-by-churches—accessed April 18, 2014).

In the midst of our own concerning post-Resurrection days, New College Berkeley’s fall programs are beginning! Not only do these courses offer ideas and critical reflection, they also offer communities of conversation and relationship in the context of faith.

Sociologist Nancy Ammerman, having completed an in-depth study of religious Americans, concluded that “[s]piritual narratives are produced in interaction, carried by conversants from one place to another, and redeployed and reworked in each new telling….[T]he people with the most robust sense of sacred presence in everyday life are those who participate in religious activities that allow for conversation and relationship” (Nancy Tatom Ammerman, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 300 and 302).

The communities that form in NCB classes and groups create the steady practice of faith-infused conversation which Ammerman calls “sacred consciousness.” Whether students are sharing their writing in Writing from Inside Out: Personal Writing for Public Purposes (taught by Dr. Marilyn McEntyre), studying The Gospel of John (with Dr. Tom Elson), praying with Scripture in the year-long Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, or participating in spiritual direction groups, they are cultivating “sacred consciousness.”

Sacred consciousness entails an awareness of God’s presence, an openness to hearing grace (sometimes through other people, sometimes painful grace), and the courage to be self-aware and honest before others. It’s not easy to be conscious and connected.

In the sheltered spaces of these programs, people become more aware of God in their lives and continue to weave their spiritual narratives. They discern the movement of God’s grace in the lives of others, too, even if the shape it takes looks different from their own personal experience. 

Sacred consciousness is exactly what Jesus gave his traumatized followers in Jerusalem and, by his grace, is exactly what we hope to offer at New College Berkeley.

Susan S. Phillips (PhD) is the executive director of New College Berkeley, an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union, and her most recent book is The Cultivated Life: From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy.