The in-between life of our neighbourhoods is often made up of ordinary stuff. Errands, texts, coffee, meal prep, trips to the mailbox, school-work, and appointments fill much of our time. When I drop off my daughter at pre-school, the parents I meet are still putting their hair up in a bun, gathering backpacks, and blowing kisses as they speed onto the next thing. These fleeting moments are filled with short ‘hellos’ and ‘how’s it goings’ and other knowing nods between passing parents. Sometimes it’s witty banter about a new bad word their child just learned, or sharing some bit of news, but mostly it’s not. It’s banal, ordinary, and simple. Still, it emerges as the chirp and trill between two people made in God’s image, recognizing in each other a person worth, perhaps, a bit more. In this there is a mystery, and a holiness.
Profound moments in my life have at times been the result of intentional and deep conversations with trusted friends, but it is usually the small talk that reminds me that I belong. The exchange of banter is the language of friends, of neighbours, and shop keepers. Words resist the cycles of anonymity and invite response. Greetings, especially those shared by neighbours, remind us that we share this space together and that our relationship matters. Small talk may not lead to big conversations, but they let us know that it could, in time.
About fifteen hundred years ago there were hermits and monks who lived near each other in caves in Egypt and elsewhere. These sages, known as the Dessert Fathers and Mothers, seem like unlikely voices of wisdom to us today in our domestic comings and goings. They lived apart from each other, but even in their silence, or perhaps because of their silence, these hermits discovered in their neighbour something more. It was in the rare bumping-into-each-other moments of life at the local well, perhaps, that they made discoveries about themselves, God, and the meaning of life.
These monks saw in others – in their neighbours – a kind of holiness that could not be found in their cloister. One unknown Desert Father said, “Do not despise your neighbour, for you do not know whether the spirit of God is in you or in him.” Abba Matoes felt that being around people was a profoundly holy calling, saying, “I live alone not because of my virtue, but because of my weakness. You see, those who live among people are the strong ones.” And on the topic of small talk, I suppose even monks appreciated a well-placed word or two. 5th century Abba Poemen observed that, “There is the sort of person who seems to be silent, but inwardly criticizes other people. Such a person is really talking all the time. Another person may talk from morning till night, but says only what is meaningful, and so keeps silent.”
Even hermits had to deal with relationships and the precious value of their neighbour. While we are not be solitary monks, we often only see our neighbours in certain seasons and moments. In this pandemic season, perhaps even less. Our relationships with others might not go deep, but the way we speak to each other can reflect the deepening value we have for each other. Our work as neighbourists is to create a space where others are heard, seen, known, and loved. This is intentional and holy work. When we make small talk we acknowledge others and make space for people in our day. Sometimes small talk leads to deeper and more meaningful connections, and sometimes it doesn’t. Without small talk filling the in-between spaces of our community, we’ll never know what moments will grow and blossom into something more.