September 2009

A Listening Heart ©

I want to coin a phrase: There are none as blind as those who will not listen, meaning we cannot understand reasonably what we do not experience truthfully.

Our outer world is often a cacophony of words spoken frantically by unreflective people. A major part of our inner world is a maze of unprocessed feelings and fears. It is no wonder that people don’t connect authentically.

Listening that is blocked or filtered by fear contributes to many of the problems between persons, communities and nations. It is also a major barrier in our relationship with God.

In fact, this may not be such a recent phenomenon. The prologue to the monastic rule of Saint Benedict begins with these words, “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

Jesus too valued effective hearing. He heard well the heart of the Samaritan woman at the well, the wealthy man asking how to gain eternal life, even the unspoken words trapped in the searching heart of Nicodemus.

For this reason, Jesus took very seriously the plight of a deaf man who had been brought to him while, as Mark’s Gospel tells us, he was returning from the region of Tyre by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of Decapolis.

Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd. This signifies that the healing of hearing is a very personal matter. He put his fingers in the man’s ear. This shows that it is also a very concrete action. Then Jesus looked up to heaven, signed and said to him, “Ephphata,” that is, “Be opened.” From this we learn that the gift of understanding comes from God and that God is saddened by the tragedy of humanity’s deafness, particular deafness of the heart.

To be a good listener, one must be attentive. That requires letting go of self-absorbing preoccupations and to observe with all the senses, including the sounds of God’s still small voice, of the music of our own inner rhythms and the melody that surrounds us.

We cannot be in touch with the word of God incarnate in us without stillness, without periodic silence. And we cannot be connected to the life energy within us without learning the language of our body, of our emotions and of our deepest desires.

Nor can we thrive in nourishing relationships without hospitable hearts brought to life by ears cocked toward the mystery of others. Listening is the key to effective communications. It is the key to Christian communion with God and with one another. Without it, there is no bond.

There are many examples in scripture of not “hearing” another, of not hearing their heart or the sacred song that emanates from each soul. We hear some but are deaf to others. This leads to bias and favouritism, which is a disguised form of rejection.

The epistle of James has stern words for those who exercise favouritism. He essentially accuses them of hypocrisy in the confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Love of God, we are taught, is made real through love of neighbour: Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love their brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. (1Jn4:20) As it turns out, those who hate their brothers and sisters also hate themselves at a subconscious level. They are neither peaceful nor peaceable.

Most of us chose to listen intently to some people but our hearing is closed to others. In other words, we discriminate against certain people. James has us clearly in his sight when writing about favouritism: We treat “a man with gold rings and in fine clothes” very differently from “a person in dirty clothes.” Typically, we listen to the first and fail to hear the second. We make an effort to understand the needs of the first and assume the worst of the latter.

James goes on to say that in our foolishness, not only do we discriminate but we miss out on something real important in those that we selfishly or fearfully reject. Hear his words. “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” Note that the admonition begins with the word “listen!”

A Listening Heart: The Spirituality of Sacred Sensuousness by Brother David Steindl-Rast proposes three steps for effective listening that contributes to the building of loving communities: childlike openness, youthful courage, and mature communion. While the first and last are obvious, the second may surprise some readers.

Courage is necessary to overcome the collective bias that friends and family insist represents “common sense.” What distinguishes adult from youthful courage is its spontaneity. As adults, we hesitate and deliberately overlay fear with courage. With time, courage becomes diluted by the underlying fear.

Youthful courage is, in a way, fearless and pure. Steindl-Rast comments, “Do children realize how much courage it takes to be open and trusting? They do not reflect on it, but they do realize it by acting. Only so can they grow.”

This is, of course, the point of it all. As you begin to listen lovingly, “you will start growing again in the measure in which you expose your heart to life—unshielded, vulnerable, but fully alive.”
What could be more symptomatic of an ailing world—to have one’s heart detached from life, shielded, seemingly invisible yet scarcely alive. What could more accurately describe the malaise in our communities but fear and isolation?

There is hope, however. The listening heart, the one that is open to the other, is the same heart that comes to hear the vulnerability and life in the other? It is the same heart that hears the song of our shared loneliness and common desire for communion.

If there is to be any favouritism in the heart of a Christian, it is to favour peace and not to discriminate against any particular segment of society. A disciple of Christ is a peace maker, one who understands that true peace, to quote Catholic social doctrine, is “a valued and a universal duty,” which “is not merely the absence of war, nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies. Rather it is founded on a correct understanding of the human person and requires the establishment of an order based on justice and charity.”

What could be more evident than the necessity for loving listening as the necessary precondition for understanding, justice and charity? What could be more needed in our world today but the simple discipline of hospitable attentiveness to another?

It is no wonder that the word “hear” appears 2,512 times in the bible. We are exhorted to “listen” 223 times.

We live in a culture that rewards talking, not listening; and when we do listen, we are so preoccupied that we scarcely hear. There are none as alone as those who will not listen, so blind than those that will not hear.

We sometimes see the expression “compassionate listening” in spiritual literature. It is a helpful phrase because it fairly describes the disposition of the heart when effective listening occurs. What that phrase fails to do, however, is to demonstrate the reality that compassion itself comes from listening. We listen more intently, with compassion, once we have discovered that it increases our capacity for hearing the heart of others. But listening must come first. It is for this reason that listening to God’s Spirit—and our own—is helpful even before listening to others.

The deaf man that Jesus healed was freed from isolation in so many ways that those of us who can hear can scarcely imagine. But God’s greater miracle is when those of us who can hear really begin to listen with openness and courage to God’s still small voice in everyone.