Any Benedictine will tell you that the Rule of Saint Benedict is intriguing from the very first word of its prologue, “Listen.”
Listen, my son, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.
In fact, what most Benedictines will tell you is that it is the very first word of the Rule that encompasses the whole of Benedictine spirituality: to listen.
It is a call to listen for the voice of God however it be manifested—whether through the liturgical prayers of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, the daily lectio divina that Benedictines try to incorporate into their meditations—but also beyond those specific settings and into the less-expected, because God speaks to us constantly and is not constrained or limited in how he may communicate with us.
God may choose to speak to us through the words of our spouse, our parents, or even our children. He may try to break through to us through a passing remark from a co-worker or a store clerk. Or even through a visual cue, wholly unspoken. I once had a friend tell me she came to a more profound appreciation of the Eucharist in a quiet moment at lunch, when she tore into a multi-grain roll and, in that ripping of the crust and the appealing whiteness of the bread, suddenly thought of how the tearing of Christ’s own flesh and blood opened up a food of pure and sustaining mercy.
The point is that God can only communicate with us when we are willing to be open—and to listen—at all times and in every circumstance. And what that really boils down to is what we call in the current parlance, “mindfulness.”
To be mindful is another way of saying “listening with the ear of the heart” in every moment, in order to be attuned to the constant reality and presence of God, and being willing to hear. It is being willing to concede that in any particular moment—and sometimes in the most surprising of ways—God may be trying to tell us something, to help us understand him, or ourselves, or the seemingly senseless and incomprehensible things we encounter in the world around us.
Listen to the way a loose shutter claps against a house in the wind. It could be God communicating a reassurance that though you feel like your life is being blown around in a whirlwind, you have a secure anchor in him, if you will only attach.
Listen to the leaves rustling in the trees in summer, or crunching underfoot in November, and hear messages of renewal, of cyclical change rooted in something sure and reliable.
Listen to your child explain, “It smells like snow outside,” and realize how marvelous are our senses, and how faithful are God’s designs, so laden with what is true, and lasting, that even little children can recognize nature’s signs and wonders.
To listen is to be willing to be constantly prompted into such awareness—an awareness that relies on memories of things past to enhance current understanding. Yes, the scent of brisk, clean air “smells like snow,” and our memory of the first time we realized that helps us to know what to do next: get out the scarves and shovels, and get ready to sip cocoa and stare out the window, in wonder at a pristine blanket of whiteness, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before.
So, part of listening is to honor our memories, and to try to find small bits of grace within them—even when they are painful.
Memory, if we permit it, shows us that God and his ways become increasingly better known to us as we use it, and our relationship with the All Holy may ever deepen, no matter how familiar, and even overfamiliar, our spiritual exercises may seem.
So much importance, so much meaning and engagement and growth originating from a single word: “Listen.”
Something similar comes to us in the very beginning of the Memorare. In the very first word of this remarkable prayer: “Remember.”
Our prompt to Mary is one part attention-getting, and part the presumptuous pestering of a child who knows that Mother will indulge it.
When one of my sons was very young, he would come to me on the night before any event to which he was looking forward, and he would put me through a checklist, making sure that I had remembered to do everything that needed to be done to ensure a good time. He was six years old; he had no control over how things would go, so he looked to me, and he would, in his way, be begging me to listen to him, to hear him with the ear of my own heart, and to remember.
Reflecting on it later, I realized it was also his way of making sure I was seeing him, remembering his need, so he would not have to be anxious about it. And too, it was the pestering: “Remember, you said you would do this? Remember, you did it once for my brother? Don’t forget me! I need you to remember! When you remember me, and hold these anxieties for me, I feel seen. I feel loved.”
That is very much what is behind the very first word of the Memorare, this astonishing prayer. We begin the prayer as children, coming to Mary with hope, and anxiety, and perhaps a measure of fear over things that seem beyond our own control. We trust her to listen, but we want to remind her too that she’s done this thing for our brothers and sisters, and we want to be seen, because then we feel loved.
O Most gracious Virgin Mary,
That never was it known
That anyone who fled to your protection,
Implored your help,
Or sought your intercession was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence, I fly to you, O Virgin of virgins, my mother;
To you I come,
Before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful.
O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
Despise not my petitions,
But in your mercy, hear and answer me.
Remember O Mary, that you are full of grace, and overflowing.
Remember O Mother, how miraculous we expect God to be.
Remember, O Mother of God that we believe in miracles.
Remember, O Virgin what it was like to be so unsettled by events that you went to Elizabeth for reassurance, and companionship, and succor, as we go to you.
Remember, O Blessed Mother how—along with Joseph—you were faithful and obedient to God’s plan and purpose, though you did not understand. Be mindful of that, and help us to hold on in faith too.
Be mindful of us to the mind of God. O, Listen! O Remember . . .