Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

“Listen carefully…and incline the ear of your heart” — Rule of St. Benedict

July 11, 2017


Someone I know took on as a penance this past Lent a wonderful practice (that, as ever, I got permission to mention here): going out of his way every day to speak to someone that he finds difficult, boring, irritating, unpleasant. He shared with me a few funny stories and some of the deeper personal insights he’s gained by this daily practice. In particular he mentioned what he considered to be the core revelation God has given him about himself: “When it comes to people I am not interested in, I’m a terrible listener. If they don’t have something immediately interesting to me, I zone out.” He added, “It’s really humbling to see this part of me.”

I cannot imagine that anyone who honestly attempted this penance would not find themselves saying something similar.

I have found in my experience that the art of listening is really the art of loving, and that, in a real way, listening to others can be far more powerful as a transforming agent than speaking. Let me make a few points in that regard.

“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.” 
― G.K. Chesterton

I know a therapist who writes as her first prescription for nearly every client, “Spent 30 minutes a day in total, undistracted silence.” Her rationale is threefold. First, you can’t be human if you can’t be quiet. Second, when you’re silent you allow your mind to surface important insights, fears, feelings, memories that later can be explored in therapy; but when you are always talking, busy or stimulated you tend to hold them at bay. Third, to work through many of the relational problems that people bring to her they must be capable of listening, really listening to others; and if you can’t be silent when you’re alone, you can’t truly practice the inner silence needed to listen to others when they’re communicating.

I would add here that the same goes for prayer: if you can’t practice silence you simply cannot hear God.

She also added an interesting addendum to this practice of therapeutic silence. She said that probably half (or more) of the people who come to her for psychological healing simply have no one to listen to them, and so they pay her money to simply listen in a caring, patient, and interested way. No one wants to listen to these people, she said, no one has (or makes) the time or the patience; and when you listen to them you often understand why. They have lots of problems, pain, baggage, anger, and it’s hard to listen to that. But not being listened to can lead to lots of accumulated pain. Even more than the sage counsel, she said, bottom line it’s the act of listening deeply to them, affirming that they are noticed and cared about, that truly helps them blossom. And, she added, the more frenetic and distracted our world gets, and the more social media (ironically) isolates and superficializes our communication, the worse it gets.

She used a beautiful phrase, “I listen people into health.” And is that not a form of loving?  You’ve likely heard the saying, “Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer.” But the truth is that this should be a standard ascetical practice for Christians called to love especially those “who can’t pay you back” with interesting conversation or warm affirmations. In fact, you might say that doing this is merely an imitation of God who, as we presume whenever we turn to pray, is always waiting in rapt attention, ready to listen to whatever small or large thing we have to say.

And I’d argue that only someone who has tasted this truth of the Listening God in prayer can in turn make the words of Samuel their own, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

Such an asceticism of “listening love” was well described by early 20th century American author Alice Duer Miller,

“People love to talk but hate to listen. Listening is not merely not talking, though even that is beyond most of our powers; it means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us. You can listen like a blank wall or like a splendid auditorium where every sound comes back fuller and richer.”

Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. — Psalm 102:2

A last personal thought on listening.

For almost any parent it can be a penance to listen to your child’s endless questions and stories, especially those stories that are really colorful strings of fragmented tales linked by nothing other than a lively imagination and sustained in unbroken cadence by an extraordinary lung capacity that admits of almost no discernible breath-breaks.  However, whenever I discipline myself to listen carefully and respond appropriately, I always, always leave feeling more of a father than I did before I listened. Why? Because I chose to love them by coming out of myself and entering into their world which is, as St. Paul says in Philippians 2:3, “more important than my own.”

Funny aside, my kids say that they can tell when I’m “not really listening” because my punctuated comments — Really? Wow. Huh. — have no real relationship to what they’re saying. One child calls the “elsewhere” expression on my face, “the look.” “Dad, you’ve got ‘the look again.’” Still working on that.

A closing story on this point. My daughter Maria came up to me one eve when I was working intently on the computer (maybe writing for this Blog!). As she spoke, I continued to type, periodically saying “uh-huh,” or “oh!” Again and again she would shout, “Dad, Dad, Dad!” Finally, losing my patience, I barked back, “I’M LISTENING!” She replied, without missing a beat, “But your face isn’t.”

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” — C.S. Lewis, “Till We Have Faces”

Take time today and “dig out” from someone words of meaning by listening deeply, attentively, and with your face.