Human existence wouldn’t be the same if we weren’t able to communicate and enter into meaningful conversations with another people. Conversation is a time of exchanging words with someone else, and a time of an intimate encounter. I am sure we could all put our finger on one or two conversations we’ve had with someone, either a friend, family member, aunt or uncle, teacher, priest, or religious sister or brother, that we remember as a special moment, a time of connection. Our time with them may have resulted in us receiving some memorable and life changing advice that we still carry with us.
While a good conversation can be enjoyable, memorable, and fulfilling, some of our day to day interactions with others may not be this way. A conversation can be ineffective and even unenjoyable, when one person stops listening and instead talks over the other person. This person, despite their knowledge of what they are doing, can come across as assertive, uncharitable, or just plain rude. Recently, I have been trying to notice if, when, and how much I talk over other people in a conversation. Unfortunately, I have noticed I do it more than I would like.
In an age marked by rapid fire social media use, a pantheon of hot-button issues, and the breakdown of truthful and charitable conversation, much of our spoken and digital conversations are more about one person waiting to speak after the other person has stopped talking. This can become problematic in many instances, especially when emotions get involved and conversations escalate further than they should. In other words, the imminent danger of people talking over each other is that each side has stopped listening to each other.
Listening is the most important part of a conversation. By listening to another person, we shouldn’t just be listening so to respond with whatever we have to say. We should be listening so that we can truly receive the essence of what the other person is trying to communicate to us. In this latter sense of listening, we are implicitly conveying that what the other person has to say is important and we respect them and their statements.
I have noticed throughout my time in seminary that listening is not just an important practice when having conversations with other people, but it is also necessary when conversing with God. With a certain amount of humility I admit that, just as I have a tendency to talk over people in conversations, waiting to get in what I have to say, I do the same exact thing to God in my prayer life.
By talking over God in prayer I am talking over the one who has real answers for the questions I have about life. This is spiritually problematic and even dangerous. There is always a spiritual dimension to our lives; there is always a deeper meaning to be found—listened for—in even the smallest parts of our day. By constantly talking over God, I implicitly tell Him, “What you have to say isn’t important to me…so I’m going to keep saying what I think is important.”
The Book of James states, “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak… If a man does not control his tongue imagines that he is devout, he is self-deceived; his worship is pointless” (James 1:19b-20, 26). Prayer, our real communication with God, has to be rooted in receptivity, in listening, or its all for nothing. Yes, we need to tell God what is on our heart, no matter if our day was difficult, depressing, joyful, or fulfilling. But we need to be listening to what He says back to us for our prayer to make any sense.
As Christians we look to the example of Jesus, especially in terms of prayer. The cross was Jesus’ ultimate and perfect prayer. It was the time that He gave Himself totally in love for the salvation of the world. Consider this. What do we see Jesus doing externally while He was on the cross? Not really much. The gospel accounts only note Jesus saying a few words, while the rest of the time He is silent. This is because while He is on the cross, Jesus is listening to the voice of His Father. It is the Father, through the power of the Spirit, who is united with Jesus at that moment. Jesus may not feel like the Father is with him—hence the line, “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?”—but nonetheless He is listening for the Father’s voice. This was a moment when all seemed lost, but because of His attentiveness and His unity to the will of the Father, it was really a moment that led to the possibility of new and eternal life.
Sometimes listening means that we just sit in chapel or in a prayer space in our house…in utter silence listening to hear God’s voice. And this can seem backwards in our productivity, comment-box, “look-what-I-have-to-say” culture. Cardinal Sarah points out in God or Nothing that “We occupy all the ground of our interior landscape, all day long and endlessly. We always persist in doing a lot of things, thinking a lot. We fill God’s house (our soul) with so much noise…” Today, I think we can struggle with the need of always doing or saying something. Despite our feeling unproductive or maybe feeling that God isn’t there or listening to us, that is not what is important. What is important is that we are humbly attentive and listening for Him, not our incessant talking that fills the empty, sometimes awkward void of silence. If we talk too much, we may not hear God’s voice which is calling out to us.