“All things in the universe want to be heard.”
— Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy
Listening may be the key to unlocking the doors that separate us, to gaining wisdom, to communing with birdsong, and finding intense joy in music — but make no mistake: listening is hard work. I preach sermons every Sunday, and I am well aware that if I go over twelve minutes, no matter how scintillatingly or profound I imagine my words to be, my flock will (if still awake) become restless and dreamy, some playing with lunch possibilities or recipes in their heads. How do I know this? Because when I am in the pew, that’s exactly what I do — food taking up an excessive amount of space in my head.
Once, after fifteen minutes of listening to a preacher, I began getting restless and strategizing how to get to the dark chocolate bar in my purse, unwrap it, break off a square, and slip it discreetly into my mouth without making any noise. The sermon ended before I could complete my covert operation, leaving me with chocolate melting in my hands as I stood awkwardly to sing the last hymn. Attention spans vary, but the fact is, we love the sound of our own voices (especially those of us in the clergy), so we have to actively cultivate our capacity for closing our mouths at the right time and paying attention to the voices around us.
In the Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy, “L” is for listening as well as for love, but listening is listed first, which is only right because there is no love without listening. I preach the words of Jesus, “love your neighbor as yourself,” but how can we do that without first sitting down with our neighbor with open ears? Even if it’s hard. Even if I want to correct them rather than listen to them. Even if I’d rather be chatting over tea and muffins with a friend who feels exactly like I do. Listening is hard work in the best of circumstances. But compassionate listening to people spouting difficult words stretches the soul beyond its comfort zone and takes us into the realm of true spirituality.
When we dare to open our ears to ideas and words that we believe to be so off base that we must take care not to visibly cringe, we might catch the words behind the words, the unspoken narrative of pain, anger, and fear. While waiting for my eye doctor to come into the examining room, one of the staff was telling me of the reason she didn’t believe in the statistics of coronavirus deaths, that it was all made up by the government for nefarious reasons. Since she had a captive audience, I decided to sit back and listen rather than contradict. In that dark room, with a stranger spouting conspiracy theories, I tried to imagine my soul expanding in calm acceptance in the presence of this young woman. I tried to hear not only her words, but her hidden fears, unspoken, but still resonant in the spaces between her words.
Musicians understand this well. Claude Debussy said, “music is the space between the notes.” If we can expand our capacity for listening, we might catch something more important between the words, under the words, beyond the words — a place of unacknowledged fear that needs to be heard. Then, we might strike the right chord in our response.
Returning to imagery from my food-fevered mind, maybe deep listening — holy listening — is the act of expanding our souls like bread dough rising quietly on a sunlit table, offering the promise of nourishment and the feeling of home. If we could help our “adversaries” feel heard beyond their words, they might start feeling less embattled and more at home in the world. We might even get a delicious taste of what it means to love our neighbor.
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