Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
I am a spiritual director. People share their stories with me, and I listen.
People tell me things like, “You are the only person who ever listens to me,” and “I do not talk to anyone else about this stuff.” We hunger to know our truest selves and thirst for someone we can trust who will pay attention to us. I listen, looking for the mileposts that open the way to unexplored pathways. I try to ask insightful questions that open doors they have kept tightly closed, or did not even know were there.
I was not always a good listener. I was raised to find and share the right answers, which is more about talking than listening. I thought that listening was taking a breath, thinking about what I would say next, or asking questions to get someone to say what I wanted them to say.
I did not listen to myself very well, either.
I related to God the same ways I related to other people and to myself. I looked for the right answers and did all the talking. If only I could persuade God to do what I wanted, to help me, to love me, I would be happy. If only I could get God to say what I wanted God to say.
Slowly, but surely, I began to change. I began to wake up to myself, and began to relate to other people and to God in new ways. I began learning how to listen.
Silence taught me about listening. Silence drew me in and reassured me, gave me the opportunity to release my fears. The more time I practiced listening to silence, the more deeply I could listen.
Silence is more and more difficult for us to find, because we do not know where to seek it. In a city filled with traffic, sirens, music, laughter, conversations, and other people, my silence needs to come from within myself.
Even when we try to seek silence, our own brains try to draw out attention to all of the things we could be doing instead. Our brains are very good at generating ways to solve problems. Our sense of our own value is so invested in solving problems that we often perceive not having anything to figure out as a problem that needs to be solved.
It is becoming more and more difficult to find anyone who appreciates the real power of listening. Our lives are filled with distractions that make listening a challenge. We have so many tasks to do, so many thoughts and ideas, so many responsibilities and so many things demanding our attention. We have forgotten what it is like to listen to someone, and forgotten what it is like to have someone listen to us.
Listening is not about evaluating or analyzing. Listening is not about measuring or assessing. Listening is about giving someone the time and space to describe, to reflect, to work through things with which they have struggled for as long as they can remember. Listening is about being open and paying attention without taking sides. Listening is hearing what someone is afraid to say as clearly as what they are willing to say. Listening is giving someone an opportunity to go deeper.
Listening is the foundation of community. Listening is essential to showing that you respect someone, and to earning their respect. Listening is a key element of trust.
The first word in the Prologue of of Benedict’s Rule, which has nurtured and governed so much of monastic life for 1,500 years, is Listen.
Most of us relate to God the same way we relate to everyone else. We do not have time or energy to listen, and assume that God feels the same way. We forget that God is always with us, always loves us, is always willing to listen. God is always more ready to listen to us than we are to God.