It’s Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras ended. Lent has begun. Life, for Catholics, is now focused on repentance and conversion, fasting, almsgiving and prayer. On getting more serious about irrigating the deserts of our life with the waters of baptism so our lives might bloom with the colorful meadows of virtue.
I recall my spiritual director asked me, in the Lent of 1990, to choose every day to listen to others more than I talked. And I had to quantify it every day in my journal for him to see. “Ask questions and really listen to the answers. Look especially for people you would be least interested in talking to. Fake interest in what they have to say if you have to,” he said. “Most virtues begin with raw choice, just doing them because they’re the right thing to do. Not feeling like listening is beside the point. Virtue’s a will thing, not a feeling thing.” He said it’s a fallacy to think you have to always be authentic to do good things. “If we’re really honest, we’re always on a continuum. Somewhere between authenticity and hypocrisy. Swinging back and forth. The key is choosing to keep the momentum going in the right direction. Either by choosing the right thing or confessing the wrong.” Then he offered a final counsel,
So your Lenten prayer is for the grace you need to make progress in this. Your Lenten fasting is fewer words and more listening. And your Lenten almsgiving is seeing others’ concerns as more important than your own.
I found it a very hard Lent.
At the beginning of Holy Week he asked me what I’d learned. I wrote my reflections down in my journal and read them aloud. Here are snippets:
How naturally self-absorbed I am … How hard it is to listen to people if you’re not interested in their interests. Or if they’re whiners … I also realized how challenging I can be to listen to … It’s a lifelong habit I want to have … I must decrease. Others increase. Others = Jesus. Matthew 25: Done to them, done to Me. A totally practical way to make that happen … It’s ego fasting .. revolving from me-centric to other-centric which is God-centric …
After I read this entry to him, he added, with his characteristically dry humor,
Ha! Yes, and now you know how God feels having to listen to you drone on and on when you pray. Poor God! I know how He feels…
He smiled. We laughed. Then, for whatever reason, I cried.
Shema, Israel, “Hear O Israel”
A last thought on this topic. Over the years, I have noted that people I consider to be good listeners are also good speakers. They speak with more “authority,” more gravitas. In particular, I notice when they speak to you they speak to you, as they’ve listened deeply enough to know you and so when they speak it resonates deeply with your world. And their words evoke from you more of yourself. So even their words, in a sense, still listen. It’s hard to explain.
Mother Teresa was once asked, “When you pray, what do you say to God?” She said, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.” The interviewer then asked, “Then what is it that God says to you when you pray?” She replied, “He also doesn’t talk. He also simply listens.” After an awkward pause, Mother concluded, “If you can’t understand the meaning of what I’ve just said, I’m sorry but there’s no way I can explain it any better.”
New Orleans jazz artist Louis Armstrong was once asked, “What is jazz?” He famously answered, “Man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know. It’s gotta be in your soul.”
Maybe we could re-word that to answer to fit the question, “What is listening?”:
Man, if you have to ask what listening is, you’ll never know. It’s gotta be in your soul.
How? Will it. Be quiet more. Listen more. Listen long and deep, until it hurts. Until listening becomes love.
“Silence is the language of the age to come.” — St. Isaac of Syria.
Listen till you become a listening soul. Listen to His listening voice. And, per Matthew 25:40, be sure to listen to Him in them; the least.
Then you’ll know the all-listening Word.