When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. ― Henri Nouwen
Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I befriended this woman who worked for a parish in New England in the pastoral care of the elderly and home-bound. She was in her early 50’s at the time, was married with three adult children and had a Master’s Degree in counseling and another Master’s Degree in theology. She was a remarkable woman, very sharp and exceptionally compassionate. We would spend hours together, when we would meet up, speaking about everything from ecclesiastical politics to the neglect of the elderly in nursing homes to the philosophy of Nikolai Berdyaev (whom we both loved at the time). And we would always end our long sessions with a time of prayer that would leave me changed. That woman didn’t just pray, she was prayer. In my judgment, she was (is) a saint and I am forever grateful for the impact she had on my life in what were for me some very difficult years of transition.
One of the qualities she evidenced — a quality I have often lauded in this blog — that I find to be both rare and precious in life, was her capacity to listen deeply, I might even say contemplatively. I kept a journal at the time, and after our very final meeting, when I was moving away from New England to head to Florida, I wrote a long entry reflecting on our relationship. Here’s an excerpt that captures her unique gift:
[Her name] listens like no one I have ever known. How can I say it? She listens with love. When she listens, she communicates such interest, even fascination, with what I have to say. No matter how trivial or tedious my droning may seem to me. She responds to my comments appropriately, laughing at an ironic contradiction, sighing at an expression of pain, asking a clarifying question that reveals she’s really listening to my train of thought; and even sitting silently with me after I finish sharing some very painful struggle I am going through. Once for nearly five minutes.
There’s a really amazing quality she has that I don’t know exactly how to put into words. So many times when I speak with people of faith, they jump right in after I’ve told them some difficult thing I am struggling over, with: “I know God has a plan! It’s all for good. Just be patient. God’s just testing you.” And so on. Well meaning, obviously, often good spiritual or moral advice. But when people do that, I usually feel a bit jolted or assaulted. But I assumed it was just my pride or some defect in me. And I realize that it’s how I mostly respond to people who share their problems with me: I try to fix it immediately with some pious phrase or cliche.
Often times I know I do that because I don’t like the ambiguity or yucky-ness of someone else’s problems, and I feel better when I let them know that really it’s all fine, or easy to solve with my quick-fix responses. But when I got to know [her name], I suddenly saw there’s a real power in listening long, of allowing the tensions of mystery to hold sway over the easy-resolves of certitude. Before you speak your sage advice or hurl an exhortation, just sit with them in silence.
She’s a master at asking excellent questions. She taught me by example that good questions can be far more helpful and powerful than good advice. Or maybe I could say she even gave me her best advice by the questions she asked me, and drilled that advice down into my soul by listening so intently to my responses. With those eyes. Once I said to her, “That’s a really great point.” And she replied, laughing: “I didn’t say anything! You said it. The Holy Spirit’s working in you, see?” [1 John 2:27!] She had a great line she said to me once: “Tom, if you ever want my perspective on something, you just ask.” Such respect! It’s really amazing! Who does that?
I told her at the end of our time: “You’ve taught me how to listen with love. If love is willing the good of another, then you listen with that ‘will’ all the time. You have my good at heart. I always know it. How did you learn to listen so well?” She gave a great response: “I learned that years ago, when I was going through a difficult time in my early 20’s. I went to an old priest who sat with me for hours listening with such compassion and care. He only gave me advice after hearing me out. And he helped me more in those hours of listening than anyone ever had before. So I resolved then: I want to be like that. That’s why I got my degrees, so I could learn how to do that for others. At first I thought it was a technique, but then, especially from my dear husband and from the elderly I cared for back then, I learned listening is not a technique. It may use techniques. It’s what love does. And if you don’t have love, the techniques are hollow.”
It’s what love does. I tell the seminarians in the Pastoral Theology class I used to teach that the most fruitful asceticism for a priest is to listen to others — especially difficult others — far more than you speak. Nothing slims the big-fat-ego more than the self-less quest into the world of another.
When I lived in Iowa, I had the privilege of meeting Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, who was a close confidant of St. John Paul II. After a radio show interview Bishop Pates and I did with him, I asked him: “What would you consider the most impressive quality of John Paul?” He said without hesitation, “His ability to be present to someone, to blank the whole world out in order to listen to them. He was fascinated by the inner world of others. And almost everyone who met him for the first time would remark something like this afterward: ‘It was amazing! I felt like I was the only person he cared about, like I got all his attention.’ And if you would ask His Holiness where he learned that, he would tell you he learned it from the [philosophical] method of phenomenology and from prayer. Because in prayer, God is the greatest listener of all.”
St. Augustine famously said in his Confessions, “O Thou God omnipotent, who so cares for every one of us, as if Thou cared for him only; and so for all, as if they were but one.”
May we, by His grace, be empowered to love the same. To listen the same. Amen.