Learning to Listen

One of the most difficult things in life is to learn how to listen, really listen. We assume, most of the time, that if we simply don’t make a noise ourselves and pay attention, we shall automatically be listening. I’m not so sure. Part of the strength of St Benedict’s teaching on listening comes from the fact that he does not advocate total silence. He talks about restraint in speech, taciturnitas, and urges us to bend low the ear of the heart (inclina aurem cordis tui) that we may listen carefully, attentively, as indicated by the opening word of the Rule, Obsculta! At the same time, he acknowledges the great value of silence and is well aware that, the more we talk, the more likely we are to let the words run away with us and end up sinning in some way. The most important thing, however, is that our listening must not be just hearing: we are meant to act. Our listening is meant to change us and elicit a response.

I think that is the key to what St Benedict has to say on the subject. Restraining our tongues is a mark of humility, undoubtedly, for most of us are convinced the world would be a better place if everyone heeded our advice. But the monastic view of silence is of something more than an exercise in humility or a form of discipline. It is the characteristic attitude of the disciple, one who learns from and follows the Master. We stop talking in order to hear what others, above all God, have to say. There is inevitably an element of dialogue involved. We do not sit always mute, waiting for a revelation to fall upon us.; but we do not chase after every idea in the universe, either. We listen, and we obey (the root of the word obedience is, in fact, to listen.)

Learning to listen is both easier and harder than may at first appear. In the monastery there are times when talking is strictly forbidden. Here at Howton Grove writing is permitted, but not the use of Social Media, which can disspiate one’s attention. That check makes one think about what one really needs to say, and what is just another way of filling time. But to go deeper, to cultivate that attentive listening to the Lord that we call prayer, requires something more. It means making a deliberate choice: exposing oneself to boredom, ‘failure’, even disgust. It takes us into quite dangerous territory, where our ability to control others through our use of words is gone for ever.

A few days ago, I listened to a conversation taking place at our entrance door. The rise and fall of voices told me pretty well what was going on, even though I couldn’t make out more than a word or two. We rely on words to give our thoughts precision, but we can communicate very ably without them. Our silence, our listening, should be just as communicative, perhaps even more so, because ultimately it is the language of compassion and understanding, of love and obedience. Perhaps a moment or two spent thinking about how we listen will show us where we ourselves may be lacking.

Personal Note
Thank you very much for your prayers and good wishes. The latest round of chemotherapy is proving demanding and I will need to pace myself more slowly than hitherto, but I’m grateful to be having the opportunity to slow the progress of my sarcoma (D.V.) — and get that sock drawer tidied before I die!


12 thoughts on “Learning to Listen”

  1. Thank you for a very direct post. Listening for God and to others is a difficult discipline, but one that it’s worth persevering with.

    For me, quite a verbose person, it takes quite a lot, but I have found that listening intently, without interjecting is a worthwhile way of learning more self control. And there are so many narratives to listen to – so many stories waiting to be shared.

    Self control and self discipline are qualities we all possess – and are worth nurturing.

    My personal prayers continue for you daily, as do those of our parish daily intercessions.

  2. Spot on as ever Sister. Listening is very active – not at all passive if you REALLY listen. Sometimes as a chaplain in a hospital, we can feel we have done “nothing” when we have in fact given ourselves to listening, and trying to really hear. We tell our trainee volunteers that they should expect to feel tired after listening well! Sometimes the most powerful question is a gesture.. an eyebrow… a concerned look… a leaving of a silence….
    Unfortunately, God doesn’t seem to quite respond in the same way to an eyebrow…. Or maybe I’m just not as in tune!

    Bless you sister, and give you the strength you need for each new day. Social media may be a distraction, but into our distractions step you… pointing us to what is important. We are not ready to let you go, even if God is preparing a party to welcome you…

  3. “A few days ago, I listened to a conversation taking place at our entrance door. The rise and fall of voices told me pretty well what was going on, even though I couldn’t make out more than a word or two.”

    Were you eavesdropping Sister? 🙂

  4. All of our Fresh Faith prayer share..over 250 prayer partners strong…pray for you daily…and for THE CURE!
    Don’t worry about your sock drawer…Jesus has it! We love you and lift you to Our Heavenly Father…the prayers waft into the Holy Throne Room and he hears them. Blessings…we love your prayers and post them in our online prayers each and every morning.

  5. Thank you for this post; I’ve missed you and your wise words but I know you have lots to get through and need to prioritise your work and husband your strength.

    Meanwhile I’ll be adding my prayers to the rest.

  6. Thank you so much for continuing to challenge and inspire us despite your health/treatment making it so difficult. It means a great deal to me and, although it sounds selfish to want more from you when you are tired and ill, it is a treat so read each post. That is not to sat they are expected – please rest and build up your strength – I will pray for you.

  7. I was so happy to read your words regarding practicing silence. And listening too.We should all listening in silence to our Lords words. In “Silence ” we can meditate ,gather our thoughts but more importantly submit ourselves to Him.Asking Him for forgiveness for our sins , asking Him for His help to take up the way in His foot steps.Then we can listen to others who may need our help or guidance. The Lord gave us this ability, and if it is His will we can do it.

  8. Praying that the side effects of treatment ease.Speak to cancer care nurses who often have tips and advice.I do feel the benefit of your blog and tweets and you can continue ,all be it in a reduced capacity.

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