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.
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!