Open­ing to the Spirit

To­day’s word: Lis­ten­ing

Sherbrooke Record - - COLUMNIST - By Revs Mead Bald­win, W. Lynn Dil­l­abough, Lee Ann Hogle, and Ca­role Mar­tig­nacco


) A few years ago the theme song for our An­nual Con­fer­ence was “Lis­ten­ing is the lan­guage of love.” Not only was it beau­ti­fully melodic. The lyrics were full of mean­ing, and it was the type of song that would get stuck in my head for days at a time. In that case I didn't mind at all. Lis­ten­ing to each other, truly lis­ten­ing, is the way to ex­press our love and com­pas­sion.

In our mod­ern world many peo­ple all too often lis­ten only long enough to catch their breath and launch into an­other di­a­tribe. We are much more con­cerned with en­sur­ing that our mes­sage is heard than en­ter­ing into a real con­ver­sa­tion. I have often seen politi­cians be­ing in­ter­viewed and to­tally ig­nor­ing the ques­tions in or­der to re­peat a fa­mil­iar talk­ing point. One won­ders if they even heard the ques­tion.

Sin­cere lis­ten­ing be­gins with ac­tu­ally car­ing about an­other per­son and their opin­ions and strug­gles. It means pay­ing at­ten­tion to body lan­guage, watch­ing their eyes for ex­pres­sion, and wait­ing to let the mes­sage sink in be­fore re­spond­ing. From study­ing pas­toral care in a hos­pi­tal set­ting I re­mem­ber some good ad­vice. Don't stand at the door, half in and half out, far away from the pa­tient. Take off your coat, take a chair next to them, hold hands, and phys­i­cally demon­strate that you will re­main with them for a while. When you are pre­pared to lis­ten, real con­ver­sa­tions will hap­pen.

Our world can be a loud and con­fus­ing place. There are stri­dent mes­sages blared out over many me­dia. Lone­li­ness is ev­ery­where. If we can take the time to lis­ten, truly lis­ten to each other, we can cre­ate a bet­ter world. Lis­ten­ing is the lan­guage of love.


) How many times have you heard the plea, a call from the heart, that uni­ver­sal long­ing to be heard and un­der­stood, for some­one to bear wit­ness. "Lis­ten!" "Lis­ten to me!" "Just lis­ten!" "You're not lis­ten­ing!" And in the busy­ness of the mo­ment, to you stop and of­fer your un­di­vided at­ten­tion? Or maybe it's you, try­ing to get some­one's at­ten­tion.

In the an­cient wis­dom of Zeno, there's a rea­son we have two ears and only one mouth. Lis­ten­ing is an in­dis­pen­si­ble skill of the car­ing soul. Who has not had the priv­i­lege of sit­ting with an­other, drawn aside to a quiet place. Maybe they reach for your hand, to con­nect and close the gap. Then out it comes, slowly one word at a time like pearls drop­ping. Or in a rush as ur­gent as any stream that won't be stopped. The heart opens, out pours a life story. You are in­vited into those sa­cred in­ner spa­ces where "an­gels fear to tread" be­cause the ter­rain re­quires such an un­speak­able light­ness of be­ing. "Lis­ten," they say. And your ears perk up, not only to catch the words, but what lies be­neath the level of lan­guage, the un­sayable un­said. No re­sponse needed, ex­cept to hear and take to no­tice. Shhh, you tell your­self, heart be calm, brain be still. Step back, hold your peace, give this in­fi­nite mo­ment what­ever space it needs.

Re­cently I read that the words LIS­TEN and SILENT con­tain the same let­ters. Who knew? If one half of lan­guage is lis­ten­ing, per­haps we should teach not only how to speak but how and when not to. We tend to think of lan­guage as made up of words. Yet in speech or di­a­logue, words are made up of phrases, the flow and cadence shaped by si­lence. As in mu­sic, the pauses, rests, full stops and mo­ments without sound are more than punc­tu­a­tion. Invit­ing us to re­flect and al­low the words to sink in, and set­tle for awhile. Which is why I love po­etry. Each word so care­fully cho­sen, spa­ces not just empti­ness on the page. When art is spo­ken, si­lences can echo louder than the words.

Are you lis­ten­ing? To whom and to what? And I hope you have at least one wholly lis­ten­ing ear to hear you.


) I re­mem­ber re­count­ing a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult ex­change I had with a for­mer friend and be­ing asked later “did you feel lis­tened to?” The an­swer was no. I had not.

Only then did it dawn on me how often it hap­pens that we are so caught up in our own thoughts, we have barely enough at­ten­tion to de­vote to what the other party is say­ing. We spend time pre­par­ing for what we are go­ing to say in re­sponse. We de­fend our po­si­tions. We draw at­ten­tion away from the speaker by draw­ing com­par­isons with our own ex­pe­ri­ences. We some­times re­sort to shout­ing in or­der to get our point across.

It is sur­pris­ing what we learn when we en­ter con­ver­sa­tion with the clear goal of deeply lis­ten­ing to the other party. First there is the topic of con­ver­sa­tion. Then there is the body lan­guage and the fa­cial ex­pres­sions that ei­ther con­firm or con­tra­dict the words. There is the con­text of the con­ver­sa­tion and the his­tory of our re­la­tion­ship with that per­son. There is the mat­ter of whether we have be­come a trusted lis­tener or whether that trust has been mis­used.

To be able to truly lis­ten is an art. It takes prac­tice but it can be honed. To deeply lis­ten to one an­other is one of the great­est gifts we can of­fer. When we are able to do this with love and com­pas­sion, without judge­ment, it can be­come a sa­cred mo­ment. Speak­ing from my po­si­tion as the talker when I have been lis­tened to in this man­ner, it has felt as if Je­sus him­self is lis­ten­ing.


) There is a kind of lis­ten­ing that does not use our ears. The leader of a med­i­ta­tion group that I at­tend uses a singing bowl to mark the be­gin­ning and end of our time of si­lence. At the be­gin­ning we lis­ten to the deep ring­ing. We keep lis­ten­ing as the ring­ing be­comes more and more faint. And, then, we keep lis­ten­ing af­ter the sound has moved into si­lence. Soon we are con­nected, to each other and to the source of mys­tery, in calm sim­plic­ity.

We use so many words in our usual ways of wor­ship­ping God. We fill up the air with our ideas and our songs. I hope our words and our mu­sic are pleas­ing to God, and I sus­pect they are. I know that these words re­mind us who God is, and I know that they give us hope. I also know that there is some­thing more im­por­tant than words that God longs for. God wants us to lis­ten.

Med­i­ta­tion is all about lis­ten­ing. We lis­ten in si­lence be­cause si­lence is the lan­guage God speaks. If you have not done this be­fore, maybe to­day is the time to start. Keep it sim­ple. Sit com­fort­ably. Fo­cus on your breath­ing. No­tice your thoughts but try not to get at­tached to them, in­stead ob­serve them pass­ing by. If fo­cus­ing on your breath is not enough to let you drop be­neath your thoughts, try fo­cus­ing on a word. Fo­cus, and fo­cus, and fo­cus, un­til you are lis­ten­ing to the si­lence.

One word, four voices - now it's your turn to re­flect: Are you lis­ten­ing? To what, and to whom?

Rev. Mead Bald­win pas­tors the Water­ville & North Hat­ley pas­toral charge; Rev. Lynn Dil­l­abough is now Rec­tor of St. Paul's in Brockville ON. She con­tin­ues to write for this col­umn as a ded­i­cated col­league with the East­ern Town­ships clergy writ­ing team; Rev. Lee Ann Hogle min­is­ters to the Ayer’s Cliff, Ma­gog & Ge­orgeville United Churches; Rev. Ca­role Mar­tig­nacco is Con­sult­ing Min­is­ter to UU Es­trie-uni­tar­ian Univer­sal­ists in North Hat­ley.

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