How to Listen to Others

(This is Neil.) This is my very belated (and inadequate) response to John Allen’s recent interview with Godspy. Allen lamented that American Catholics seem to be ideologically divided into insular “catholicisms.” “If they ever pop their heads up above the walls to look at somebody in another circle, it’s often not with a genuine interest in the thought of the other. It’s with what you might call a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion.’”

Preceding these comments, Allen offered something of a diagnosis. “The nature of modernity,” he claimed, particularly the acceleration of information, means that “people want to move immediately from experience to conclusion because they don’t have time to think.” And, thus, “we’re often operating out of ideological presuppositions and gut instinct, rather than a patient reflection on reality.”

I think that this means that we really have to reflect on how to listen. I’d like to share some thoughts from Doris Donnelly of the Cardinal Suenens Center that are themselves drawn from the Rule of St Benedict, which, after all, begins with the injunction to “Listen” (ausculta) and “incline the ear of your heart” (Prov 4:20).

First, to listen, one needs silence. There are negative silences – we can be “silenced” by fear or confusion. But, as St Benedict reminds us, authentic silence is a means for attentiveness, so that we can better receive the voices of others, including our teachers Ch 6) and the readers of holy books during monastic meals (Ch 38). TS Eliot has written:

The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

“Not here, there is not enough silence …” Our normal lives are often marked by inattentiveness because we “walk among noise” in a messy, fragmented, ever distracted condition that Donnelly acutely describes with the German word Zerrissenheit – “torn-to-piecehood.” If you write, whether in a journal or even a blog, you can examine your entries: Do you see anything more than a chaotic change of emotions released by immediate events, a desperate uncritical admiration turning into a sense of betrayal becoming anger before finally passing into resignation – only to suddenly begin again? Silence is a way of centering ourselves past this fog of noise and the unreality of our first impressions so that we can achieve a deeper responsiveness. We quiet ourselves and focus on Christ, and, because, as Gaudium et Spes says, “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself,” we are also drawn within ourselves, to who we really are, in a centered “place of grace” where we can be attentive to others and the Other.

Second, to listen, we must listen through others. For St Benedict, this involves the abbot (or abbess). One image of the abbot is the “shepherd,” and the Rule warns the abbot to “imitate the loving example of the Good Shepherd” and to fear the warning of Ezekiel, “What you saw to be fat you took to yourselves, and what was feeble you cast away” (34: 3,4) (Ch 27). The abbot is to “dispose all things with prudence and justice,” and, in particular, to call together the whole community when important business needs to be done. Only after hearing the advice of the brethren is the abbot to decide upon what he believes will be most “expedient.” The Rule states, “The reason we have said that all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best” (Ch 3). Donnelly writes, “The abbot who expects to be listened to must be a listener too. And an above-average one at that.”

Another image of the abbot is that of a solicitous “healer,” who must act like a “wise physician” to the delinquent brethren, at times using “the ointments of exhortation,” or “the medicines of the Holy Scriptures,” or even “the cautery of excommunication” (Ch 28), always careful never to exercise a self-serving “tyranny.” Insofar as this abbot is a model and his teachings are to form the minds of the disciples in his midst, he must create an atmosphere conducive to listening and responsiveness. We might ask if there are holy people in our lives – fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters – through whom we can listen.

Third, to listen, we must be immersed in Holy Scripture. Benedict recommends lectio divina for four hours a day. This is a process of listening to God. First, the text is read in what one monk calls a “real acoustical reading” (lectio), which focuses our attention. Then we meditate on the Word (meditatio), patiently “ruminating” upon it or “pondering it in our hearts” like the Virgin Mary (Lk 2:19), deepening our relationship with its divine speaker. We respond in prayer (oratio) and finally move into a contemplative stance towards the One who have spoken to us (contemplatio). Donnelly writes, “The formula of lectio is deceptively simple: read, meditate, pray, contemplate. But it assumes first and foremost a listening heart so that the routing is ensured and so that our journey to contemplation is not detoured.”Besides cultivating silence and listening through a teacher and Holy Scripture, we must avoid certain behaviors if we are to learn how to listen. Benedict harshly reprimands “the monks called gyrovagues”: “Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony” (

Ch 1). Esther de Waal writes of the Benedictine ideal, “The man or woman who voluntarily limits himself or herself to one building or a few acres of ground for the rest of life is saying that contentment and fulfillment do not consist in constant change, that true happiness cannot necessarily be found anywhere other than in this place and this time.” Gyrovagues, as Donnelly says, because they cannot bring themselves to stay put, cannot be fully present to the here and now and properly attentive to “this place and this time.”Likewise, we must not grumble (see, for instance, Ch 23 and Ch 34). Those who murmur are in danger of being trapped in a conversation within themselves, and unable to extricate themselves from its inevitable egocentricity, can only relate to others according to the background noise of their own threatened interests and preoccupations. Constant censure, complaint, and faultfinding, even if justified, “sow seeds of discord that undermine the foundation of silence that undergirds the ability to listen.”We must not laugh. This is not to deny, as Dom Jean Leclerq has written, that “humor in characteristic of the spiritual person,” because humor can suppose detachment. But we must remember that there is a sad sort of detachment that leads to nihilism.

Reinhold Niebuhr writes, “The sense of humor remains healthy only when it deals with immediate issues and faces the obvious and surface irrationalities. It must move toward faith or sink into despair when the ultimate issues are raised. That is why … there is only faith and prayer, and no laughter, in the holy of holies.”

And, finally, we must not talk. At least, not too much. This might be hard to grasp. But there are two problems with excessive speech. First, Benedict cites Proverbs 10:19: “In a flood of words, you will not avoid sinning” (Ch 6). Now, this would have been much harder for me to believe before the coming of the Internet. But I think that we have all written things that we regret (I certainly have). Donnelly shows us the second problem with talking by introducing John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan’s allegory includes a certain Mr. Talkative, who says, “[To] talk of … things is most profitable, for by so doing, a man may get knowledge of many things … and the benefits of things above.” But Faithful sees through Mr Talkative and asks him, “Do you experience that about which you speak?” If we talk a great deal, we might find ourselves believing that God is something to be talked about.

How do you think that we might better listen? How can we, to take John Allen’s words, avoid the seductions of our “ideological presuppositions and gut instinct,” and begin “a patient reflection on reality”?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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