by Catherine Upchurch
Special to The Leaven
In the popular television show “Frasier,” now seen only in reruns and streaming, a therapist moves from Boston to Seattle and becomes a radio personality.
His clients/patients call in to the show for advice on all manner of things. Frasier begins each call with the soothing sound of: “I’m listening,” except that many times he decidedly is not. He’s distracted by his own issues, or mentally planning a date night or bantering with his show’s producer.
How often have we been in a conversation only to discover we have not really been listening? Or heard a homily that by the end of Mass we cannot recall? There is a difference between hearing and listening. The difference is thoughtfulness, attention or even intention. While hearing is nothing to take for granted, listening requires a willingness to enter into the sounds and find meaning. Listening even goes so far as to require of us a response.
Consider the interaction between Moses and God in their encounter at the burning bush in the Sinai desert (Ex 3). Moses is busy with his responsibilities, shepherding a flock of sheep or goats. We know the story that when a bush caught fire, Moses approached and heard God’s voice calling him.
One rabbinical tradition suggests that Moses may have passed that bush countless times, that God may have called out countless times, but only when the bush was finally set afire did Moses attend to God’s voice. And only then did Moses approach and truly listen.
In this encounter at the burning bush, we learn what it means to listen deeply. The Lord says, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry.” God listens to the enslaved, proclaiming that he knows what they suffer in Egypt and will come down and rescue them. Israel’s God is totally transcendent, but never distant, and never unable to respond to their needs.
God’s listening to the Israelites convinces Moses that he is able to respond to God’s call, and equips him to hear the pain of slavery as God has. It also provides a pattern for Moses and generations of God’s people to follow. Among countless examples in Scripture, here are a few. Like Moses, we are to listen for God’s voice, for God’s instruction (Ps 81:8; 1 Sam 3:10; Mt 17:5). Like Moses, we must allow God’s voice to strengthen us for God’s purpose. And, like Moses, we must be open to change course in order to respond.
The most profound testimony to God’s listening to his people is the coming of his Son who enters fully into the human condition. Jesus listens to those in need of healing, those burdened by sin, those who are overly ambitious and those who are humble of heart.
When Jesus listens, he is moved to action — to offer restored health and forgiveness, to redirect misplaced aspirations and to honor the humble. Most importantly, by truly listening, Jesus carries the burdens of the world in his very being.
As followers of Jesus, we can adopt an attitude and aptitude for listening and responding (Gal 6:2; Phil 2:4). We listen for God’s voice in the Scriptures and sacraments, in silence and in service. Shaped by God’s listening to our own needs, and by God’s voice in our hearts, we learn to listen more carefully to the world around us.
In particular, we pray for the courage to listen as Jesus did, to listen for the cry of the poor, those in physical need as well as those in emotional distress, those who cry out for justice as well as those who are in need of mercy.
With your heart
The Rule of St. Benedict begins, “Listen . . . and incline the ear of your heart.” This posture of receptiveness is crucial as we live out our response to God’s call. We lean in to listen to God and to listen to others’ sorrows and triumphs. Our hearts are made for this.
Questions for reflection or discussion
When have you felt that another person listened to you in a way that was intentional and sensitive to your needs?
What are some of the things that frustrate your efforts to listen to others? And your efforts to listen to God?
Amid the “noise” of our world (all kinds of competing messages and forms of media), do you make deliberate time for silence and prayer? What does that look like for you?
Throughout your day, pause and simply ask, “Speak, Lord, I’m listening.” Imagine making this a habit of your heart and mind.
Catherine Upchurch is the general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several biblical publications. She writes from Fort Smith.
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