by Gerald Schiffhorst
Imagine yourself in a subway station at rush hour. As you’re hurrying to the trains along with everybody else, a young man is playing a beautiful melody on his violin. Would you stop to listen?
If you knew beforehand that the young man was the world-famous violinist Joshua Bell and that the violin he was playing was a Stradivarius valued at $3.5 million, would you stop and listen?
You may think that if a master violinist were playing a classical masterpiece on a priceless violin, everybody would notice. But when the Washington Post staged this exact experiment in a Washington, D.C., Metro station in January 2007, thousands rushed past Mr. Bell. Only six people stopped to listen.
If the transcendent beauty of the music offered to commuters that morning is a symbol of a divine moment breaking into our world and being ignored, it’s easy to see how disconnected we’ve become from the present. The here and now has almost no power to hold us. Each of us is hurtling on the subway of our daily routine toward a future of more appointments, obligations, and distracted busyness.
How busy we can become, how preoccupied with ourselves and disconnected from one another — and from God. How can we be prayerful or pursue anything resembling spirituality if we are so overbooked we have no time for the reality of the present moment?
Listening to others
The problem of not listening well is found in all walks of life. Health professionals are rarely taught to listen to patients, and many teachers struggle to listen to their students amid the competing busyness of the classroom. Models of genuine listening are rare in the media: pundits on TV news shows tend to fire questions at guests and interrupt their answers before their commercial sponsors interrupt them. In social settings, people often seem to be listening, but most tend to be so anxious to find an opening to speak that they’re not really listening at all.
Genuine listening requires the virtue of patience and the ability to slow down the rush of our thoughts so we can pay full attention to another, knowing our turn to respond will come. This type of listening is hard and takes practice, so it’s not a habit many people develop. Giving full attention to the ideas and concerns of another person is a form of love, a source of happiness, a type of prayer. It requires what Jesus emphasized in the first beatitude: poverty of spirit. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” reveals that emptying ourselves of ego by putting our own needs aside is the essence of love. This is what we do when we devote time to another so that we can understand that person by listening deeply to him or her: We show that person our love.
Real listeners are people who have learned to overcome the fear we all have that we won’t “get our oar in” the conversation or that we must keep one eye on the person talking and one on the clock so we can make our next appointment. But to listen well, we have to respect the other person in a two-way conversation; we have to look at the other person as if he or she were the only other person on Earth. In taking time to draw others out, we make them feel we understand who they really are. Isn’t this what we all seek: to be known for who we are, to be loved?
Some years ago my wife Lynn and I learned a simple strategy we still use when thorny issues arise in our marriage: We set aside a period when both of us can disconnect from the outside world, sit side by side, and face each other. Each of us then takes whatever time we need to talk while the other listens, not interrupting (unless to ask for clarification). Then the roles are reversed.
When we have shared this listening strategy with others, they are invariably amazed at how easy it is to use twenty or thirty minutes of real communication to clear the air when misunderstandings occur. To know you can speak without interruption for a set period means you might actually be heard.
Listening to God
We listen best to those we know, and we get to know them by listening to them. If we learn to give loving attention to others, this habit of listening can carry over to our relationship with God. Listening deeply to a friend or family member is one of the many ways of encountering God.
Two of the more traditional ways of lis- tening to God come from the monastic tradition. The first uses the wordless prayer of contemplation. Thomas Merton called contemplation “listening in silence.” What are we listening for? The Catholic mystical tradition would respond: We hear the voice of God that comes as a wordless invitation to be in his presence. The scriptural basis for such contemplative prayer is the example of Jesus, who often fled to the mountains to be alone in the silence of God and who advised us, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret” (Mt 6:6).
The second tradition is the ancient prayer practice of lectio divina (sacred reading), in which we read a line of Scripture and reflect on God’s invitation to listen to his word. Fundamental to this practice is silence. The body is still, the mind is quiet, limited to turning over the scriptural word or words until we let go of all words and enjoy resting silently in the presence of God. In “New Seeds of Contemplation,” Merton says that prayer usually begins as petition but ends in the wordless contemplation of God, who is be- yond all language and knowing.
When asked why he used parables in his preaching, Jesus responded that many people “look but do not see, and hear but do not listen or understand” (Mt 13:13). Frustrated by many people’s lack of attention, more than once Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear” (Mk 4:9).
The Gospels contain numerous variations on this imperative to pay attention. The repeated use of “behold” often seems to be a call to stop and listen: Something important is about to happen. So, too, the influential Rule of St. Benedict, father of Western monasticism, begins with the word “Listen!” The way to make listening prayerful, writes the contemporary Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast in “Listening Heart,” is to let go of self and be aware of God.
An act of love
Many people beginning their exposure to this type of prayer often see silence as emptiness or absence; in fact, contemplative silence evokes presence. Words don’t last, but silence does. Ordinarily, silence means being quiet and passive. But sacred silence is active. Of course, our attention to the silence, our awareness of it, makes it prayerful, just as we have to be attentive to those we listen to.
One way to define prayer is to think of it as total attention. Giving a friend full attention takes effort; giving attention to prayer is even more demanding. As Steindl-Rast points out, listening to a friend requires the gift of our presence; it means suspending our preoccupations so we can be fully present to another. To give someone else attention is an act of love. So, too, with prayer: We give up our ego for a time, losing ourselves and resting in God. Our silent attention to God is an act of love; God’s silent presence with us is an even more beautiful act of love. This is the goal of contemplative prayer, which takes place wordlessly in our hearts. To be in the timeless present of contemplation is to be in God’s time.
Most of the people who attend my retreats on contemplative prayer want a time to be quiet, slow down, and pay attention to the here and now. They learn that prayer is much more than asking God for help with problems; it is about asking to be in God’s presence by being fully aware of the here and now. The most rewarding and powerful way of praying is simply lis- tening to the gentle whisper of God that Elijah heard. (See 1 Kgs 19:11–13.)
God speaks to us every day. To hear his voice, we have to climb out of the dark subway of our tightly scheduled lives and silently enter the light of God’s present reality. Since the voice of God comes in unexpected ways that don’t always involve words, we have to be open to it in the contemplative listening of silence or in the voices of those we love.