By Fr Donald Chambers
In last Sunday’s article, I reflected on silent listening as a spiritual disposition that allows us to listen to the inner voice of God amidst a noisy anti-silent culture.
Silent listening enabled Joseph to rise above the inner turbulent noise generated by his broken expectations and disappointments surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus.
In this article, I reflect on the question, ‘How can we nurture silent listening?’.
The Covid-19 pandemic is an example of what Pope Francis calls “life stoppages”. I believe that these stoppages are an invitation to silent listening. They literally slow down the rapid space of daily life and provide us with an opportunity to hear our own cries of fear and pain and resistance, to come to know ourselves, and to listen to the struggles, fears, and motives of others. Pope Francis reminds us that, “In every personal ‘Covid-19’ . . . in every stoppage,” what is revealed is what needs to change: our lack of internal freedom, the idols we have been serving, the ideologies we have tried to live by, the relationships we have neglected” (Let us Dream).
The shocking news of Mary’s pregnancy and its cultural and religious implications was a “life-stoppage” moment for Joseph, stopping him in his tracks, and disrupting his plans for a smooth engagement, marriage, and family. It was a broken expectation. Yet, I believe that Joseph used his own “stoppage” to silently listen or become aware of his (1) feelings and (2) thoughts, allowing him also to listen to God’s message through his dreams.
Silent listening allows for the purification of the heart. During the real Covid-19 stoppage, I experienced my own purification of my ego, my individualism, and my self-centred nature, and grew in patience, compassion and understanding.
In the lockdown, I no longer was on the centre stage with my ego being fed by a large audience of people and, instead, my ego starved to death.
My unbridled individualism became aware that it could not exist by itself and that it needed a community of persons. My self-centredness/narcissism stared at itself in the mirror and received no feedback or response, and I realised that I needed to share the self in order to receive nourishing reciprocation.
In the end, the silent listening of the lockdown enabled me to hear my fears and weaknesses and inspired me to become more compassionate and caring as I listened, especially in the confessional, to others struggling emotionally and spiritually during the lockdown.
In the words of Pope Francis, “What I learned was that you suffer a lot, but if you allow it to change you, you come out better. But it you dig in, you come out worse” (Let us Dream).
The Catholic tradition is fertile with numerous spiritual exercises to develop a Silence of the Heart. Some of these include Lectio Divina and Christian Meditation promoted by The World Community for Christian Meditation led by Fr Laurence Freeman OSB.
However, silent listening is not activity centred, but God centred. You could be in the middle of a noisy marketplace and experience silent listening.
My own mother, I believe, developed silent listening of the heart as a housewife while nurturing five children 18 months to two years apart.
How did she develop silent listening? Ronald Rolheisier (Domestic Monastery) helps to throw light on this. He writes, “The mother who stays home with small children experiences a very real withdrawal from the world. . . while she is raising small children, her time is not her own, her own needs have to be put into second place . . .It is because of this that she does not need . . . to pray for an hour a day. . . the demands and mildness of the very young [forces her to ponder many things in her heart]”.
I believe the following practices will help us to nurture silent listening. First, we need to give some vacation time to our tongues. My spiritual director often counselled me to pray for the grace to know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.
We need to say this prayer, Lord, give me the grace to be quiet to listen for your voice in my heart. In the words of the Buddhist, we need to “tame the monkey mind.”
Second, we need to focus less on external appearances and more on the feelings and motives of our hearts. What am I feeling now? What are my motives in this situation? What are my racing thoughts?
We need to become less preoccupied with our own problems and crises and listen attentively to the concerns of others. As the Jewish Talmud says, “Never pray in a room without windows.” The silence of the hearts leads to merciful concern for others.
Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.