Listening With Our Heart

Little John was watching the television and the sight of the African children being shown in utter poverty made him cry, and after sobbing in desperation he got up and pulled out a few slices of bread and went near the television and started pushing those slices in every small little hole on the back of the television. In his simplicity, he thought he was offering a little bread to those hungry children. The little boy expresses best what it means to listen with the heart.

The attentive gaze of a mother by the side of her child, and the slightest cry or movement of the child makes her respond immediately with a gentle touch or a caress, and this too is perhaps another example of what it means to listen with the heart. The mother feels what the child needs.

Listening with the heart is the experience of a noble, loving, compassionate person. Looking around, we see millions of people who suffer in silence every day. Everyone longs to be heard and listened to. But the raging fire and chaos, noise and humdrums have caused so much of deafness within, and we only listen to some sounds. We have lost the quality to empathize, to listen and to feel.

The call to listen with the ear of one’s heart, is the invitation of Pope Francis in light of the 56th World Communications Day, that is popularly celebrated on the Ascension Sunday every year. Are we really truly listening? Why do we struggle to listen? How can we listen with our heart? These can be some areas of introspection as we ponder on this theme of the World Communications Day – “Listening with the ear of the heart”.

Chaos Without and Within

The lack of listening plagues our world at every level. From the massive international conflicts like the bitter war that has been unfolding in Ukraine to the endless communal, caste, and religious conflicts that infest so many countries, we see it everywhere.

The outbreak of this war in Ukraine is a clear indication that there is no real dialogue and true listening that has happened. Even Pope Francis’ request for a face-to-face dialogue with Putin, was blatantly refused. When there is no intent to listen, there can never be a genuine solution. This refusal to listen has perpetuated innumerable problems to the existence of everyone.

The staggering rise of breakdowns in marriage and family is also evidence that our refusal to listen is costing us at the individual, family, social and international level. In our own way, many of us are deaf to the cries of those around us. We have become numbed by the noise, we have become desensitized to the sobs of anguish; too many to count, and we have become deaf both outside and within. Truly, we live in our own little tombs of silence, and have become so comfortable with the deathly quiet within. I am reminded of the profound words of Simon & Garfunkel’s legendary song “The Sound of Silence”:

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence…

What an interesting analogy of our present day – speaking without listening, talking without speaking and hearing without listening.

The Universal Need for Listening

Dr. Ralph Nicols, considered the father of the field of listening, said, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” We know this from our own experiences and longings. We all need someone we can trust, someone who will listen, someone who won’t judge. And yet we struggle to be to others this listening, trustworthy, non-judgmental person we ought to be.

An Apt theme for World Communications Day

This year, in keeping with the theme of listening, Pope Francis is inviting us to listen with the ear of our hearts. The origin of this apt plea dates back to the time of St. Benedict, the 6th century mystic and Father of western monasticism. In his Rules for Monks in Benedictine communities, he urged, “Obsculta inclina aurem cordis tui – Listen by inclining the ear of your heart.”

Why it Matters

Why is this kind of listening so important? What does it even really mean? In communication theory, the act of communication is complete only when the message has been understood. Simply sending a message, saying something, writing something is not communication. Communication is a two-way process and it takes place only when the “loop” is complete. As American Philosopher Abraham Kaplan insisted – Dialogue is a duologue. And Listening is the only way this can happen.

When we fail to listen and genuinely connect, we remain like islands; isolated and cut off from each other. And today, we are at the risk of becoming no longer a society but a mere collection of individuals each of us fighting our own battles in loneliness and isolation. There can be nothing more tragic than this failure to listen and connect, because it is what our fundamental nature is designed for.  If we are not willing to listen to each other, there is no way we can listen to God.

Why we fail to listen with our heart

There are several reasons we fail to listen. These are just some of them:

  • We are too preoccupied with our own thoughts, feelings, needs and wants.
  • We are afraid to invest time; our most precious gift. It has been said that the true test of love is the willingness to spend time. If we say that we love, we must be willing to give our time and listen.
  • Whether we like to admit it or not, we are often too quick to judge. When someone tries to share their thoughts and feelings, we would often rather refer our own rule books and assess their morality than listen to them with an open mind. We are too filled with our prejudices.
  • We listen with the intent of replying, so we never really listen. Real listening requires silence and stillness of our heart and mind. As the great pianist Alfred Brendel so insightfully pointed out, “The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.”

Learning to Listen

The Bible offers us many sterling examples of what real listening looks like. Solomon chose to be a listening soul; always attentive to the murmurings of the spirit. Samuel recognizes the voice of God, and as guided by Eli beautifully exclaims “Speak Lord,  thy servant is listening”. David, the Psalmist, cries out to God, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.” (Psalm 25:4). Mary, contrasting the “busy” response of her sister Martha chooses to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen.

Jesus was the Master listener. He listened to understand, to help and to find solutions. He was willing to put away all negative feelings, grudges and misunderstandings, and truly give that empathetic listening with the heart to everyone who came to him. He constantly listened to the voice of God and to the voice of his people. He took time to listen to the questions, fears, and doubts of his disciples. He listened to the unspoken fear of the adulterous woman who silently cried out for mercy. He listened to the Samaritan woman whose story of guilt and shame she carried in her heart. He listened even to the plea of the poor thief crucified with him. The classic encounter with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, evidently shows how Jesus listens to them, understands them, explains to them, strengthens them and nourishes them.

The Relevance of Listening in a Synodal Church

Pope Francis’ call to listen with our hearts has even more profound implications in the Synodal church that he envisions. Infact, the call for listening and dialogue is a new way of being the Church today. Pope Francis says, “Listening is much more than hearing. Hearing refers to the sphere of information; listening, on the other hand, refers to the sphere of communication and requires closeness. Listening allows us to take a proper attitude, abandoning the condition of spectators.”

The synodal process is exactly to listen to the voices from the catholic community; the voices from the grassroots. It is only by listening that real dialogue can begin, conflicts can be resolved and the common road discovered in a spirit of openness. It is a significant step forward in the approach of the Mother Church to become more collaborative and communicative. And this call is to each of us; a call to be more open and more empathetic as individuals, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues, parishioners. If we are to respond to this call what must we do differently?

How can we listen with our heart today?

True listening is not a spectacular act, its beauty lies in the little everyday choices we make. Listening means to pay attention, to close our mouths and open our ears to hear God and others. Relationships, as well as spiritual growth, are built on listening, both to God’s Word and to one another.

  • Are we ready to dwell in silence to reflect and understand on what is going within, what is going around and what God is telling you?
  • Are we ready to change our opinions and preconceived notions about people in our lives; sometimes our greatest biases show up in our deepest relationships?
  • Do we have the openness to listen to several voices; not just the ones we are comfortable with? Real listening entails that we abandon our own defensiveness and fear.
  • Are we willing to listen without judgment? Like the Pharisees who were quick to judge, do we have tendencies to blacklist people, shut off communities or evict people who have hurt us?

When someone listens to us genuinely, we feel emboldened to speak. When we listen to people’s unspoken feelings behind their words, we have the power to heal. When we listen to the stories behind every broken person, we bring forth the power to forgive, liberate and transform.  

Learning to Listen

Listening involves tuning in. It is not a passive act. It does not happen automatically. We may “hear” someone speak but fail to really listen. Listening is an act of true love, it is a conscious effort to tune out distractions and tune into what someone is saying, by truly feeling it with the heart. By nature we are all selective listeners. We listen to what we feel drawn to. We can sift out what someone is saying about us even in a crowded room. We can discern our favorite tune above the chaos of a busy road. We can hear our cell phones amidst all the noise around us. We listen because we choose to. We listen because something is important to us. We listen because it matters.

A new kind of Listening

When I learn to listen with my heart, I will discover that there is a lot more to listen to. I may be accustomed to the constant prattle of my own voice in my head – my worries, my wants, my ambitions, my needs, my feelings. When I listen with my heart, I find ways to step out of myself.

In this new kind of listening with my heart, I will learn to listen to the thousands of voices around me; waiting to be heard, understood and validated. I will learn to…

  • Listen to God’s Word, to the voice and promptings of the Holy Spirit with a sense of faith that nourishes and transforms.   
  • Listen to my spouse; what she says and the many things she finds difficult to express.
  • Find the space in my heart to listen to my aging parents when they are difficult to relate to and no longer interesting to be around.
  • Listen with openness to the voices of little children and gain some view of how they see the world.
  • Listen to my colleagues, friends and parishioners by emptying myself of my own agenda and assumptions to really understand what they are trying to say.
  • Understand the anguished cries of the poor and marginalized in society; perhaps I will develop the empathy to really care about what happens in their world.
  • Listen to the silent weeping of those in prisons; locked away for years with no hope of ever getting out. The abandoned, rejected and despised people rotting away in old age homes who never experience even a moment of genuine human connection. The sick; terminally ill and waiting only for death, the bedridden patients trapped in their own bodies. 
  • Listen to the cry of mother earth as she is ravaged every day in a thousand different ways. The pain and the anguish of the mother earth troubles you.

Listening with the ear of the heart is not a complacent response, but an empathetic and attentive response. It is a responsible openness of the heart, that allows itself to feel and be troubled, to reach out and heal, to share and care and to help build the lives of others. It is the openness in the innermost depth of ourselves to receive, respect and accept the other. If you are not capable of listening to one another, then you are by default also not capable of listening to God. For listening reflects the Godliness in you and your relationship with God. Listening with the ear of the heart, in the final analysis is an act of true love.

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