Listening with the Ear of the Heart

May 9, 2021

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. ~ James 1:19

If we listen, we can hear the forest breathe, the holy hush of the tree’s limb. –Felicia Murrell, poet.

A mother heeds her baby’s breath. She discerns each cry for nourishment, the need to be held. We listen to the morning trill of a blackbird, the bell-like song of a western meadowlark. We hear the joy of children playing in the park. We listen to water cascading over rocks, the fall wind moving through the aspen trees. We heed the easy sounds of good friends laughing together. We listen to each others’ stories. Holding them in our souls. When we listen deeply to our hearts, we move beneath the sounds and the words to a deeper rhythm and truth which flows through us, grace perhaps.

“Listening is one of the easiest things we’ll ever do, and one of the hardest,” says David Mathis. On any given night, Jennifer says to me, “I need to tell you something.” “O.K., go ahead,” I respond. Usually, I am mindlessly surfing the internet or watching a program on television. I bend one ear toward her and one ear towards my laptop. A few seconds into her story, Jennifer asks me, “Are you listening to me?”

“Yes, I am. I could tell you every word you’ve said.” “You’re not listening to me.”

She is right. I am listening with “half an ear” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said. This is an impatient, inattentive listening. We listen with “half an ear” when our attention is divided, when we are preparing a response, or when we are mentally rejecting what the other person has to say, writes Janet Dunn.

Mathis reflects, “Good listening invites the person to exist and to matter while poor listening rejects. Good listening embraces the other.” Deep listening is an act of love. How often do we truly attend to one another, creation, our Spirit?

A couple of weeks ago we talked about how Jesus walked through life; he took his sweet time. I believe Jesus moved more slowly through life in part so he could listen to the deeper rhythms of nature and life; he listened to the words beneath the words. Good listening is attentive and patient. It blesses the speaker and the recipient.

“Because Jesus is always listening to God and experiencing God’s presence (grace), God is able to continually teach him,” writes James Finley. Jesus does not begin his life full of power and authority. He is born helpless and vulnerable like all of us but throughout his life he continues to grow in love and wisdom by listening and observing.

When Jesus is a child of twelve, Mary and Joseph inadvertently leave him in Jerusalem. They find him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking questions (Luke 2:46). Wouldn’t we love to know the questions he asked? And the rabbis’ responses? Later in the story there is a fascinating verse, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor,” (see Luke 2:52). Finley ruminates, “Jesus comes into the fullness of his being by faithfully listening to his Great Teacher.”

It is so important for us to ask ourselves, “Who are we listening to? What are we listening to? What/who shapes our thoughts and our way of life?” The Rule of St. Benedict begins this way, “Listen, child of God… Attend to the message you hear with the ear of your heart.” How do we listen with the “ear of our heart”?

When I first moved to Mancos nearly seventeen years ago, an older Navajo man would stop by my office every two to three months. He would greet me, sit down, and start telling me about his journey that day. “I started this morning in Gallup…” His story would wind back to all the struggles, highs, and lows of his life. I knew he needed some gas to get back to Gallup. I was impatient to say the least. “Why can’t he just get to the point?” But he continued to tell me about his life’s journey and at the end of his story he would ask, “Can I have some gas?”

It took me about a year to realize that I was missing the point. This man needed someone to hear, hold, and acknowledge his story. His need for some gas was very secondary. Good listening embraces and as Bonhoeffer writes, “the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them.” Usually, we can help someone more by listening deeply to them than by our words. When we heed someone’s story, “good listening often defuses emotions that are part of the story. The speaker may neither want nor expect us to say anything in response,” says Janet Dunn. Listening heals.

The author of James wisely writes, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

May we listen with the ear of our heart.

Blessings and peace,