By Steven Norris
“Are you listening to me?” After being together for more than two decades, my wife has gotten pretty good at reading my facial expressions. That said, I’m afraid that the glazed over eyes and far-away look probably gave me way pretty easily.
Listening is hard. We have been trained by years of experience to tune out many of the sounds that accompany our daily lives. For example, how many times do you really stop to pay attention to the music that is playing softly in retail shops or restaurants?
How many times do we tune out traffic noise that works its way into our office space or turn on the radio to try to drown out the sirens and cars and hydraulic truck brakes? How many times do we tune out the radio because we are rehearsing the day’s “to do” list on our morning commute? How many of us have “white noise” machines meant to filter out distractions so that we might “hear” but aren’t tempted to “listen” attentively?
An important part of growing spiritually is cultivating the skills of paying attention, focusing on the presence of the Divine in our daily lives, and really listening. The poet and author, Marilyn McEntyre, writes about the power of listening well. She argues,
“Good listening is a discipline and an art form. A good listener doesn’t just offer release or a place for a speaker to vent or ramble, but invites and engages and explores. Good listeners seek to understand. They ask questions — imaginative questions, open ones, sometimes surprising questions that reframe the conversation. They muse. They examine. They speculate. They listen for both manifest and latent meanings. They are fully present and interested. If they’re listening to a crushing bore, they find a way to take an interest, and find themselves interested. The role of the listener is not simply silent nor passive. And listeners are not free from accountability for what they hear. On the contrary, we are deeply and consequentially responsible for what we listen to.”
Over the past year, I have assisted with many more funerals than usual in my ministry. It seems to me that the key to finding God in these moments is the sacred art of listening.
So often, friends have guided me on a tour of the cathedral of memories and stories that make up a cherished and well-lived life. They have carefully and attentively pointed out the little things that I might have overlooked — behaviors, habits, or personality quirks that made their loved one who they are were. I have watched as families connected the dots of seemingly unrelated pieces of a person’s life to reveal the enormous beauty hidden from plain sight.
In my listening, I have also come to the conviction that so many of our world’s problems could be overcome if we only cultivated the art of really listening to one another — not just hearing, but listening with our ears, our hearts, our very souls.