Listening with the heart
by Julien Hammond
In his homily at the Mass to open the two-year synod on synodality
, Pope Francis reflected on the meeting recorded in the Gospel of Mark between Jesus and a rich man who asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10.17-22) In this encounter, Pope Francis identifies Jesus as one who listens “with his heart and not just with his ears”:
"Jesus simply listens, for whatever amount of time it takes; he is not rushed…Indeed, he does more than simply answer the rich man’s question; he lets him tell his story, to speak freely about himself. Christ reminds him of the commandments, and the man starts to talk about his youth, to share his religious journey and his efforts to seek God. This happens whenever we listen with the heart: people feel that they are being heard, not judged; they feel free to recount their own experiences and their spiritual journey."
Finally, the Holy Father asks all of us as we begin the synodal process: “Are we good at listening? How good is the ‘hearing’ of our heart?” Are we able “to empty ourselves, to free ourselves from all that is worldly, including our inward-looking and outworn pastoral models; and to ask ourselves what it is that God wants to say to us in this time. And the direction in which he wants to lead us”?
In the weeks since I first heard this homily and since the launch of the synod in my own diocese, this idea of listening with the heart
has really stayed with me. I think about it in the context of my life of faith and my participation in the synodal process of my local, diocesan Church. Where and how do I listen to the Word of God addressed to me in the day-to-day; and what of that Word do I really hear or filter out, intentionally or otherwise?
I think of it, too, in connection to my particular calling as an ecumenist in the Church. How good is the hearing of my heart
towards the voices of sisters and brothers from other churches and ecclesial communities? How attentive am I to the voices of persons outside of the Christian family or people of no professed faith? How is the Lord listening to them and speaking through them to us, to the world? What have we spoken to each other in dialogue that is effectively God’s voice speaking to us through one another?
The paradigm of spiritual listening – and the discipline of it – features in virtually every religious tradition, at least any that I have encountered. Sometimes it is the central tenet or practice of a tradition as in the Quaker form of prayer or in Zen Buddhism or in the contemplative monastic traditions of Christianity. Sometimes it is ritualized as at a Tenebrae or Holden Evening Prayer service, or Lectio Divina or the tradition of Taizé. Sometimes it is an occasional practice as during an annual spiritual retreat or in the Poustinia tradition of the Madonna House community.
In each of these prayer forms (and certainly others could be cited), the intention of the practice is the same: to attune our hearts to attentive listening to God’s Word as it comes to us in many and diverse ways. Often our listening begins with silence and the awakening of our sensory receptors. Spiritual listening, like ecumenical, dialogical listening, is oriented towards discerning God’s will, calling us to increased unity of purpose and mission in the world, in accord with God’s love for our world.
In the Jewish tradition, the central prayer in both their morning and evening prayer services begins with the phrase “Hear, O Israel” (“Shema Israel”, in Hebrew). The word “Shema” in this prayer signifies and commands an obedience in the listening: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one."
(Handbook) issued for the synod says something similar: “Synodal listening requires us to learn and exercise the art of personal and communal discernment. We listen to each other, to our faith tradition, and to the signs of the times in order to discern what God is saying to all of us. And not only to hear it, but to put it into practice in and through our lives.”
"Listening to those who have the same views as we do bears no fruit. Dialogue involves coming together across diverse opinions. Indeed, God often speaks through the voices of those that we can easily exclude, cast aside, or discount. We must make a special effort to listen to those we may be tempted to see as unimportant and those who force us to consider new points of view that may change our way of thinking." (Synod Vademecum, p.18)
This week begins our Advent season in the life of the Church: a time of intense watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord. Let it be also for us this year a time of intense and active listening with our hearts to hear God’s Word present to us in various ways and through even the most unexpected voices.
Julien Hammond is the ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of Edmonton and has served as a member of the Roman Catholic-United Church of Canada Dialogue, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-Roman Catholic International Consultation.