Sometimes we hear sounds, words, music, but do not really listen, and so we miss the message. Is this what T. S. Eliot meant when he said that we “had the experience but missed the meaning”? Hearing can be passive, but listening is always active, dynamic. Waking in the quiet of night, it can happen that a word, a sound, heard but barely registered during the day, comes to mind, unbidden. It is then that hearing deepens into listening. Listening means taking seriously what we hear, taking it to heart – being attentive, responding, perhaps taking action.
Advent is a good time to ask God to sharpen our ability to hear, to help us hush the interior babble that keeps us from really listening.
Anthony de Mello SJ gives a telling example of how our preoccupations can distract us from the act of listening: “Think of yourself in a concert hall,” he says, “listening to the strains of the sweetest music, when you suddenly remember that you forgot to lock your car. You are anxious about your car, yet you feel you cannot walk out of the concert hall, and you cannot enjoy the music.” You may say that this is an extreme example – I have to admit that, in such a situation, all other things being equal, I myself would be up and out of that concert hall in a flash! – but I believe de Mello is making a valid point. In the course of an average day, we hear countless things, but so often find ourselves unable to really listen.
Think about it… Have you ever heard the readings at Mass and afterwards wondered what they were all about? Yes, you heard, but you were not really listening… Have you ever heard someone talking, someone you knew well, and later realised you had failed to catch the anxiety, the note of urgency in their voice, in their words? You heard, but you were not really listening… Have you ever heard the early morning local news on the radio, telling of a devastating road accident in which many people were seriously injured, and your first thought was not the tragic loss of life, but how this misfortune might affect your journey to work that day? You heard, but you were not really listening… Have you ever walked in the countryside, your mind so taken up with routine concerns that you were barely conscious of the birdsong, the sound of running water or the rush of the wind in the trees? You heard, but you were not really listening…
During these weeks of Advent, perhaps, like some of the people listening to John the Baptist, we will find ourselves asking a genuine listener’s question: “What must we do to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord?”
On a personal level, we may find a way to pour oil on the troubled waters of a tense and fractured relationship; to ask pardon of someone hurt by a broken promise; to soften the hard-heartedness that makes it so difficult for us to offer or receive forgiveness after a quarrel. Perhaps there are injustices on a wider scale, at home or further afield, on which we should take some action. Would now be a good time to make a stand for what is right? We live in an age of increasing ecological awareness, and we recognise that our planet has suffered serious damage, caused by human exploitation of the good things of Creation. Do we need to extend our concern for the oppressed and the vulnerable and include the Earth itself? Should care of the Earth assume a more important part in our thinking and action this Advent?
Sr Teresa White fcJ is former teacher and has spent many years in the ministry of spirituality at Katherine House FCJ, a retreat centre in Salford. Read other contributions by Teresa on this website.