Deep Listening

The other day when several folks gathered at a church in Atlanta to participate in the Shalem Institute’s 40th Anniversary “Circle the World in Prayer” vigil, one participant talked about a wonderful teaching she once received from Jerry May, who was a senior fellow at Shalem and the author of such classic books as Will & Spirit and Addiction & Grace. My friend shared an idea that May spoke of, called “deep listening.” As we enter into silence, we consciously choose to let go of the normal assault of frenzied thoughts and feelings that cloud everyday waking consciousness. But this does not mean that silent prayer or meditation is immediately an experience of pure soundlessness. Not hardly. Thoughts, images, and feelings continue to flow through awareness, although by tending to our posture, our breath, and a point of focussed awareness such as an ikon or a prayer word, we become more mindful of the vast, open, spacious silence that always exists within us, between and beneath the normal chatter of the mind. Silent prayer is, on one level, an exercise in learning to pay more attention to that vast silence than to the surface noise of ordinary awareness.

This is where the concept of deep listening comes in. For we all have, tucked away deep within us, an assortment of “quieter” thoughts and feelings: old memories, half-forgotten dreams, disappointments and wounds that never fully healed — such whispering strands of our hidden selves were tucked away in the “shadow” or the basement the mind. That stuff normally eludes our awareness, so focussed we are on the immediate pressing matters of the moment, even if such “pressing matters” are no more momentous than deciding whether to eat lunch at home or at Chipotle. So one of the gifts of a disciplined prayer practice of intentional silence, offered to God as a form of wordless praise, is that it gives us the opportunity to listen deeply to those whispery thoughts and feelings deep within. Why? To acknowledge them, to heal them when necessary, or even to revive those half-forgotten dreams if the present is a more auspicious time for pursuing them. But in all cases, deep listening is a means whereby we can offer the fullness of our being to God — from the rush of conscious feelings and ideas, to those barely audible echoes of the past — so that we may be healed, loved, and transformed by the grace of the Spirit, all the way down to the most penumbral regions of the soul.

Deep listening. It’s a beautiful concept. And it begins simply by offering silence to God.


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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Mona

    Thanks for this, Carl. I’ve been thinking about this all week…so your post is very timely…helping to assuage the guilt I’ve been feeling for not being a perfect contemplative pray-er. My foray into contemplative prayer is more about this ‘deep listening’ than it is about emptiness. Thanks for encouraging me that I am indeed on the right path. Peace on your good heart.

  • Cullen

    Amen to all these thoughts on deep listening. I would just like to add another reason to practice this form of prayer which is that it helps us listen deeply to each other. Just as we offer ourselves to God in prayer we can offer our full selves to each other by listening beneath the surface for how God is speaking through the longings, grief, loneliness, joy, gratitude, etc. of each other. I’ve heard this called ‘holy listening’. It doesn’t happen without intention and practice but it can be very healing when it does occur between two or more people. Certainly it deepens our relationships with others and with God.

  • Kimberly Mason

    What Mona said. And peace to you from me also.