To listen is an act of love. It is not love that creates listening, but listening that creates love. Or rather reveals it. When we truly listen, the deep relationship that already exists begins to emerge.
We accept that stillness and silence are states that elude us. The difficulties in coming to such states are familiar to all. Trouble begins when our mind tells the body to sit still. The body’s wish to move creates anxiety, which we try to repress by an act of will perhaps. We try to will calm and quiet, but then the mind races away, and the circle begins, over and over again. If this goes on long enough, we either abandon the attempt altogether, or look in earnest for a way off the hamster wheel.
This is not a new malady. John Donne, sixteenth-century poet and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, wrote:
“I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his angels, for the noise of a fly, for the ratting of a coach, for the whining of a door…and if God or his angels should ask me, when I last thought of God in that prayer, I cannot tell.
Sometimes I find that I had forgot what I was about, but when I began to forget it, I cannot tell…an any thing, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer.”
So a collected state is elusive, and we don’t seem to find a direct path to it on our own. But we all assume that more or less we know how to listen, and can listen when we decide to do so. When approaching the Lord’s Prayer with the intention of listening, for example, it becomes important to consider what listening asks of us.
Listening is a simple act, as in a “simple receptivity.” This receptivity reflects a state of being gathered together, body, feeling, mind. This “gathering together” has to begin somewhere, and it does not begin in the mind. The mind can note the desire but is powerless to satisfy it. It can remind us to begin, but then we have to say, ‘thanks,” and ask it to wait in the wings.
For where listening begins, whether listening in prayer, or listening to a friend in distress, is the body. The body is present, when the rest of us is not. The mind can be lost in anticipation, or regret. But even if it is restless when we turn to it, the body is present. And when we begin to attend to it, it receives this attention by relaxing, by giving way, as though it welcomes the attention, was starved for it. Slowly the sensation of the weight of our body seated on a chair, feet on the ground, the sensation of the breath, passing in, and out, is established.
To listen is more than not speaking. All of me must be available, and the body is where this state of being available begins. From there, remaining in touch with sensation and breathing, it is possible to see impulses from mind and feeling that disrupt listening. From the vantage point of the body, we can see the necessity of a quiet mind and quiet feeling in order to hear. The “I” has to give way, to surrender its opinions, desires, its being certain of knowing what to do and how to do it. In this way a space is created, and the needed silence. We understand silence is needed, and we understand why.
Learning to listen is not a technique, though it requires effort, and practice. We see that we are asked to remain quiet because without this quiet we cannot receive what is being offered. In order listen, we must be vigilant, and here the mind can play its proper role, watching, alert to what pulls us away. The feeling is called, not in reaction, but in support. This effort to listen is an effort that can be undertaken outside the time of prayer as well as within it.
When we approach listening to the Lord’s Prayer, to begin is always to begin anew. It can feel each time like stepping off a cliff into the unknown. Hans Urs von Balthasar has written, “The word of God can require something of me today that it did not require yesterday; this mean that, if I am to hear this challenge, I must be fundamentally open and listening. It is true that no relationship is more intimate, more rooted in being than that between the recipient of grace and the grace-giving Lord…”
Image: Sunrise at sea, 2018. Lorraine Kisly