Cultivating a Listening Heart


Prayer is a conversation.

Say it again, prayer is a conversation.

Now, do you believe that? Ask this harder question: does my prayer life reflect that I believe that?

My guess is that for a vast majority of very good, very pious, very attentive, very orthodox Catholics their prayer life in no way resembles this dictum. It isn't that we don't believe it so much as we don't really know how to act upon it.

To cultivate a listening heart, we must first consider why it is we listen to others. There are many reasons, of course, but let's look at a couple of main ones. We listen to others to learn things. We listen to others to exchange information. And in the most intimate settings, we listen to others to come to love them more.

What qualities are necessary to really listen to someone? Well, it seems that you must believe that whoever it is you are listening to has something worth saying. That is, you respect the speaker. You cannot really listen to anyone whom you believe is just wasting your time or prattling on or repeating what you've already heard a million times, or who is talking about something in which you have no interest or no comprehension.

True listening involves a willingness to lay part of yourself aside for a while. You need to open up and not carry on whatever the agenda of the moment is.

The great Carmelite Saints, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and many others, provide the key in a simple triumvirate of interrelated practices--humility, obedience, and charity (caritas). This is most pronounced in St. Teresa of Avila's Way of Perfection, where she spells these out right at the beginning.

Humility--we must know that we do not know everything and we must be willing to live with that. More, in conversation with God, we must know that we know almost nothing. We must approach God knowing who He is and who we are. St. Catherine of Siena's remedy is sovereign--You are He who is, I am He who is not. This attitude gives rise to tremendous possibilities and opportunities. For example, if we humility truthfully, we will discover that ordinary vocal prayers, things we have memorized from childhood become more than mere recitation. St. Teresa of Avila pointed out that a vocal prayer properly said or thought through can be, in fact, a mental prayer, a moment of meditation or even contemplation. How is that? She tells us to always remember to whom we speak as we pray a mental prayer. In seeing God clearly as we pray the Our Father, we are, in fact, engaging in a mental discipline, a prayer that goes beyond the words to enter into a real conversation. Let's take an analogous situation. Suppose you are in your car and the person ahead of you does something stupid--cuts you off and makes a dangerous turn. Let's suppose you're in a less-than-patient frame of mind that day and you lay on the horn. More often than not, you are not thinking of a person in that other car, but of the car as though it were merely a moving obstacle unpiloted and annoying. Now, let's assume that you are following you neighbor to the hospital and that neighbor is taking their child to the emergency room. You see them do something of the same sort and you see others honk at them. Suddenly you are angry because they are not compassionate and don't understand what is going on. The persons in that car are real, what the car is doing is secondary. More often than not our vocal prayers are conducted in the first scenario--we're all in traffic and making our thoughts known to that car up ahead that seems to be doing the craziest things. But ideally we should be in the second situation. We know that the car up ahead is actually inhabited by people or a Person to whom we owe love and allegiance. When God becomes a Person, we can know and love him intimately, we can say even the simplest, oldest, most rote prayers with a greater spirit of reverence and with a knowledge of the Person to whom we speak.

Let's focus for a moment on two of the attitudes that can cultivate a listening heart. (We'll set aside caritas, the discussion of which would encompass much more than a simple blog entry.)

Humility and obedience. It seems as if these two travel hand-in-hand. Humility--knowing precisely who and what one is in the face of All that is and obedience, submitting to authority. I think we distort both, but if modern American society has a problem with something, I think obedience is the prime place. Our democratic society has lost any real sense of allegiance to hierarchy. We think almost nothing of immediately ascending to the next higher rank in any chain if we're not satisfied with results at the level we occupy. But in the time of St.Teresa of Avila, this was not something one did. One obeyed one's immediate superior even as one worked to change that immediate superior's mind. St. Teresa notes this. She states that the superior is put over us by God and we owe all obedience to his or her will. If we are unsatisfied by our superior, we act in obedience even as we pray and work to change the situation. St. Teresa did this in practice, in an extremely complex and threatening political environment. Even though the Pope himself gave her permission to do certain things, if her confessor didn't, she would not do them.

I'll take an example that has been run into the ground. I often read in St. Blog's and elsewhere that hand-holding during the Our Father is an enormously controversial, emotionally-charged, and salvation-critical issue that we must act exactly according to rite. Let's take an example where the local ordinary, or perhaps even the pastor of a parish, has decided that everyone ought to hold hands during the "Our Father." Now, according to St. Teresa, obedience is ultimately to God, but is acted out in the most immediate of situations. Hence, if the pastor told her to hold hands, she would hold hands, even if the Bishops said something more nebulous. Thus, if we are TOLD to hold hands by the priest, then in obedience we should be holding hands. Now, I pick this issue because it really amounts to a personal preference issue that a lot of people make too much of. How far one can go with this I don't know. If the local priest told us to use leavened bread for the host, it would seem to constitute a violation of a higher sort and then we might need to invoke St. Catherine of Siena. But in most matters obedience merely involves abandoning cherished personal preferences around which we have constructed elaborate scaffoldings of reason and excuse.

That is why obedience is so hard--it involves self-emptying and humility. We must abandon our preferences on any given subject and take up those given us from above. However, obedience is merely the ultimate reality--we don't control when we get sick, when we are born, when we die, or any other of a number of life-affecting events. Viewed through the proper lens, we control nothing, we merely cooperate (or rail against) whatever is happening.

Obedience is difficult. Humility is even worse, particularly in our culture. While we might manage "letter-of-the-law" compliance as we bide our time waiting for change, this nation of rugged individualists has a hard time with humility. Let's face it, humility isn't pleasant. You want to see yourself as kind, and loving, and giving, and understanding, and still strong and independent. Then something happens and you see the reality--I'm small, weak, and self-centered. My chief interest is whatever advances my own interest.

Humility is obtained not through attempting to be humble but through conversation with God and coming to know ourselves as He knows us. That we are small, small children in comparison to Him is not a subject for shame (often incorrectly used as a synonym for humility) but for reality and course correction. That God is all powerful and that the most powerful of us is as nothing is beyond our comprehension without His grace.

Humility expresses itself in obedience and also flows from obedience. As a member of an Order, I learn humility when I submit to the rule of the Order despite what I would like to do myself. In the regular practice of all that the Order requires, I gradually learn humility. God uses my willingness to obey to bestow grace which increases willingness and begins to move me toward humility. As obedience increases, humility grows. As humility grows, obedience increases because in the interplay to the two, love also increases. When you realize who you are and Who God is, only gratitude can flow. With gratitude comes a deeper understanding and a greater love.

The virtues feed one another, just as the vices do. So humility-obedience-love is a virtuous or gracious cycle as opposed to pride-disobedience-indifference is a vicious or sinful cycle.

So, the first step to cultivating a listening heart is obedience to what God asks of us and learning humility. These steps are acts of will informed by grace and understanding. (I can't help you with these latter two--for the one go to God, for the other, Disputations is a helpful beginning.) Only in humility will our prayer life begin to grow. This is because only humility will allow us to recognize that we have our guard up and hence take it down.

A listening heart is a humble heart is a loving heart. The three go together and the three are found in God's heart from which flows the grace that reifies and saves us. Until we are centered there, we are nowhere. Until we find a home in His heart, our own hearts are restless and wandering. Until we make up our minds that we want God more than anything else, we cannot come home.

Believe it or not, even at this length, there is so much more to say, and what I don't know about the matter fills a great many volumes that I have not yet read. My inadequacy to this task is exhilirating because I know that any success there is, is entirely due to Him. Praise God.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 21, 2005 8:41 AM.

From Christina Rosetti was the previous entry in this blog.

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