Learning to Listen Like a Robin

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, May 8, 2016

It’s that time of year here in the Northeast where no alarm clock is needed.  Count me among the music lovers who are serenaded at 5:00 each morning by a choir of wrens, cardinals, blue jays, and their assorted cousins.  Our winged neighbors are talented warblers and singers; I learned only recently that they’re also exceptional listeners.

A friend pointed out these avian listening skills when we were taking an early morning walk at the end of a week marked by constant and sometimes torrential rain, rain so steady and penetrating that the water-soaked mud bubbled up into puddles and routed dozens of earthworms from their cozy homes below.

“There!” my friend exclaimed, pointing to a red-breasted bird.  “You can see the robin listening.”

And so I could.  Listening made visible in both the stillness and the movement of that plump little bird.  Listening with absolute focus on every element around him.  Listening beyond the patter of raindrops and the splash of passing cars.  Like a contemplative immersed in prayer, the robin stood, head cocked back, then head low to the earth for several seconds.  Suddenly, a quick peck at the ground, and a wriggling worm was pulled from under the lawn.

Over and over, the same pattern.  A robin in the posture of deep listening, the swift dive of the head to the ground, the jubilant lifting of a startled earthworm caught in the robin’s beak, and finally, the feast of being fed by what the robin had so intently listened for.  What could that small bird hear that escaped our ears?

This meditation moment reminded me of what might be considered the central mantra for the Jewish people, based on Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”  The Message Bible translates it as, “Attention, Israel!  God our God!”

Shema Yisrael or Sh’ma Yisrael are the first two words of the Torah that is the central prayer in the Jewish prayerbook, frequently the first section of Scripture that a Jewish child learns.  These words are often recited in the morning and the evening, as a bedtime prayer for children, and as the last words breathed as one leaves this life.

Hear!  Listen!  Pay attention!  The mandate for all of us.  For effective communication tolistenwithhandbw occur, listening must be present. This is true not only in developing relationships with one another, but in our relationship with God as well.

Listening, whether it’s listening to another person, to all of creation, or to God, involves presence and awareness.  It’s much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is stepping out of our own world and paying full attention to the other.

In our relationship with God, how deeply and truly do we listen?  Robert Wicks might have been wondering that when he observed,  “When we pray, how often do we say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening?’ More often, I think, we say, ‘Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking!’”

When we were nearing the new millennium, the year 2000, Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon collected inspiration for the coming century.  They invited leaders and visionaries around the world to offer blessings and expressions of hope for the next one hundred years, and published them in Prayers for a Thousand Years.

One of the many profound messages in this book is Jay McDaniels’ hope for the next thousand years.  May we pray it as a prayer to deepen our capacity to listen, truly listen, to the Divine and to all of creation:

“In this century and in any century,
Our deepest hope, our most tender prayer,
is that we learn to listen.
May we listen to one another in openness and mercy
May we listen to plants and animals in wonder and respect.
May we listen to our own hearts in love and forgiveness.
May we listen to God in quietness and awe.
and in this listening
which is boundless in its beauty,
may we find the wisdom to cooperate
with a healing spirit, a divine spirit,
who beckons us into peace and community and creativity
We do not ask for a perfect world
but we do ask for a better world.
We ask for deep listening.”


As you pay attention and listen to the Spirit working in and through you today and in the days ahead:

What touches you?  Surprises you?  Sparks something within you?  Challenges you?
Frightens you?  Makes you sad or angry?  Resonates with you?

What might God be speaking to you today in silence?  In those you meet?

What keeps you from listening to the voice of the Holy One?


Wishing all who nurture, support, create, and bring to life a blessed Mother’s Day!

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One thought on “Learning to Listen Like a Robin”

  1. Thanks, Chris. I am reminded to live mindfully so I can “be aware” enough to truly listen to the whispers of God.

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