by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for February 4, 2018
When were you last deeply listened to by another?
Listened to without unsought advice being offered or judgment being expressed? Listened to by someone who wasn’t simply counting the seconds until your pause or intake of breath created an opening for the listener to jump in and offer you the wisdom of their years of experience? Listened to without being told, “I know just how you feel,” followed by the listener’s recounting of their story, perhaps a similar parallel event, but one that was not your story. When were you last so fully and attentively heard that you felt not only listened to but also valued and affirmed?
Many years ago in a survey, people were asked to recall a moment when they felt most deeply loved. Most of the responses indicated a striking similarity, for the moment of feeling most deeply loved was often also the moment when respondents were in the presence of someone who had the gift of profound listening. A listening that’s the kind David Augsburger describes when he writes, “Being heard is so close to being loved that, for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”
Quite an equation, isn’t it? Being heard = being loved in some way. Hopefully, all of us have the graced opportunity to have in our lives a friend, a mentor, a teacher, a spiritual guide who has the particular gift of accompanying us in this way no matter what is unfolding in our lives. Henri Nouwen described so well the qualities of this person of presence and deep listening in Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
That level of caring and attentiveness can also be found in spiritual direction, sometimes called spiritual guidance or spiritual companionship. For the director, it’s a call to a listening so deep that it mirrors and reflects the unfailing presence of the Holy One who is the third person—along with the director and directee–in that meeting. This way of spiritual coming together is about the “stuff” of one’s life and how the Holy One is moving in all that “stuff.” As spiritual guides open their hearts to the sacred story of another and act as spiritual companions, they’re in a privileged place. Here they get to witness the unfolding story of how God is present and acting in another’s life and how the other is noticing the presence of the Holy One there.
In accompanying others as friends, mentors, teachers, spiritual guides, all of us must also come face to face with our own powerlessness and must own our inability to save others from their pain, to take away their losses, to mend their fractured relationships, much as we desire to do so. As listeners, we’re not called to enact what is beyond our human abilities. We practice the limits of living in that space of “not knowing, not curing, not healing.” We grow in trust in the power of the Holy One whose faithful presence we hope to mirror for others. We offer what is ours to give: spaciousness of heart and a safe place where others can lay down burdens, share what delights and draws them, and speak out loud their unique story, all with the assurance it will be received with reverence.
The following prayer by Jay McDaniel resonates with our hopes for becoming deep listeners. It’s one of the Prayers for a Thousand Years, a collection of hopes and aspirations written as we moved from the end of the twentieth century into the twenty- first century, into these next thousand years:
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.
Sit in a place of stillness.
Call to mind the last time you were fully and lovingly heard.
What did this experience feel like? Look like? Sound like?
When have you offered this same gift to another?
Ask the Holy One to listen with love in you, and give thanks.
Please remember in your prayer all who are part of a week of guided retreat for the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVM) taking place February 4-9, in Dubuque, Iowa. Thank you!
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6 thoughts on “Listening as an Act of Love”
Dear Sister Chris, Your words in “Listening as an Act of Love” were wonderful. It is very true if a person is not really listening to you, you feel unloved and your not important. It helps me to remind myself that I need to be a better listener. Thanks for sharing. God Bless
Thank you, Maureen. I think our efforts to grow in the practice of deep listening have the power to bring so much healing and peace into our world.
Thank you Sister Chris for a beautiful reflection today on listening and the way and approach to loving someone and others by listening in this way; I am familiar with Rembrandt’s “portrait of Christ’s head” – Jesus seen as a listener – listening to us in a special way; Jesus loves us in this way and listens with love and compassion. Best to you Chris and everyone; Jack
Jack, thank you for your affirming words and for sharing the image of Rembrandt’s “portrait of Christ’s Head.” Jesus as the listener–how tender and encouraging. My best to you and your family and my thanks to you for always listening so deeply and so well.
Hi Christine. Our choir sings a beautiful song called “A Listening Heart”. This reminded me of that song. I really enjoy being uplifted by your posts. Thanks.
Thanks for your kind words, Kathy. That song sounds like a perfect fit for this blog, so I’ll be sure to check it out.