Finding silence and learning to listen amidst the noise of modern life

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By Andrea Savage OSB

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Our monastery sits on the top of a hill on the North York Moors and in the fields surrounding us we have lots of sheep and lambs. From time to time the community helps our local farmer raise orphaned lambs, which is a good experience. One sister took charge of these lambs and they soon came to know her voice. Sometimes, as she stood on the terrace above the field talking, the lambs would gather beneath bleating up at us because they recognised her voice. The verse from John’s Gospel has definitely taken on a new meaning:

‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice’, says the Lord. ‘I know them, and they follow me.’

We all like to think we are good listeners, that we would be there for someone in their time of need. Most of us realise this is the ideal; sadly, the reality is a little different. Those who are listening and those who are not are quite different.  Body language alone tells you if a person is hanging onto your every word. The body language of a non-listener immediately shouts of boredom. The person is easily distracted and suffers from a severe case of the fidgets!

A question we need to ask ourselves is: why do we choose not to listen? I suspect most of us never really examine why we don’t listen. When we stop and think about it, we can be surprised by what surfaces. Maybe I will hear something I won’t like or, alternatively, I will have to act on what I have heard, when, actually, I would far rather ignore it. Just remember Jesus’ comments to the Pharisees: Woe to you, for you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed (Luke 11:47). Why did they kill the prophets? Because they didn’t like the message!

Another reason for not listening could be because I have decided that I already know the other person’s message. To listen properly often means making an act of humility, to die a little. What do I mean? To listen properly means being totally open to the other, being receptive to what is being said. I must suspend my own agenda and stop turning a deaf ear.

The deaf ear shuts out anything it does not wish to hear. In today’s world we have become very adept at doing this. We have become self-absorbed, staring into computers, iPads and mobile telephones. There is no shortage of information; in fact, it is only a click away. The stimulation is wonderful. There is a hunger and impatience for more. We are getting more, but not all of it is true or real. Fake news is becoming an increasing problem. People read information on the internet and on social media and assume it is true. Now, in recent months, we are discovering that some use fake news to influence the outcome of national elections. If this is true, then it is also really worrying.

How can we change the culture we have made and begin to listen to each other, to learn to trust again? To begin with, we need to remember that more is not always better. We need to develop once more a listening heart.  Listen carefully, my child, to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Proverbs 4:20, RB Prol:1). In the tradition of the desert Fathers and Mothers, monks and nuns would take a single word to meditate on, chew on it for days. This word or phrase would normally come from Scripture. The brother or sister would go and sit in their cell and meditate on it. It was in this silence that they began to listen with their heart, to absorb the word into their life.

Silence is such an important tool for listening and in a world where we are bombarded by words and information, there is no time or space to ruminate on what we have heard. As religious, maybe we can change the climate of noise - by our life of listening to the word, in our lectio, in our liturgies and in the Sacraments. If we truly listen to the Word, we are transformed, and the ripple effect flows out into our community life and into our apostolate. What people meet are not just people who listen but, more importantly, in us they meet Christ.

Theophilus of holy memory, Bishop of Alexandria, journeyed to Scete, and the brethren coming together said to Abbot Pambo: say a word or two to the Bishop, that his soul may be edified in this place. The elder replied: If he is not edified by my silence, there is no hope that he will be edified by my words.      (The Wisdom of the Desert:  Translated by Thomas Merton, published by Sheldon Press, third impression 1975)