Many Lents ago, I was visiting with a class of fourth grade students in the parish school, engaged in a vibrant discussion of the spiritual disciplines and penitential practices which the children had adopted for the duration of this holy season. As you would expect, quite a number of the students had made commitments to give up a favorite candy or snack or refrain from watching a preferred television program or playing a particular video game.
What truly caught my attention, however, was a boy who offered a rather unusual sacrifice. He shared with the class that he was going to work hard during Lent to try to become a better listener. He admitted that he was someone who talked a lot and that his mom had suggested the penance.
At first, I thought the mother was making the suggestion in the hope of a more tranquil home environment, but when I asked the child why he was trying to become a better listener, he answered that his mom had told him that listening to people is a sign of respect and a way to honor them.
I was thinking of this fourth grader recently as I was noticing what is fast becoming an epidemic of instances of people who are not listening to each other. Everywhere one turns, it seems, people are engaged in disrupting attempts to pursue conversation. In the House of Congress, at town hall meetings, in the midst of speeches, the loudness escalates to the point of drowning out any hope of dialogue or an exchange of ideas.
How prudent to recall the wisdom of that mother to remind ourselves that what is taking place amidst the bombastic disturbance is not simply the disruption of a meeting or presentation but an affront to human dignity. One of the most noble elements of our human condition is the gift of communication – of speaking and listening.
As people of faith, we should be more aware of the importance of listening than anyone. Our Jewish and Christian heritage is literally grounded in the act of hearing. The very basic principle of the Mosaic Law is reflected in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” And, our LordJesus Himself teaches in Matthew 7:24 that true discipleship is found in listening to His words and acting upon them. Listening is a sacred act. It is sacred because it is the posture that is receptive to the exchange of words and ideas which can manifest the Truth. And, ultimately, the manifestation of Truth is a form of revelation, since God is Its source and author.
Sadly, then, the recent epidemic of the failure to listen may very well reflect something even more ominous than a lack of courtesy or civility. It may well represent the conviction of some people that listening is no longer necessary in the pursuit of the Truth, because they believe that the Truth is not something revealed and received but something we ourselves create.
So, perhaps we might give some consideration to our own spiritual disciplines or penitential practices this Lent. In addition to the usual effort of giving up some favorite treat or pleasure, we might follow the example of that fourth grade student and try to become a better listener. Humbly treat every act of communication as a chance to hear as well as speak in an exchange of words and ideas. At its best, conversation can be a sincere and earnest pursuit of the Truth rather than a mere opportunity for us to persuade someone to adopt our own opinion. In listening, we give respect and honor – not only to our dialogue partner – but also to the ultimate Author of Truth, our God.