Listening as a Radical Act

fresco depicting Job and his friends

Years ago, I sat before my friend after a particularly hard week and said, “I don’t know if I can take this anymore.” I was thinking that I didn’t deserve to live anymore. He looked at me and didn’t try to talk away the pain. He listened. And all he said in reply was, “I know.”

That single sentence, that listening presence, changed my life. I finally felt heard. I didn’t have to prove to others the pain I felt, it was recognized. And with those two simple two words, I started down the path to loving myself again.

During my long journey with depression the listening presence of my friends, family, and support team made all the difference. Like Job’s friends who simply sit with him in his sorrorw for a week before any words are said (Job 2:13), sometimes listening is the best response.

Today I am a professional listener. Several years ago, I completed a three-year training program to become a spiritual director. Learning about listening was deeply transformational; we learned a new way to be in the world. In this world full of fierce debating and social media echo chambers, where everyone seems to be shouting louder than the last, we learned the radical act of opening our hearts and putting aside our own views to hear how the Spirit is moving beneath the words.

I am truly convinced that in today’s world, listening is a radical act. The pause, the silence, the acknowledgment that another person’s story is true can truly change the world. I hear so many people today trying to listen as never before. I hear people trying to stretch out beyond the stark political divide that is scarring so many American families today and trying to reach out with the ear of the heart instead of the mind.

Now, as a spiritual director, I open myself to the heart of people’s story. I walk with them. Spiritual direction is not just about the soul or religion. We listen for the holy in the ordinary, for how Spirit shows up in daily life, relationships, work, hobbies, the real place where the rubber hits the road as we each try to live authentic lives of love. It is in the ordinary that the real messiness of this gospel life with Jesus shows up.

Sometimes I think my story isn’t worthy, that I have nothing to say. This is why it is important to have friends, family and a support system that I check in with regularly. Part of that support system for me is my own spiritual director. I sat beside her one day and said, “Not much is going on in my life. I have no idea what we will talk about today.” We sat in silence then, as we usually do to start our session, until she gently asked, “What is on your heart today?” Suddenly my tears began to flow freely and I began to talk. Having been in religious life for 17 years, I was beginning to question whether or not it was a good fit for me. Was I really called to lifelong celibacy for the sake of the kingdom? I didn’t know. She didn’t try to answer my questions, just stayed with me in the months of seeking and waiting and discerning that followed. When I came to the place where I felt that religious life continued to be a good fit for me there again, instead of judgment was simply a listening presence.

As Shannon O’Donnell says in this powerful poem:

This is the Part
This is the part where
I shove aside what was urgent
five minutes ago.
Whatever it was, it can wait
because this person
in front of me
my attention
I take a deep breath.

This is the part where
I check the box of tissue
and close the door
and make myself still.

This is the part where
I listen
to words
sounds caught in the throat
the long–ago child
who doesn’t have words.

This is the part where
there are no words.
I hold
like a bird
that will shatter
with the cold.

We breathe
as if we’re just learning
at a time.

This is the part where
I say, You will live.
You will not die from this.

This is the part where
I let go.

no magic words
no lasting touch

This is the part where
I trust what has happened
between us
and through us
and then let go.

And this is the part where
I have no part.

–Shannon O’Donnell
Tacoma, Washington

To me this perfectly describes the radical act of listening. By creating a space of trust and openness where the truth can live freely, we relinquish control. We allow the Spirit to breathe. Just imagine a world where true listening happened even just a little more often.

What are some ways that you can listen more deeply to those around you?

Pause. Don’t say anything. Or simply make an encouraging noise or short phrase like “yes, tell me more, and …” When I am listening, questions naturally arise. However, I find that if I just pause and don’t ask my questions the person will keep talking and answer them anyway! Give people a chance to share their whole story.

Stay with their story. Try not to give advice or fix them. Let their story be theirs. Also, refrain from telling your own story. Though you may be reminded of how this connects to your own story, resist the urge to share. Instead, be curious and try to hear how their story can go even deeper

Listen with your heart. It’s easy to get caught up in our mind and counter-arguments. This is particularly true with our political divide. Open you heart. Remember that this person is a precious child of God and open up the ear of love in your own heart.

To make listening a radical act, what do you find helpful? How has listening changed your life? Feel free to share in the comments below. We are a community of listeners and by opening our hearts, we are changing the world step-by-step.

About the author

Sister Sarah Hennessey

Sarah Hennessey, FSPA is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for her Franciscan community, poetry, singing, and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse.

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