Learning the art of listening shapes us into creatures who love.
Years ago, at around 6 p.m. every night, I sat in the lower bunk bed beside Junior. Every night, between dinner and bedtime, we shared that space; our bodies resting on the thin foam mattress while cricket sounds filled the air. It was 2010, and for three months I was living as a guest in Junior’s home. This was a beautiful, unique home in a small mountain village of Haiti, a place that offered belonging and care for 30 persons living with a wide variety of intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities. Junior, like many of his roommates, was abandoned at an early age because of his disability. He was found alone in the forest.
Junior did not use words to communicate. For most of the hours of the day, he sat or squatted in his bunk bed, rocking back and forth with his body hunched over, softly humming and grinding his teeth. To protect his head from unexpected and violent seizures, Junior wore a soft red helmet at all times.
In the first several weeks that I visited Junior, each encounter seemed nearly the same. Some of his roommates came in and out, and most of the time it was just me and Junior, sitting quietly together, five feet apart. He looked directly at his flickering fingers, rocking rhythmically back and forth in his cross-legged position. He rarely raised his eyes and never looked at my face. Sometimes I’d read the bible or pray out loud. Sometimes I’d share about my family and the wonderings of my heart. Mostly I was silent. I watched and listened and abided with my new friend. His presence drew me in. After a while, I began to hum with Junior, imitating his tones. The notes began deep in his throat and ended high, as if in delight. Slowly, night by night, I sensed our connection deepening. Junior and I were becoming friends.
One night, in the middle of our joint humming, Junior unfurled his body and uncrossed his legs, walked gingerly to my side, sat on my lap and stared at me. This was the first time he had looked at me. Our eyes were locked on each other, two inches apart. And his mouth gradually formed an enormous smile. The depths of life and love in his eyes on that specific night remain sources of God’s grace in my memory, even today. Junior: My teacher in the art of listening.
We all share a common unity. Our entire existence rests on God’s self-communication — God’s very Word spoken in creation and redemption. We are invited to be listeners first; receptive in our very being to God’s self-communication transforming us. When we practice the art of deep listening, we become aware of Christ’s presence in the other and in ourselves.
As we move from Easter Season to Pentecost into the vastness of Ordinary Time, we recognize ourselves as participants in the risen life of Jesus, somehow located in a world teeming with the new life brought forth by the Spirit. Like Junior we are enfolded in the mystery of God’s loving, active presence, a divine presence that permeates all the nooks and crannies of our ordinary existence. In listening we seek to live in welcoming awareness of this divine presence. Often it is the unglamorous, small, mundane moments that are the school for learning the art of listening. Moments like sitting side by side with new friends, learning to hum one another’s tunes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna and Elias “Eli,” and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House and Haiti’s Wings of Hope) and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia met in the wonder of interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.