“Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)
Sacraments are those wondrously mundane visible acts of inward grace. For some of us there are seven; for others there are two; and for some there are none. In trying to understand how the sacraments intersect with community and justice, I realised how odd it is that this deep command of God has been missed almost entirely. Jesus was baptised, and so we are baptised; Jesus shared the Meal with his friends, so we share in the Meal with one another.
“…listen to him!”
What might happen if I dared to step into the sacrament of listening?
I was raised in traditions steeped in the reality of hearing God’s voice. Prayer, meditation on scripture, alone time with God, devotions — I took these moments most seriously as a child and even more seriously as a teenager. I found it puzzling that other children found these practices odd or irrelevant. It was even more disheartening to discover teachers that disregarded my communications with God as valid and valuable communications. Eventually I learned to keep my experiences with God to myself.
Of course, God didn’t always speak audibly. This was, and remains, a severe frustration. How can I listen if I can’t hear? Why doesn’t God speak like God did on the mountain top? Why doesn’t God light up my world? Why doesn’t God send the great undead to assure me of God’s identity?
It’s a lifelong lesson, consuming years of quiet times, to learn that God speaks in ways more pronounced and more subtle than an audible voice. This holy listening, commanded from the mountain, is sacramental: God’s grace manifested in presence, discernment, identity, and community. God’s grace manifested without a word from me being spoken. I need no water, no bread, no wine. I need only what I have to listen, be it ears, hands, fingers, or hearing aids.
What if I practiced listening as a sacrament?
The scary reality comes when I realise that I don’t know how to listen. Rather, I believe I know how to listen. The two realities are worlds apart.
Of course other people haven’t experienced my lived realities, so I feel wholly justified in being publicly civil. Internally, however, I remain judgmental and harsh over the other person’s obvious lack of sensitivity. Not only do I remain in this superficial layer of myself, but I feel more than justified in doing so.
When I choose to actively listen, the world shifts a little bit. The practice of active listening is engaged by pastors, counsellors, social workers, therapists, managers, and all sorts of people of whom listening is demanded. I learn to adjust my body language to demonstrate my engagement in a conversation. My nonverbal cues are just as important as my verbal ones. Through my interactions in this way, I am able to reframe and reword what the other person has spoken to show I have understood what was said. When I and The Other undulate back and forth together, actively listening to one another, a few more layers of our selves are pulled off.
The practice of deep listening, however, is attuned more to mindfulness. I pay less attention to submitting nonverbal cues to the person I am listening to. Instead, I submit myself fully to the other person and what is being said without judgment or need to judge. I release the need to respond, to debate, to argue, or even to agree. In such conversations, I pay more attention to myself than others because self-awareness is key in monitoring our responses.
Deep listening does not necessarily imply agreement, but it does require a substantial amount of trust. My self learns to be open to all that is offered. Whenever I feel myself catching my breath or reformulating an answer, I choose to move back into the space of listening. Not only do I choose holy space for myself and other other person, but I have the gift of learning how my senses respond to certain cues. I am able to receive more by laying down action.
I return once again to this place of wonderment: what if I practiced listening as a sacrament?
It would demand I listen for God in all people, places, and times.
I’m asked to relinquish expressing sympathy for lived experiences I have no right speaking to. Even in trying to let go of such habits, I’m brought to a place of realising just how many times I try to relate to every single narrative I come across. No human being in the world has ever experienced every single narrative there is to engage or the baggage that comes along with them, so why I do pretend to try?
Daily, I need to set aside my white narratives — those stories and identities that have kept in certain places of privilege and scream at me to remain whole and intact as they are being torn down. In deep listening, my ego my disagree on all levels but if I’m being called to listen for God in the other person, God must have space to move over my ego and my inherited cultural props. God already has the place of honour as God-in-the-Other — that work is already done. The sacrament comes alive in the intersection of God’s work and my embracing of listening to God’s work.
Daily I need to listen to myself and discover God in these spaces. Why? If God isn’t to be found in my own internal communication, my words, or my intentions, that lack of awareness of Presence will spill out into my communication with others. This sacrament of listening requires a level of intentionality not often meditated upon. When I’m cornered or hurt or made to feel pain, I intuit rather than intend. I return hurt for hurt or run away entirely. My feelings speak for me rather than my whole person.
Choosing to discover God in my own words forces me to confront my own lack of awareness. How can I possibly respond well to anyone if I really have concept of how I respond to my own person?
It would demand I listen for the words of Christ
In scripture, in others, and in my own life, listening would demand I recognise the words of Christ and, as God-the-Creator commanded, listen to him. For me to step into the ability of recognising the words of Jesus, I need to take time to know Jesus. Far too often I expect a magical voice to come out of the heavens telling me what I must do or not do. Since voices from heavens are usually sparse in our world, that unusual act itself would do the work for me of discerning whether or not it held any authority.
But while three out of the twelve disciples experienced the voices at the Transfiguration, nine did not. Most of us will never hear a booming, heavenly voice commanding our next steps. In light of this reality, many of us are far too quick to dismiss or judge other people’s experiences with God. Because we feel God just doesn’t work that way or speak that way or act that way (anymore), the experiences of other people are easily invalidated.
What if I took time to get to know Jesus? In the bible? In others? In myself? There really are no other magical ingredients besides time and openness. All relationships require time and openness in all directions. My relationship with Jesus is no different. If I wait to experience Jesus in the Meal alone, or in my prayer times, or in the anointing of oil, I will likely discover these sanctioned times are not enough. If I am to learn to recognise Jesus’ words so that I may listen to them well, I need to invest the time in cultivating that relationship.
Imagine the freedom: in practicing listening as a sacrament, as a visible action of God’s inward grace, losing the power of reactions in myself against others and receiving openness to God and God’s love.
Here is liberation.