Listening: My Lenten Focus


In addition to making the 7 Qualities of Mercy online mini-retreat for Lent, I have decided to focus my Lent around listening. Pope Francis’s Message for the 50th World Communications Day is what inspired me to choose to focus on listening. Listening is a wonderful quality that is a prerequisite for genuine communication—with God first of all, but also with self and with others.  

But first I want to go back to Pope Benedict’s Message for World Communications Day on May 20, 2012. The theme of this Message was unusual: Silence and Word: Path of Evangelization. Since silence is such an important part of listening, I thought I’d begin with this:

Silence and word: two aspects of communication which need to be kept in balance, to alternate and to be integrated with one another if authentic dialogue and deep closeness between people are to be achieved. When word and silence become mutually exclusive, communication breaks down, either because it gives rise to confusion or because, on the contrary, it creates an atmosphere of coldness; when they complement one another, however, communication acquires value and meaning.

Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible. It is often in silence, for example, that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other. Joy, anxiety, and suffering can all be communicated in silence – indeed it provides them with a particularly powerful mode of expression. Silence, then, gives rise to even more active communication, requiring sensitivity and a capacity to listen that often makes manifest the true measure and nature of the relationships involved. When messages and information are plentiful, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish what is important from what is insignificant or secondary. Deeper reflection helps us to discover the links between events that at first sight seem unconnected, to make evaluations, to analyze messages; this makes it possible to share thoughtful and relevant opinions, giving rise to an authentic body of shared knowledge. For this to happen, it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds…

As the Cross of Christ demonstrates, God also speaks by his silence. The silence of God, the experience of the distance of the almighty Father, is a decisive stage in the earthly journey of the Son of God, the incarnate Word …. God’s silence prolongs his earlier words. In these moments of darkness, he speaks through the mystery of his silence” (Verbum Domini, 21). The eloquence of God’s love, lived to the point of the supreme gift, speaks in the silence of the Cross…  

If God speaks to us even in silence, we in turn discover in silence the possibility of speaking with God and about God. “We need that silence which becomes contemplation, which introduces us into God’s silence and brings us to the point where the Word, the redeeming Word, is born” (Homily, Eucharistic Celebration with Members of the International Theological Commission, 6 October 2006). In speaking of God’s grandeur, our language will always prove inadequate and must make space for silent contemplation. Out of such contemplation springs forth, with all its inner power, the urgent sense of mission, the compelling obligation to communicate that which we have seen and heard” so that all may be in communion with God (1 Jn 1:3). Silent contemplation immerses us in the source of that Love who directs us towards our neighbours so that we may feel their suffering and offer them the light of Christ, his message of life and his saving gift of the fullness of love…

Word and silence: learning to communicate is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak.

-Pope Benedict XVI, Message for the 46th World Communications Day

I’d like to allow the beginning of my Lent to be guided by the above reflection and make a Lenten examination of the quality of silence in my life. The series of slides below (put together by one of our sisters several years ago), contains excerpts from Pope Benedict’s Message that might launch me into deeper reflections:

 Then I hope to move on to Pope Francis’s most recent Message for World Communications Day, with its theme of Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter.  Genuine listening to others is what arouses compassion in me; as I wish to invest the quality of mercy into all my relationships, I think it would be helpful to reflect on Pope Francis’s encouragement to us to listen, perhaps using his words as a way to make another examination of conscience on listening that will be ongoing through Lent:

Communicating means sharing, and sharing demands listening and acceptance. Listening is much more than simply hearing. Hearing is about receiving information, while listening is about communication, and calls for closeness. Listening allows us to get things right, and not simply to be passive onlookers, users or consumers. Listening also means being able to share questions and doubts, to journey side by side, to banish all claims to absolute power and to put our abilities and gifts at the service of the common good.

Listening is never easy. Many times it is easier to play deaf. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice, as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: we have to remove our sandals when standing on the “holy ground” of our encounter with the one who speaks to me (cf. Ex 3:5). Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.

As communicators, we seek to imitate Jesus’ self-emptying or kenosis in our communication. In God’s desire to be close to us, in order to redeem us and heal our broken relationship with God, Jesus emptied himself, taking on our human nature, and giving himself up to a horrific passion and death. Jesus is the full expression of the merciful love of the Father. In every aspect of his person, his life, and his death, Jesus seeks to draw us closer into the embrace of the Trinity.

Pope Francis talks about listening as a form of self-emptying love, similar in a way to Jesus’ kenosis. Listening can be a sort of martyrdom. In truly listening, we imitate Jesus’ self-giving, sacrificial love, by putting ourselves and our agendas aside and becoming deeply receptive to whomever we are listening to. Deep listening enables us to become aware of the sacredness of the other. Even if we are just having an ordinary, everyday conversation, deep listening takes us beyond the surface to glimpse the depth of someone else’s humanity and thus, how beloved they are by God.

Lent is a time to die to ourselves so that we can rise with Christ. Learning to listen better is a concrete way to die to self and to welcome the other in a genuine encounter of love and mercy. When we really hear and understand one another, we are more likely to respond with compassion, gentleness, and mercy.

Above all, as attentive listeners, we can discover God speaking to us:

  • in prayer and in his holy Word
  • within ourselves in the depths of our own hearts
  • and especially in the words and unspoken longings and vulnerabilities of others with whom we relate

In closing his message, Pope Benedict entrusts the work of evangelization through the media to Mary, “whose silence listens to the Word and causes it to blossom.” May our silence and communication this Lent also blossom into expressions of God’s Mercy.

* * *

Join me in making the 7 Qualities of Mercy online mini-retreat for Lent!


“Catch-Up”: Interview on Soul of Christ book & newest Lenten online retreat for the #YearofMercy!

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks for me, helping to “launch” 7 Qualities of Mercy: Become a More Merciful You online mini-retreat. As Reconciled to You’s Allison Gingras points out in her creative blogpost, making 7 Qualities of Mercy your Lenten Retreat this year is a powerful way to use social media to open you up to God’s presence in your real and online lives. (See her wonderful blogpost, Please Don’t Give Up Social Media for Lent!) 

Here’s a blurb about the retreat, which I had a hand in developing, and many of our sisters and wonderful lay collaborators wrote for (including Allison Gingras).


I’ll be making this retreat starting Ash Wednesday, and I might be blogging a bit about what are the pros and cons of making an online retreat?

This week, I also had the joy of speaking about my book, Soul of Christ: Meditations on a Timeless Prayer, on Breadbox Media on the show, “A Seeking Heart with Allison Gingras.” Allison is a good friend and a lovely, easy-to-talk-to host. Surprisingly, this show was our first opportunity to really talk about my book, Soul of Christ, so it’s quite conversational and filled with each of our experiences–with the Anima Christi prayer and with Eucharistic adoration. Last year, several sisters in my community used Soul of Christ for Lenten reading, and when I asked for feedback, they told me it was a really good fit for Lent, so the interview is timely. You can listen in to the podcast online or download it here.

CWCOiconFinally, I just had to mention a fantastic opportunity that’s coming up: the Catholic Writers Guild is offering their annual Catholic Writers Conference Online from March 4-6, 2016. The cost is reasonable, and the workshops in the past have been really valuable. You need to register by February 27th. Hope to “see you” there!

I’m about a month away from completing the rough draft of my book, which I’m also blogging at Once the rough draft is complete, and barring a few weeks of travel in May, I am eager to get back to blogging here weekly. Thanks for your patience with me as I’ve unsuccessfully juggled a few too many weekly commitments!

Prayer for “Converting” Our Communication

"La conversión de san Pablo (Murillo)" by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“La conversión de san Pablo (Murillo)” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo – via Wikimedia Commons

The Conversion of Saint Paul is always a special feast day for me, but this year it has special poignancy because Pope Francis’ Message for World Communications Day this year seems to me to be a personal and community invitation to “convert” our communication.

Here’s my reflection from Saturday on Saint Paul as a model for when we feel powerless and are tempted to “give up.”

For some time, I’ve known what this message confirms for me: I’m a great “hear-er,” but not so great of a listener—which is essential to any communication. Below I’ve posted my prayer for a much-needed conversion in how I communicate—both interpersonally and digitally—based on the Message. It can be used as a prayer or as an examination of conscience. While I will use it today during my Hour of Adoration, I’m planning to re-visit it during future retreats. I think there is something for every communicator to reflect on in his message, which encourages us to speak the truth in love, with merciful love.

Prayer To Become a Better Communicator

(based on Pope Francis’ 2016 World Communications Day Message)

Jesus, living Image of the Father of Mercies, help me to make mercy the distinctive trait of all I am and do, so that my every word and gesture expresses God’s compassion, tenderness, and forgiveness for all.

Father of Mercies, You placed us all on this earth to journey towards the fullness of life in Christ. As a communicator, our primary task is to communicate the truth with love. Bless our every act of communication so that, by selecting our words and gestures with care, we can build bridges, enable encounter and inclusion, and enrich society. Teach us in our communication to avoid misunderstanding and to contribute to healing wounded memories and building peace and harmony.

May mercy so shade our thoughts and speech that the truth we speak, leads us away from judgment, separation, exclusion, or competition, instead leading all towards  conversion, freedom, respect, and unity.

Lord, above all we pray for the gift to listen—a unique form of martyrdom where we renounce closed-mindedness and defensiveness, removing our sandals to stand on the “holy ground” of encounter with the one who is speaking to us. Teach us how to listen, a listening that means acceptance, true understanding, and paying attention: sharing questions and doubts, journeying side by side, and banishing all claims to absolute power and superiority.

Lord, touch all communication with Your own power. We pray in a special way for those who lead and those who form the opinions of others, that they may speak the truth to uplift the oppressed and guide troubled peoples toward reconciliation. We pray that they will have the courage avoid the temptation to exploit differences, stirring up mistrust, fear, and hatred. We pray for harmony in our world, that the vicious circles of condemnation and vengeance can be transformed into circles of dialogue, openness, freedom, and respect, so that our human family may be healed and draw closer to each other as true brothers and sisters. Amen.

Francis’ Message for 50th World Communications Day

WCDGraphic2015World Communications Day has been celebrated throughout the Catholic world since 1967 on the Sunday before Pentecost which this year is May 8, 2016. Every year the Pope commemorates the feast of St. Francis de Sales (January 24), patron saint of journalists, by releasing his message for World Communications Day. Each message highlights a particular aspect of communications. Here is Pope Francis’ message for this year, released a couple of days early. (I hope to have time to share reflect further on the message here on the blog in the next couple of weeks!)


Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The Holy Year of Mercy invites all of us to reflect on the relationship between communication and mercy. The Church, in union with Christ, the living incarnation of the Father of Mercies, is called to practise mercy as the distinctive trait of all that she is and does. What we say and how we say it, our every word and gesture, ought to express God’s compassion, tenderness and forgiveness for all. Love, by its nature, is communication; it leads to openness and sharing. If our hearts and actions are inspired by charity, by divine love, then our communication will be touched by God’s own power.

As sons and daughters of God, we are called to communicate with everyone, without exception. In a particular way, the Church’s words and actions are all meant to convey mercy, to touch people’s hearts and to sustain them on their journey to that fullness of life which Jesus Christ was sent by the Father to bring to all. This means that we ourselves must be willing to accept the warmth of Mother Church and to share that warmth with others, so that Jesus may be known and loved. That warmth is what gives substance to the word of faith; by our preaching and witness, it ignites the “spark” which gives them life.

Communication has the power to build bridges, to enable encounter and inclusion, and thus to enrich society. How beautiful it is when people select their words and actions with care, in the effort to avoid misunderstandings, to heal wounded memories and to build peace and harmony. Words can build bridges between individuals and within families, social groups and peoples. This is possible both in the material world and the digital world. Our words and actions should be such as to help us all escape the vicious circles of condemnation and vengeance which continue to ensnare individuals and nations, encouraging expressions of hatred. The words of Christians ought to be a constant encouragement to communion and, even in those cases where they must firmly condemn evil, they should never try to rupture relationships and communication.

For this reason, I would like to invite all people of good will to rediscover the power of mercy to heal wounded relationships and to restore peace and harmony to families and communities. All of us know how many ways ancient wounds and lingering resentments can entrap individuals and stand in the way of communication and reconciliation. The same holds true for relationships between peoples. In every case, mercy is able to create a new kind of speech and dialogue. Shakespeare put it eloquently when he said: “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes” (The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I).

Our political and diplomatic language would do well to be inspired by mercy, which never loses hope. I ask those with institutional and political responsibility, and those charged with forming public opinion, to remain especially attentive to the way they speak of those who think or act differently or those who may have made mistakes. It is easy to yield to the temptation to exploit such situations to stoke the flames of mistrust, fear and hatred. Instead, courage is needed to guide people towards processes of reconciliation. It is precisely such positive and creative boldness which offers real solutions to ancient conflicts and the opportunity to build lasting peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt 5:7-9)

How I wish that our own way of communicating, as well as our service as pastors of the Church, may never suggest a prideful and triumphant superiority over an enemy, or demean those whom the world considers lost and easily discarded. Mercy can help mitigate life’s troubles and offer warmth to those who have known only the coldness of judgment. May our way of communicating help to overcome the mindset that neatly separates sinners from the righteous. We can and we must judge situations of sin – such as violence, corruption and exploitation – but we may not judge individuals, since only God can see into the depths of their hearts. It is our task to admonish those who err and to denounce the evil and injustice of certain ways of acting, for the sake of setting victims free and raising up those who have fallen. The Gospel of John tells us that “the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). The truth is ultimately Christ himself, whose gentle mercy is the yardstick for measuring the way we proclaim the truth and condemn injustice. Our primary task is to uphold the truth with love (cf. Eph4:15). Only words spoken with love and accompanied by meekness and mercy can touch our sinful hearts. Harsh and moralistic words and actions risk further alienating those whom we wish to lead to conversion and freedom, reinforcing their sense of rejection and defensiveness.

Some feel that a vision of society rooted in mercy is hopelessly idealistic or excessively indulgent. But let us try and recall our first experience of relationships, within our families. Our parents loved us and valued us for who we are more than for our abilities and achievements. Parents naturally want the best for their children, but that love is never dependent on their meeting certain conditions. The family home is one place where we are always welcome (cf. Lk 15:11-32). I would like to encourage everyone to see society not as a forum where strangers compete and try to come out on top, but above all as a home or a family, where the door is always open and where everyone feels welcome.

For this to happen, we must first listen. Communicating means sharing, and sharing demands listening and acceptance. Listening is much more than simply hearing. Hearing is about receiving information, while listening is about communication, and calls for closeness. Listening allows us to get things right, and not simply to be passive onlookers, users or consumers. Listening also means being able to share questions and doubts, to journey side by side, to banish all claims to absolute power and to put our abilities and gifts at the service of the common good.

Listening is never easy. Many times it is easier to play deaf. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice, as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: we have to remove our sandals when standing on the “holy ground” of our encounter with the one who speaks to me (cf. Ex 3:5). Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.

Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication. It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal. Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups. The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks. I pray that this Jubilee Year, lived in mercy, “may open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; and that it may eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination” (Misericordiae Vultus, 23). The internet can help us to be better citizens. Access to digital networks entails a responsibility for our neighbour whom we do not see but who is nonetheless real and has a dignity which must be respected. The internet can be used wisely to build a society which is healthy and open to sharing.

Communication, wherever and however it takes place, has opened up broader horizons for many people. This is a gift of God which involves a great responsibility. I like to refer to this power of communication as “closeness”. The encounter between communication and mercy will be fruitful to the degree that it generates a closeness which cares, comforts, heals, accompanies and celebrates. In a broken, fragmented and polarized world, to communicate with mercy means to help create a healthy, free and fraternal closeness between the children of God and all our brothers and sisters in the one human family.

From the Vatican, 24 January 2016


Patron Saint for Writers Today

Saint_Elizabeth_Ann_Seton_(1774_-_1821)Today is the feast of one of my favorite saints, Elizabeth Ann Seton. She was a wife, mother, convert to Catholicism, and founder of a religious community, the Sisters of Charity. She was a society debutante as a young woman and later in life lived extreme poverty as she founded the Sisters of Charity. I’ve always loved the excerpts I’d read from her writings, but only when I was researching her life for my book, Saints Alive! The Faith Proclaimed, did I realize what a prolific writer she was. A woman of her time, Elizabeth didn’t publish her writings, but she wrote many, many letters, journaled, and wrote spiritual guidance for her sisters. From these come many spiritual gems, including one of my favorite adaptations of the Anima Christi prayer, which you can read here.

Here is a lovely quote from St. Elizabeth for the Year of Mercy:

“The greater my unworthiness, the more abundant is his mercy.”

Elizabeth’s life was filled with tremendous sorrow and loss—from troubles at home in her early life, to the death of her husband, to the loss of her children—only one survived her.  Perhaps because of her sufferings, her writing style is warm, simple, and practical. I have found many spiritual gems in her writings. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton uses beautiful and understandable imagery to describe the spiritual life—not an easy thing to do. Her writings have recently become freely accessible in PDF. Although she is not listed as a patron for writers, I’ve added her to my list as a patron saint for my writing. I think she is a wonderful patron for those who write about spirituality, women writers, letter writers, and those who journal.


Music and Creativity

ChoirChristmasBostonThis weekend, our sisters’ choir sang the annual beautiful Christmas concerts here at our Boston convent. The sisters sing exquisitely, and many people in the audience (including me) were deeply moved. As people came over to me at the end of the concert to tell me how much they enjoyed it, I was reminded again how powerful music can be in our lives.

In many ways, music is one of the first “media,” as it can be as simple as a rhythm drummed on an upside down bucket or a mother humming a lullaby to a restless infant. For most of us, music is a huge part of our daily lives.

Cell phones, headphones and mp3 players have made music an even more frequent companion for many of us. And music stays with us long after the sound waves are gone: a melody can get under our skin very quickly. I used to love using the word “awesome,” but I can’t use it any more because it triggers The Lego Movie theme song to play in my head just like it does in the movie…over and over!…and then it distracts me for half the day. (The movie Inside Out has a humorous, laugh-out loud reference to the persistence of musical jingles coming to mind.)

The other day I was doing some baking and another sister told me that she enjoyed seeing me when I bake. Since she doesn’t usually eat what I bake, I asked her why. “You hum and sing when you’re in the kitchen, you seem to be enjoying yourself!” she told me.

Music also helps me to be more creative. When I am brewing a cup of coffee, opening my favorite writing program (Scrivener), and trying to take a step back from the hectic details of life so that I can write creatively, I also put on very specific music. (Music has the added benefit of drowning out the occasional distracting noise.) Often, for a large project that spans months or even years, one particular music album—usually a film score—becomes the music for that project, and I’ll play that album over and over again.

And then there’s sacred music. Many of us have favorite hymns that move us to a deeper spirit of prayer and praise.

Whether it’s poignant lyrics, a haunting melody, a catchy rhythm, or a majestic orchestral masterpiece that swells with thematic grandeur, certain music uplifts and touches me deeply. Yet, apart from the album I listen to when I’m writing, I don’t spend much time listening to what I enjoy most. Instead I settle for whatever is convenient or most accessible, or whatever I think others will enjoy. Taking the time to listen to the music that, with its evocative beauty makes me feel closer to God, seems like a wise choice. Perhaps during this Advent and Christmas season, when I find myself listening to more music than usual, I might just take a little time to create a “soundtrack for my life” that inspires and motivates me.

penclipart* What role does music play in your life?   *   What kind of music stimulates your creativity?   *  What does the “soundtrack of your life” sound like?