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!


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