Benedictines open each new calendar year with this word: Listen!
This is the first word of the Rule of Saint Benedict, which is usually read daily in a community meeting known as Chapter. As a former musician, the word is particularly important to me. Listening is much more difficult than it sounds–pun intended. Modern psychology, neurology and philosophy agree that we all ‘filter’ what we hear. Thus, we predetermine what we hear based on what we think we’ve heard before. Therefore, much of what hits our ears in daily life simply reinforces our prejudices and cherished biases. The verb ‘listen’ has a more active and at the same time more self-effacing sense to it. One who listens tries actively to place his or her prejudgments to the side. Listening carefully requires us to attend to the actual nature of the sound or words that we are hearing, to make ourselves responsible and responsive to them. This is hard and challenging work.
I once had a piano teacher who told me that I needed to listen more carefully to what my playing actually sounded like. He quickly (and kindly) added, ‘this is harder than we all think’. When we know a piece of music well, it is easy to become careless, to fall back into a lazy, imaginative assumption that every note is as golden as our favorite recordings of Horowitz or Rubenstein. I often point out to the monastic choir that the better we know a chant, the more sloppily we tend to sing it. We stop listening to each other and assume that we sound great because it’s easy.
Benedict, of course, does not have music in mind, but the lesson is similar. When I read the Scriptures, it is easy to assume that I already know what is being said, and to hear it the same old way every time. The discipline of listening invites me to hear as if for the first time, to open myself to a reality outside of my self-referential comfort zone. This can be unsettling. When Jesus teaches, “Whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment,” it is so much easier to conjure up my stock rationalizations for not really listening. Similarly, as the pianist must listen to his actual tone, phrasing, balance and rhythmic accuracy, the Christian must ‘listen’ to his own life with exacting attentiveness. How do I actually act–as distinct from how I assume I am acting? Once again, it is so easy to imagine that my actions are ‘pretty good, after all’, not far from saintliness! To attend carefully may well reveal places where I need to change. And just as a bad habit of technique can be difficult for a pianist to undo without a lot of conscious effort and daily repetition, the work of conversion is often slow and repetitive. But it is a tried and true way.
Most importantly, listening means learning to be objective in our judgments. It is a genuinely contemplative stance. Listening well is quite the opposite of narcissism. It opens me up to the truth about things, rather than allowing myself to settle for my personal distortion of reality. It allows us to be nurturing to others by responding to them as they are and not as we hope or fear that they are. How often do we turn off the voices of others because we ‘already know what they are going to say’? Is this true, or in fact a convenient dodge to avoid being exposed as wrong, or sentimental, or impatient, or deficient in the wisdom needed to address difficult situations? This new year would be a good one to discover whether we are truly disciples of Saint Benedict, real ‘listeners’, and to grow in trust that what we struggle to hear is worth hearing, is in fact an evangelium, a ‘good announcement’–Good News!