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!


  • Georgia says:

    One place I really need to learn to listen is in prayer..sometimes I start doing all the talking, which is nuts when you consider who I’m talking to!

  • Leah says:

    As I continue to try to LISTEN to God in the midst of the activities of the day, I find myself continually surprised by God’s presence in our lives in ways that I do not expect. He speaks to us in such subtle and mysterious ways- a stranger walking by to talk, our son’s smile and laughter, the warmth of the sunshine…He is always LISTENING to us but are we ready to hear His answers?

  • Sandra says:

    This article is true, my first inclination is often to respond to others but it does seem like in doing so I am not really listening well, that to accept their words and not respond, at least right away, really lets me understand them better and separate my own judgements out of it. Especially if I bring it to God in prayer, it helps give me the inspiration I need to respond with words or even with silence if that is what is needed.. But it is a difficult thing to do, recently I had an Atheist tell me he prefers not to discuss God, simply because he just sees not benefit in that. I had a hard time not feeling sad by the response, and trying to think of the right words to say to help him see…but I stopped myself, and just responded with “I understand”. Was that the right response? I am not sure, it’s not what I wanted, but he made it clear this is not a topic he is open too discussing. I just hope God will guide me with words and understanding so that I may act in accordance with his will, and may help share in his love.

  • Leah says:

    Dear Sandra,

    I have had friends and co-workers in the past who were Atheists (a few who were ex-Catholics)
    and I can relate to the awkwardness of discussions which we would find consoling to talk about
    but with them very uncomfortable. Usually, I just say “I respect your wishes” and just listen
    to the silence. Let them lead the conversations. Just being a good listener as a practicing
    Catholic-Christian will be a healing experience for them. Archbishop Fulton Sheen recommended
    3 ways to to deal with atheists: 1) Kindness 2) Kindness 3) Kindness. People respond to kind
    acts of charity and those who have become atheists become “unbelievers” because they
    have not experienced LOVE in their lives. I hope this helps.

    Leah Gertrude

  • Sandra says:

    Thank you Leah, good advice. I recently said that actually when I was having a conversation with an Atheist and he said he doesn’t discuss God because he doesn’t see the benefit in doing so. My first inclination was to respond, because as a Christian you see nothing other then benefit of being in such great love in Christ…but instead said I understand and respect your wishes. Then I realized I was spending too much time trying to understand their beliefs or others beliefs better, and not growing in knowledge within my own faith, which is something I need to do.

  • Cecilia says:

    Informative and honest writing with regard to listening, Father Peter, creatively splashed with some good old rock and roll, relating to the lesson. Now that’s way too cool. Thank you.