THE ART OF HOLY LISTENING: A LENTEN DISCIPLINE If there’s one technological innovation of the past decade that has effected me the most it would have to be the ability to download audiobooks or podcasts onto my phone and to listen to them anytime of day. For me, this has made mindless tasks far less mindless. While washing the dishes, tidying-up the living room or driving to an appointment across town I can be, at the same time, taking in a lecture on the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas or the history of the anabaptists. The thing that I listen to the most, however, are podcasts on politics and culture. This, I must caution, isn’t always a good thing. While staying on top of current events is certainly a laudable goal, I worry that the nature of our political discourse has grown so caustic and partisan in recent years that a steady diet of social and cultural commentary can only have a negative a effect on one’s mental and emotional health.
After all, content creators are well aware of one important fact: rage sells. Provocative captions and headlines calculated to stoke people’s feelings of anger, resentment and alienation result in more clicks and higher ratings. In the short term, at least, all of this is good for news outlets both small and large. But what if vitriolic political tirades are constantly buzzing in our earbuds as we’re running on the treadmill at the gym or driving our kids to sports practice? What if we have the chatter of the major news networks playing round the clock in our living rooms, forming the background noise of our day-to-day lives? Would that not have a detrimental effect on our general state of mind? Would that not affect our relationship with God?
We are well aware of the New Testament’s injunction to practice right speech. The Lord himself chillingly warns us: “On the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter” (Matthew 12:36). We often forget, however, that we are also called to practice right listening. “Pay attention to how you listen,” Jesus says. “For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away” (Luke 8:18). Are we listening to things that build up our faith, draw us closer to Jesus and exhort us to good works? Or, are we listening to things that feed our prejudices and fill us with resentment towards those whom we deem our political opponents?
Saint Benedict (c. 480-547)— the Father of Western Monasticism— seems to have been well aware of the importance of holy listening. Centuries before shortwave radio and downloadable podcasts, Benedict encouraged the members of his monastic communities to listen to a brother monk/sister nun read from a piece of devotional literature— like The Lives of the Church Fathers— while sharing a meal in the refractory.
“Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers,” Benedict writes in his Rule, specifying that there ought to be a designated reader scheduled for each week. “Let there be complete silence,” he adds. “No whispering, no speaking— only the reader’s voice should be heard there.” Furthermore, the monks/nuns are not to ask questions regarding the readings much less engage in any criticism or debate. That said, “the superior may wish to say a few words of instruction” if he or she so chooses.
With Ash Wednesday coming up tomorrow, may I suggest the following discipline for the season of Lent:
- Take a pad and paper and calculate roughly how much time you spend each week reading editorials and opinion pieces, watching the news, listening to political tirades and debates, etc. Now, resolve to cut that total time down down by at least three-fourths. Ask yourself the question: What is the minimum amount of news media that I need to take-in in order to be reasonably informed of current events?
- For the season of Lent, resolve to spend at least 2 half-hour sessions each week engaging in what can be deemed “holy listening” or “holy reading.” Instead of filling your mind with angry, partisan political rhetoric, read a piece of devotional literature— a chapter from the Bible or a piece of writing from a great saint. These don’t have to be dense theological treatises.
In fact, the saints I admire the most wrote simply but profoundly about ordinary things. Along these lines, I would recommend the autobiography of Therese of Lisieux— The Story of a Soul— or Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. I’d also recommend a delightful book called The Way of a Pilgrim- a book which tells the story of a wandering peasant who, on his journeys throughout Russia, gradually learns how to pray with tremendous depth and intimacy.
I’m willing to bet that for most, if not all of these writings, full text versions can be easily found online. In fact, I’m also willing to bet that you can download them for free as audiobooks on Youtube or wherever it is you get your podcasts. Turn off the news and listen to them while you’re vacuuming the bedroom, walking the dog or driving to work.
I am NOT suggesting that we ought to bury our heads in the sand and utterly disengage from the controversies of our age. I AM saying that we ought to minimize our exposure to vitriolic rhetoric calculated to escalate our sense of outrage. I am also suggesting that we enrich our lives with the words of scripture and the wise teaching of noble men and women who have gone before us. If our minds are rooted in the rich soil of their teachings, then we can— with more thoughtfulness, nuance and love— engage with the controversial issues of our time.