Listening and Learning

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So tell them this, “Here is the nation that will not listen to the voice of Yahweh is God nor take correction. Sincerity is no more, it has vanished from their mouths.”
Jeremiah 7: 28

This morning featured a news story about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. It pointed out that over 60% of the West Bank is controlled by Israeli forces, and that it is Israel who determines what structures are built and destroyed there, including people’s homes and farms. The story evoked once again that sense of hopelessness for any justice and peace for all the peoples of Israel and Palestine. It seems that wherever one turns, from the rise of militant fundamentalistic Islam, to the sorry state of political discourse in the United States, to the disrespectful and harsh invective that dominates the internet blogs, the gaps between human beings are increasing, and the possibilities of change and reconciliation are disappearing.

From the time of the prophets, the Lord has told us that the “problem” is one of our refusal to listen. It takes an ear of a disciple, a student, to listen. As we well know, the first prerequisite for a true student is the recognition of what he or she doesn’t know. If everyone is the teacher or instructor there are no students; there can be no change. So often now we don’t read, or listen, or watch the “news” to learn more or to have some of our limited understandings broadened, but rather to see our own biases confirmed and to witness the humiliation of one who thinks differently from ourselves. In short, we now engage, at a level never before possible, in the confirmation of our own arrogance.

Today’s passage from Jeremiah reminds us that listening to the Lord requires the humility to be able to “take correction.” The Lord tells Jeremiah that the people are being lost because they have ceased to listen and to learn. Reality is always a source of formation and reformation for us, but it can only be so to the degree that we are obediently listening to it and willing to be corrected by it. This is very difficult for us because, instead of really listening to what is, our minds are rather attempting to force reality to fit our own preconceived notions. I wonder what would begin to happen if occasionally we heard a member of Congress or other political leader say to an “opponent”: “You know, you’re right. I never thought of that in such a way before.” How might the situation change if enough Israelis and Palestinians could see beyond their own “rights” and also empathize with the fears and pain of the other, and recognize their own contribution to that fear and pain? And, what might change in our own lives and situations if during these days of Lent we attempted to alter the balance in our communications with those around us from a stance of self-assertion to one of listening and learning from the other?

Listening is not only something we do to be “kind” to the other; it is how we must live if we are to know and to do God’s will in the world. The life and presence of the other is the way in which God calls and forms us. As individuals and as communities and societies, we can only become who we are called to be by listening with our whole heart and by a willingness to be corrected and changed by what we learn. At our deepest core, we are a capacity for a “deep and delicate listening,” says St. John of the Cross. But to become most distinctively human in this way, we must practice the “annihilation” of the unconscious arrogance that impedes this potential.

If as I say—and it is true—this loving knowledge is received passively in the soul according to the supernatural mode of God, and not according to the natural mode of the soul, individuals, if they want to receive it, should be very annihilated in their natural operations, unhampered, idle, quiet, peaceful, and serene, according to the mode of God. The more the air is cleansed of vapors and the quieter and more simple it is, the more the sun illumines and warms it. A person should not bear attachment to anything, neither to the practice of meditation nor to any savor, whether sensory or spiritual, nor to any other apprehensions. Individuals should be very free and annihilated regarding all things, because any thought or discursive reflection or satisfaction on which they may want to lean would impede and disquiet them and make noise in the profound silence of their senses and their spirit, which they possess for the sake of this deep and delicate listening. God speaks to the heart in this solitude, which he mentioned in Hosea [Hos. 2:14], in supreme peace and tranquility while the soul listens, like David, to what the Lord God speaks to it [Ps. 85:8], for he speaks this peace in this solitude.

St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, Stanza 3, 34

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