Sunday, January 20, 2008

Listening as Prayer, Prayer as Listening

I have been asked by my church to give a talk on Listening as Prayer on Feb. 2. The invitation actually came both to me and my wife, Lynn, who is a world-champion listener. But since she is otherwise occupied that day, I have to go it alone.

As I have planned the talk, I have looked at what I have written about prayer and silence and find that some of it relates, especially the idea of being fully in the present moment. Everything we do, for the most part, can be a form of prayer if the intention is to enter fully into the task, being mindful of the present reality and not of our plans and worries.

This is especially true of listening to another person. To give up our own preoccupations for a while and give ourselves over fully to hearing what another has to say is a form of love. And it is certainly a form of prayer.

Listening is not something that most of us do well. I have learned over the years to put good attention on my students and friends, but I know that I am also aware of the need to say something helpful when they stop talking, and so part of me is anticipating the expected response instead of being fully open to what the other person has to say and trusting that I will know how to respond.

So many people I meet make speeches rather than conversation, pouring out all their issues and leaving no time for me. I see that they are wound up and anxious and don't have the gift of patience. They remind me of the talking heads on TV who have rehearsed their talking points; what they need are listening points. Their button is on "send," not on "receive." I pray that they will slow down the rush of their thoughts long enough to take in what someone else says. How else can a real conversation occur?

Lynn reminds me that we listen best to those we know. When we take the time to know who someone is, we listen better. This applies to people as well as to God. How seldom we think of prayer as anything more than asking for favors, with the focus on ourselves. We need, rather, to be quiet and listen to the "still small voice of God" that Elijah heard in the Bible. To do so, we have to empty ourselves of ourselves.

As Meister Eckhart wrote, "The most sublime achievement of this life is to remain still and let God speak and act in you."

God often speaks to us in his own language, which is silence. This is what contemplative prayer is all about: listening to God. Often this takes the form of our listening to one of our fellow creatures. To put ourselves aside and give ourselves to this task is a great spiritual challenge.

As I reflect more on this topic, I hope I will become more understanding of those I meet who have no idea of what real listening is all about. I know that my listening to them does a lot of good to them in their distress, and that perhaps is all I can hope for.

Fear, Trust and Evil

As I return after a longer-than-expected hiatus, I am thinking about my newly revised course, The Faces of Evil, at Rollins College. This was one of my most popular courses at UCF when I taught there in the English Department and continues to be one of my own favorites since it stimulates important questions and raises issues of the greatest consequence about human behavior.

One way to approach the vast topic of evil is to look at hate--and the way fear so often leads to anger, which leads to hatred and even violence. There are many reasons why people hate and even enjoy hating; it seems almost good sometimes to feel hatred toward one who has wronged you. This is a topic I enjoy exploring in "Othello" and other works. It is one way to make the mystery of human evil at least somewhat understandable and to see how the potential for "evil," however that is defined, is present in each of us.

When I think of fear itself, apart from hatred, I notice how many people I meet are full of fear. The whole world is governed by fear. We fear each other and even ourselves. Young children worry about the future, about failure, just as teenagers and adults do. Parents worry constantly, it seems. This means they spend too much time imagining a future that always seems more horrible than the reality of the present as it unfolds, day by day.

It is hard for me to have a real conversation with many people because they are too tense to listen. This will be the subject of another piece on this blog. How rare it is to meet someone who is genuinely centered and calm and open to hearing what I have to say. Most people seem, rather, preoccupied with themselves or rather with their fears and worries. It is useless for me to say to them, "Trust" because I know how quickly my own fears trigger anxiety over seemingly inconsequential things. All I can do is turn such feelings over to God and pray, as in Psalm 27: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear?" It also helps to breathe deeply and move in a new direction.