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March 1, 2016

Chapter Three

Listening: A Sine Qua Non for True Friendship and Community Spirit

He that has ears, let him hear - Matthew 11:15

Nothing is more vital to friendship and community spirit than listening! Without hearing what the other has to say, true bonding between friends can be little to non-existent! One way to envision this lesson on listening is to see it as an essential bridge that unites us as one.

I must admit when the radio program The Lone Ranger was converted to television, it was very disappointing and nothing like I imagined. Listening to the radio lit up the imagination and allowed you to imagine the Lone Ranger in whatever way you desired.

In my early childhood I loved to listen to nature's sounds. This love affair began on our front porch. After dinner, we would go out and sit there. Although we lived in the city of Chicago, the neighborhood was engulfed in huge elm trees. At night you could hear the crickets as they feverishly rubbed their legs together creating a high pitched buzz. Lightning bugs dotted the air making me wonder what made them illuminate.

On some nights rustling trees would indicate rain was coming. When it came and bounced off the roof, its soothing sound and refreshing air were delightful.

When we moved to our home in the suburbs, I often awoke in the morning to hooting pigeons and choirs of birds singing away. There were times I wondered if birds ever sleep. When we imbibe in nature's sound, we realize what a precious gift hearing is and the pivotal role listening fulfills in our life.

Years ago I saw the movie Il Postino in which a touching scene captures this gift superbly. It begins with Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda being granted sanctuary by the Italian government. He arrives on the isle of Capri and hires the uneducated Mario as his personal postman. Mario slowly gains the aloof man's confidence and an improbable friendship begins as the postman learns that within a man's words lies his soul. It is a marvelous portrayal of discovering the poetic spirit within us.

This spirit leads Mario to walk around the island and record its sounds. In one scene he plays back the sound of the ocean, and then says to himself, "the ocean" as he drinks in its tumbling waves against the shore. His identifying nature's sounds leaves you feeling that unlike him we take nature's sounds for granted.

Today, I can still remember familiar sounds of my childhood and savor them. Every time I recall them it makes me wonder about the world of sounds in which our children are immerged. Is our new age of earphones, I-phones, and its bombastic sounds diminishing their taste for natural, spontaneous sounds that impact their daily lives?

Ever spring young tourists descend upon Washington, D.C. One day when passing them in front of the U.S. Capitol, I noticed they were on cell phones or listening to music on earphones and were totally oblivious of their surroundings. This experience led me to write the following column for the Catholic News Service, titled Sound is a gift that invites us to enter a bigger world.

As I came upon teenage tourists glued to their I-phones and wearing earphones, I wondered if they were getting their money's worth on their first visit to the U.S. Capitol.

Washington D.C. exudes history, awesome architecture and fantastic museums; all are a joy to the eye. Like all cities, it hums with a plethora of interesting sounds, adding to its aura. My guess is those tourists were totally obvious of its sounds and their ability to expand the enjoyable experience of touring the sites.

Continuing my walk around the U.S. Capitol, I took especial note of the sounds of which I speak. In front of it, police cars with sirens blazing suddenly descended on it. Someone has left a backpack unattended. Police sirens create a sense of urgency. They are one of the sounds for which cities are notorious. The sense of emergency they create generates a rush of adrenalin, denoting a city in action. Watching the fascination of a child when these sounds occur awakens our own child-like fascination with sound.

As I continued my walk, I heard jackhammers in the distance. Their sound in conjunction with the backup beeping sound of heavy trucks reminds us we are always in some stage of renewal. As noisy as they are, a sense of oncoming newness rings through them.

On the lawn of the Library of Congress, maintenance men were mowing the lawn, while others were using leaf blowers to clear the cuttings, a sign that spring is here with its rich powers of vitality.

While watching these men work, I could hear the pitter-patter of a runner pass me, yet another welcome sound that reminds us of living healthy.

Cars have one distinctive sound while busses another. The sound of crowded busses traveling up and down Capitol Hill reminded me of people going to work and the life-enhancing powers work contains.

The U.S. Capitol contains one beautiful garden after another where streets sounds fade in the distance and animal sounds take over. Here I stopped in awe of the music birds make. They are like a symphony orchestra, each playing its own unique instrument, generating sweet sounds that lift our soul.

To be able to listen is a gift, and sounds like I heard are graces inviting us to leave our small world and enter into God's fascinating world surrounding us."

In conversation with Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, O.S.B. at St. Vincent's Benedictine Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, I came to see that listening is not only a gift, but also can be a grace.

In our discussion, I asked, "What is the one quality most a leader should possess according to St. Benedict?" Without hesitation, he replied, "listening!"

In his book Listen With Your Heart, Fr. Basil Pennington OCSO, echoes Archabbot Nowicki's observation in pointing out listening is mentioned seven times in the matter of five sentences in the Rule of St. Benedict.

Why did Benedict focus on listening? For one reason it possesses healing powers.

A wise Chinese proverb points us to this power in saying, "When the ear does not listen, the heart escapes sorrow." Listening to another who is suffering unites us with his or her pain and as we know, in unity there is strength. Nothing is more supportive and healing than an open ear that hears our cries.

Once when I was feeling blue I experienced this grace from a friend who happened by. During breakfast I poured out my troubles to him. All he did was to listen. The simple gesture enabled me to surface my problem, see it as it is, and take control of it. Thanks to his open ear my problems vanished quickly.

Further in my conversation with Archabbot Nowicki, he expanded more fully on the meaning of listening in telling me, "Benedict implores us to listen with the ear of the heart." What exactly does this mean?

Two Latin words audire and ascultare help answer our question. Audire is hearing sounds, whereas ascultare is feeling the disposition emanating from them. Hearing the sound of words is the first step in listening. On the other hand, listening with the ear of the heart implies attentiveness, caring and intensity, creating the image of leaning toward a person with undivided attention in order to unite with her or her more intimately in thought and feelings. In the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., there stands a beautiful white marble statue of Nybia, the blind girl of Pompeii who expands this meaning. With her right hand on a walking stick and her left hand cupped to her ear, she is listening to vibrations coming from erupting Mount Vesuvius and feeling its pulsations. As her whole being is thrown into listening, so too, does listening with the ear of the heart require total absorption.

When we speak, we radiate vibrations, moods and emotions. Absorbing them and letting them touch our heart exemplifies listening with the ear of the heart par excellence. It is exercising our sixth sense of hearing, encouraging us to be quiet and drink in what we are sensing. It is being all there, which is the essence of stillness. Note in saying this, how listening, silence and being sensitive to another's vibrations complement each other; we must be still in order to let that which is radiating from another enter into us.

Listening with the heart likewise implies eye-to-eye contact. When we did something wrong at home, my mother would shout, "You aren't listening to me! Look me in the eye when I am talking to you!" She wanted us to make direct contact with her.

I have attended a number of receptions in which prominent people seemed to be conversing amicably. However, upon closer observation neither party was actually listening to the other. As they were conversing, their eyes were roaming the room to see whom they knew or didn't know. The ear of their heart was deaf resulting in empty conversation.

In the Spanish psalms afrente Dios means turning our face toward God. It connotes being in a straight line with God, and encourages us to align our self with God. This same alignment is implied in listening with the ear of the heart.

As we get older, hearing can become a problem. No doubt, newly designed hearing aids have greatly helped impaired hearing, but there is nothing like listening with healthy ears. There is a saying, "Get out and see the world while your legs can carry you!" Paraphrasing this for listening, it reminds us, "Listen with the ear of your heart, and by all means enjoy the sounds of nature's symphonies; do this while you are blessed with good hearing and can keenly detect their vibrations." Equally important, "Listen with your heart; it is a wonderful means for keeping it supple and young."