2019 June 23rd - Listening to the Sounds of Silence

If there is one thing about which I am becoming convinced with new urgency these days, it is this: NOT LISTENING IS NOT WORKING.

Amid the cacophony which is emanating from the media, be it right or left, reasoned or absurd; amid the jostling and wrestling for power, be it here or elsewhere; be it the threats of military strikes and counter-strikes in the Middle East, one thing seems obvious- a lot of people are making a lot of noise, and NO ONE SEEMS TO BE LISTENING.

One of the results of all of this aggression is that the people who are most affected by the power-games are the ones who suffer most; right down to a two-year old in Australian detention denied a birthday cake because some power-monger does not want to look weak! In all the noise, the fact that it is Refugee Week almost passed me by.

How timely then, this reminder from the holy scripture- that is, if we have been able to be still enough to hear it. From his cave on Mount Horeb, the solitary refugee Elijah finds a space to hear the voice of God. The Diving presence is not in the ground-shattering earthquake, the roaring, moaning wind or the raging fire. It is in the sound of sheer silence that Elijah hears God’s voice.

Our recent sojourn in southern Queensland has given us time to rest and reflect on recent events in our life’s journey. One way was to engage again with the enlightening and confronting thought of Jesuit priest and spiritual guide Anthony De Mello, in his extraordinary little book, simply called "Awareness”. Well, it was mainly through Helen reading a chapter, then imparting the core of De Mello’s wisdom while I listened quietly and attentively! Another challenging process was to engage with a few people who reflected in some ways the stereotypical political emphases of Queensland, without getting into an argument. I really do want to try and understand where people who hold views divergent to mine are actually coming from. There is in fact no enlightenment in slugging it out to see who wins the argument, even when they say they cannot support Shorten because he says ‘wif’ instead of ‘with’. And so I tried as much as possible to keep quiet beyond the odd diagnostic question, and let the other expound their truth.

I am not sure that I learned much from these encounters, apart from how hard it is to listen in such a way as to give the other space to be heard. I do know though that we came away with relationships intact, if not deepened. I also dare to believe that when we gives the other room to expound freely and in an atmosphere of trust, we also give them the gift of being able to hear themselves; and perhaps re-evaluate the energy of their dogmatism. And, who knows, we might even, if we are really, really quiet, be able to hear our own!

In fact, it really does all start within ourselves. De Mello cites the great catholic theologian and mystic Thomas Aquinas, who, toward the end of his life, having produced prolific theological material, "wouldn’t write and wouldn’t talk.” He said that he had made a fool of himself. He had arrived at the revelation that many of the great mystics knew, that, in the end, our highest form of knowledge is to know God as the unknown. When we have finished all our petty dogmatism about who God is and what God wants, the highest revelation is to know that we don’t know. "Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.; and after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but the lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, the sound of sheer silence…It was there that a voice spoke to him!”

How did you find the time of listening we had earlier in the service? What did you hear that you would not have heard had we not been sitting quietly? And how did you go in listening to the narrative of the Gospel reading. Did you hear something you have not heard before? Could you hear anything behind the reported voices?

So much of what passes for listening does not actually hear what is going on. Genuine listening requires silence at some level. It is good to not interrupt a person when they are speaking, no matter how tempting it is to put them straight. At the next level, it is good to not be preparing our response while the person is still speaking, because if we do, we are not going to hear the rest of what they have to say. Deeper listening again is about hearing what is going on in our own minds and hearts. What is the inner voice trying to say to us?

De Mello tells the story of when he had to play a tape recording of a counselling session he had conducted to a group of fellow students. In the response time, a student asked "Why did you ask her that question?” De Mello, who thought he had been listening empathically, denied that he had asked a question. But when the tape was played back, there it was. He had been through that conversation three times, and not noticed that he had intruded inappropriately in the client’s sharing.

Even when we have the best of intentions, it is all too easy to not listen; either to the other or to ourselves. Is it any wonder that we have such difficulty discerning what the Spirit might be trying to say to us?

In all of this I am feeling challenged to reengage with the wisdom of the mystics, starting with St John of the Cross who says ‘Silence is God’s first language”.; to which someone added "everything else is a poor translation”. Another wise one has said "There are few axioms …in regard to spiritual practice. But here I want to risk one. There can be no spiritual growth without silence…” (Cooper). And one more, this from Thomas Keating:

"Virtually every spiritual tradition that holds a vision of human transformation at its heart also claims that a practice of intentional silence is non-negotiable….there is universal affirmation that this form of spiritual practice is essential to spiritual awakening.”

And so I am finding myself convinced that, however hard this road might be, it holds the key to the future of our world. When our very survival is at stake, we must surely look again to the man who in the power of his own inner silence, was able to restore the life of one whose being was literally in tatters. Jesus was able bring him back from the brink of disaster, to the place where he is clothed and in his right mind. I find in this desolate and demented figure a metaphor for where the human race is currently headed. And I see no other way forward through divine power which all the great religions have discerned primarily by God’s first language- silence.

And we must know, (if we have been paying close attention to the great religious tradition to which we adhere,) that the witness to Jesus’ life is of one who is able to transform both the inner and outer forces that rage in and around us. Going back to the essence of who Jesus is, we find a way to deeper freedom, deeper peace, deeper transformation. Those who sit at the feet of Jesus in quiet humility, find themselves; clothed and in their right mind.

And we help ourselves in this search for life in all its fullness when we stop thrashing around; stop trying to call the shots; stop trying to get everyone else to behave in the way that suits us. We start the journey by going to the place of silence. We start with the conviction that we need to listen, and listen deeply- not just to the news, not just to other voices, not just to nature, but to the voice of life deep in our souls. This voice can only be discerned when we stop fighting, stop fleeing, and sit in the quiet space long enough to hear the still small voice of God.

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