A Catholic Monthly Magazine

To Listen is to be Silent

By Ian Munro

When I undertook my counsellor training, one of the core skills we were trained in was listening. It was drilled into us on a daily basis. While hearing and listening are used interchangeably, there is a subtle difference. Hearing is generally regarded as passive, while listening is active. We can hear someone without actually actively listening to what is being said. Maybe we’re thinking of what we want to say next or have been distracted by something else happening around us. We effectively end up talking past one another.

As many a writer has pointed out SILENT is an anagram of LISTEN. Lexicologically it’s a coincidence but an interesting one, especially for the makers of fridge magnets and posters. And for writers wanting to make a point about listening.

It was a Gospel reading from Matthew back in June that brought these thoughts about listening to mind. 

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Matthew 7:24

It had me considering how often during Mass do I “listen” and how often does my mind wander off to other things. Do we sometimes find ourselves mindlessly reciting, by rote, words over-familiar to us while we make a mental list of what we need to get ready for a new week of work or school? Or think about what we’re going to have for lunch later? Or engage with the cute baby in the row in front.

  Only in silence does man succeed in hearing in the depth of his conscience the voice of God

Pope St John Paul II

In the parable of the sower and the seed, or Word, Jesus talks about four different types of listeners: there are the ones who reject the seed altogether – they let the Word of God go in one ear and out the other; there are the ones who don’t allow the Word fully to take root; those who don’t tend it and don’t nourish it and it gets lost amongst the “weeds of life”; and those who do listen and nurture the Word, allowing it to grow and flourish and transform them. 1

Listening with the “ear of the heart”

This then got me thinking about prayer. If, as it’s been said, prayer is listening to God listening to us, then the question that comes to my mind is, how often am I truly listening? Or are God and I mostly talking past each other? In Janaury 2022, Pope Francis talked about listening with the “ear of the heart”.

“On one hand, then, God always reveals himself by communication freely, and on the other hand, man and woman are asked to tune in, to be willing to listen. … Saint Augustine used to encourage listening with the heart (corde audire), to receive words not outwardly through the ears, but spiritually in our hearts: ‘Do not have your heart in your ears, but your ears in your heart’.”2  The challenge then is to tune in through the static of our noisy environment to God’s voice deep inside us, deep in our heart. To filter out the internal and external chatter of our lives.

The Imperceptible Whisper

“Lord, hear my prayer,” we ask but do we then wait for an answer before moving on to the next prayer or on with the clamour of our daily lives? Have we really listened? Have we even been truly silent long enough to do so? After all, God doesn’t speak to us in a booming voice from on high. “The kingdom of God comes quietly and unobtrusively and we can only gather its seeds when, like the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-12), we enter into the depths of our soul and are open to the imperceptible whisper of the divine breeze.”3

Unsurprisingly, much has been written about silence and prayer and discernment, however, it was this piece written by 19th century Danish theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, that really resonates with me. He wrote that, as he found he had less and less to say and began to listen, he discovered in the resulting silence the voice of God:

As my prayer become more attentive and inward

I had less and less to say.
I finally became completely silent.
I started to listen –
which is even further removed from speaking.

I first thought that praying entailed speaking.
I then learnt that praying is hearing,
not merely being silent.

This is how it is.
To pray does not mean to listen to oneself speaking.
Prayer involves becoming silent,
and being silent,
and waiting until God is heard. 4

I’ll leave the last word to Pope John Paul II:

“... only in silence does man succeed in hearing in the depth of his conscience the voice of God…”

First published in “Stories of Hope”.

Used with permission.

1 Mark 4:13-20

2 Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the 56th World Day of Social Communications, Rome, 24 January 2022

3 Message of the Holy Father for the 55th World Day of Prayer for Vocations, 4 December, 2017

4 Søren Kierkegaard’s Writings, XVIII, pp. 11-12

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