by Catherine Upchurch
On the popular “Frasier” television show, now seen only in reruns and streaming, a therapist moves from Boston to Seattle and becomes a radio personality.
Her clients / patients call the salon for advice on all kinds of things. Frasier begins each call with the soothing sound of “I’m listening”, except that often times he decidedly not. He is distracted by his own problems, or mentally plans a date or joke with the producer of his show.
How many times have we been in a conversation only to find that we haven’t really listened? Or heard a homily that we can’t remember at the end of Mass? There is a difference between hearing and listening. The difference is thoughtfulness, attention or even intention. While hearing is not a given, listening requires a willingness to enter into sounds and find meaning. Listening even goes so far as to demand an answer from us.
Consider the interaction between Moses and God when they met at the burning bush in the desert of Sinai (Ex 3). Moses is busy with his responsibilities, shepherding a flock of sheep or goats. We know the story that when a bush caught fire, Moses approached and heard the voice of God calling him.
A rabbinical tradition suggests that Moses may have passed this bush countless times, which God may have called countless times, but it was not until the bush was finally set on fire that Moses paid attention to the voice of God. And only then did Moses approach and really listen.
In this burning bush encounter, we learn what it means to listen deeply. The Lord said, “I witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and heard their cry. God listens to the slaves, proclaiming that he knows what they are suffering in Egypt and that he will come down to save them. The God of Israel is totally transcendent, but never distant, and never unable to meet their needs.
Listening to God for the Israelites convinces Moses that he is able to answer God’s call and the team to hear the pain of slavery as God did. It also provides a model for Moses and the generations of God’s people to follow. Among countless examples in the scriptures, here are a few. Like Moses, we are to listen to the voice of God, the instruction of God (Ps 81: 8; 1 Sam 3: 10; Mt 17: 5). Like Moses, we must allow the voice of God to strengthen us for God’s purpose. And, like Moses, we must be open to changing course in order to respond.
The deepest witness to God’s listening to his people is the coming of his Son who fully enters the human condition. Jesus listens to those in need of healing, to those burdened with sin, to those who are overly ambitious, and to those who are humble of heart.
When Jesus listens, he takes action – to offer restored health and forgiveness, to redirect misplaced aspirations, and to honor the humble. Most importantly, by truly listening, Jesus carries the burdens of the world within his very being.
As followers of Jesus, we can adopt an attitude and skill to listen and respond (Ga 6: 2; Phil 2: 4). We listen to the voice of God in the scriptures and the sacraments, in silence and in service. Shaped by listening to God to our own needs and by the voice of God in our hearts, we learn to listen more attentively to the world around us.
In particular, we pray for the courage to listen as Jesus did, to listen to the cry of the poor, of those who are physically in need as well as of those in emotional distress, of those who demand justice as of those who need pity.
With your heart
The Rule of Saint Benedict begins: “Listen. . . and incline the ear of your heart. This posture of receptivity is crucial as we live our response to God’s call. We bend down to listen to God and to listen to the sorrows and triumphs of others. Our hearts are made for this.
Questions for reflection or discussion
When have you felt that another person was listening to you in a way that was intentional and sensitive to your needs?
What are some of the things that frustrate your efforts to listen to others? What about your efforts to listen to God?
Amid the “noise” of our world (all kinds of competing messages and forms of media), do you deliberately allow time for silence and prayer? What does it look like to you?
Throughout your day, take a break and simply ask, “Speak, Lord, I’m listening.” Imagine making it a habit of your heart and mind.
Catherine Upchurch is the Executive Editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several Bible publications. She writes from Fort Smith.