The Art and Action of Attentive Listening by Fran Salone-Pelletier

I remember, with sad clarity, the times when I was caught in the act of inattentive listening. The most sorrowful one happened when I was yet a young mother. It was not a case of lacking age so much as lacking the wisdom to be gleaned with the experiences of aging.

One day, my eldest daughter (who is now deceased) bore the sharp sword of honesty that served as both weapon and gift. She wanted to tell me about something that was deeply troubling her. I was busily preparing dinner for my hungry family. Thus, the clash of concentration occurred. As I studiously stirred the spaghetti sauce lest it burn and ruin the meal, she was equally engaged in studying me—and my apparent divided loyalty.

Undaunted, she began her tale of woe. I never stopped stirring, staring into the pot to assure the sauce was simmering, not boiling. My daughter, at the same time, was boiling more than simmering.

“Listen to me!” she shouted. I responded with an equally vehement statement. “I AM listening to you.”

“No, you aren’t!” she declared. “Look at me! All you’re doing is stirring that stupid sauce. You are not listening to me.” The engagement of disengagement thus began. We stood as enemies on the battlefield of inattentive listening.

It’s been years since that fateful day. In the course of time, I learned the crucial value, the critical need for attentive listening. I discovered it through multiple experiences of nonattentive listening—both mine as my ears were deafened to the pleas of others, and that of those who had not paid heed to my heartfelt words.

The need to hear and heed, listen and learn is crucial. Our deepening humanity demands it. If any proof of the necessity is required, all we need to do is watch the “taking heads” on television as they continue to stir the sauce of their opinions, ideas, and thoughts—listening without attending to the deeper messages others are trying to convey.

In a recent article I read the words of author Esther de Waal, describing how Benedictine spirituality recognizes and nurtures the relationship between listening and action: “To listen closely, with every fibre of our being, at every moment of the day, is one of the most difficult things in the world, and yet it is essential if we mean to find the God whom we are seeking. If we stop listening to what we find hard to take then, as the Abbot of St. Benoît-sur-Loire puts it in a striking phrase, ‘We’re likely to pass God by without even noticing Him.’”

That’s a singularly striking comment. Had I, those many years ago, “passed God by” when I did not stop stirring the sauce to start to listen to the stirring of my daughter’s heart? What had I missed? What portion of my own heart would have been opened? I’ll never know . . . but I’ll always be aware of the vacuity. I’ll always have the memory to pierce through my daily clouds of inattentiveness and offer new opportunities to live and learn.

De Waal names this manner of living obedience. She clarifies what she means by obedience, I suppose, because we are not fully aware of its depth and power. We hear the word and think it is all about doing what you are told to do without knowing what it is about. Instead, she states that

our obedience proves we have been paying close attention. . . . So to obey [in the Benedictine tradition] really means to hear and then act upon what we have heard, or, in other words, to see that the listening achieves its aim. We are not being truly attentive unless we are prepared to act on what we hear. If we hear and do nothing more about it, then the sounds have simply fallen on our ears and it is not apparent that we have actually heard them at all.

That is exactly what my daughter Jeannine was vehemently asserting. I had not actually heard her at all. I only heard the bubbling of the sauce, not the breaking of her heart.

Have I changed since then? The answer is yes . . . and no. Am I more aware of my commission and omission? Yes, I am. Even—perhaps especially—when I fail in the attempt, I know there is loss that can never be regained but can serve as gain in wisdom, if I pay heed to it.

It’s neither an easy nor a perfect course of life. It is, however, an incredibly valuable one. The art of listening will evoke the action of relationship. It will lead us to understanding each other—to the gift of “standing under” the power and pain of daily living in unique togetherness. It will allow tears to flow while smiles emerge. Stories of life will become lessons of living. Our common humanity will become uncommonly precious, worthy of sharing as it is a deepening force we hold with care. It is the way “to find the God we are seeking.”

Seek . . . and we shall find. Ask . . . and we shall receive. Knock at the doors of humanity . . . and they will be opened to us. It’s an incredible journey and an enlightening one. As Kay Lindahl writes: “Perhaps one of the most precious and powerful gifts we can give another person is to really listen to them, to listen with quiet, fascinated attention, with our whole being, fully present.”

It’s a gift. Unwrap it and find a pearl of great price, a treasure beyond measure. Don’t let God pass by without notice! ♦

Fran Salone-Pelletier holds a master’s degree in theology. She is the author of a trilogy of scriptural meditations, Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives, as well as a religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. She can be reached at hope5@atmc.net.

Image: Faith Crabtree / Unsplash
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