I have often considered my introverted self a good listener. My silence, observance and desire to learn make me one who generally prefers the faculty of the ears to that of the mouth. But I haven’t always been, and still often am not, an authentic listener. I have a vivid memory of daydreaming during class in elementary school. It was not until the teacher, and the rest of the class with her, called my name repeatedly that I embarrassedly snapped out of my childish reverie. The point is, easily enough, I was not listening.
The great power of listening, so neglected on our deafened planet, is key to growth in the spiritual life and maturation in communion and communication with God and our brothers and sisters. Through training a well-tuned ear, through listening to God’s internal discourse with the soul and the external words of others, we can learn to love and serve more perfectly.
When I finally learned to listen somewhat, I heard a word that has deepened my resolve to listen well, not just to hear, but to understand. This curious word in a pertinent Gospel story caught my ear. “Ephphatha” is an Aramaic word that comes from the lips of Christ as he heals the deaf and mute man in the Gospel of Mark. Christ touches the man’s ears, then his tongue, and commands them, “‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’” (Mk. 7:34). The man is healed, his ears and lips opened, and he goes away to spread the Gospel zealously.
The Rite of Baptism marvelously illumines the importance of listening in the Christian life through the Ephphatha prayer. The priest touches with his thumb the ears and mouth of the baby, praying: “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.”
Be opened. How relevant this is to us who are spiritually deafened through sin, selfishness and hard-heartedness. And how wondrously, at baptism, are the faculties of hearing and speech in the new child of God sanctified, that they may become means of knowing and loving God, that the child may embark on the lifelong education of listening. Through listening, both with the ears and with the heart, we can possess intimacy with God and others.
One way we can train our ears to hear God’s call amidst the frenzy of life is through silence. Silence today is one of the most precious commodities. Distractions come into our lives bidden and unbidden as we are bombarded by the world accessible at our fingertips. Creating the disposition to receive and hear God’s call requires an active commitment, moments of silence intentionally carved out of the day. This could be in the form of larger moments of calm, such as praying a holy hour or attending a weekend silent retreat. On a smaller scale, this could include detaching oneself from distractions in simpler ways, like turning off unnecessary phone notifications or deleting apps, practicing a “silent” work commute or reading from a hard-copy of the Sacred Scriptures. By becoming habituated to silence externally and internally, we create space for God to speak, enabling us to listen to the inner dialogue he wishes to have with the soul. After all, it was not in the great and strong wind, the earthquake or the fire, but in “a still small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12) that God made himself known to the prophet Elijah. We must have silence in order to hear and listen to the Lord’s loving whisper.
Another way we attune our ears to hear to God’s voice is through listening attentively during the Mass. A whole section of the Mass—the Liturgy of the Word—is devoted to the proclamation of God’s word in the Old and New Testaments. Through our attentiveness to the story of Scripture, God speaks to us of our own story and salvation.
God does not desire a one-way conversation with us. Despite any physical or spiritual roadblocks to listening, God longs to heal us, to communicate in ways unique to each soul. Christ the Word sanctified all words and beckons us truly to hear, to allow words to change and convert us. Listening enables us to discern what is true, what is from God and what is not. Only by our receptivity and by learning to listen can we partake in divine dialogue with God and appropriately respond to the call to sanctity.
As we hone our listening skills toward our Creator, we become better listeners of others. The deluge of social media and technology is rife with opinions, photos, posts and tweets of people who want to be heard, usually without listening in turn. So often, the loudest voice prevails. Nevertheless, personal, receptive listening is key to growth in charity, understanding and relationship with others.
Listening to others requires patience and sacrifice of time, a sense of selflessness and service, attentiveness and intentionality. Just as we need silence to hear God, so we need to be free of distractions when listening to a friend. This means actively making the speaker the point of our whole attention and practicing empathy toward what is said. Listening is an active receptivity that exhibits our love to another and prepares us to communicate an appropriate response. Through this authentic engagement, we can then speak better and, in turn, encourage others to listen and experience grace and conversion.
Pope Benedict XVI, in one of his Sunday Angelus addresses, delivered a profound commentary on the Gospel story of Christ’s healing of the deaf man, which draws together the relationship between listening to God and to others:
But we all know that closure of man, his isolation,
does not solely depend on the sense organs. There
is an inner closing, which covers the deepest core
of the person, what the Bible calls the “heart.”
That is what Jesus came to “open,” to liberate,
to enable us to fully live our relationship with
God and with others. That is why I said that this
little word, “Ephphatha—Be opened,” sums up
Christ’s entire mission. He became man so that
man, made inwardly deaf and dumb by sin, would
become able to hear the voice of God, the voice
of love speaking to his heart, and learn to speak
in the language of love, to communicate with
God and with others.
Ephphatha has always stuck with me, this once-spoken word reverberating in the inner ear of the heart, as it did for the deaf man. Perhaps, in this comes the true value of listening—it is not just a bodily sense or an external faculty, but an act which translates what is heard into action. Not mere hearing, but listening. Both Christ, in his healing of the deaf man, and the priest, baptizing a child in imitation of Christ, touch the ears first. Listening comes first; the ears open first. Through our opened ears, we begin to understand, love and communicate, becoming God’s lips, hands and heart in the world. Listening does not stop when sound stops, but should indeed move the listener to know, love and serve that to which he listens—God and neighbor.
She who has ears, let her hear. And let those ears