I was sitting in a reconciliation room once, confessing my usual garden variety list of sins when I was suddenly aware that the priest was gazing out the window.
Being reflective, perhaps? No, I was fairly sure he was daydreaming. I left my confession with the feeling that I was forgiven by God but ignored by my confessor.
We’ve all been in situations where we know we’ve been talking and no one’s been listening. Sometimes, we’re sure, when asked a question by our spouse that we had just answered 20 minutes before, that our words have drifted off unheard into the often murky cloud of marriage communication. It happens to the best of spouses.
But in this Year of Mercy, perhaps one aspect of mercy we might focus on is our listening skills. I know mine can use some real attention. And I know that truly listening to someone is a great gift that we can give them, a way of showing love and mercy in the midst of a very busy world.
I recently had a conversation with a deacon whose ministry takes him to a homeless shelter. His work there involves listening, simply being present. Present to people who often are ignored by the world and have no one with whom to share their troubles, their history, their grief.
It’s a huge gift to them to have someone (especially someone identified with the church) who will listen and provide what my friend the deacon called “nonjudgmental dialogue.”
Our homes are the first place to practice listening. First, listen to God by closing your eyes and blocking out distractions. Center yourself and focus on listening and not talking. Tough to do, but good practice, even for five minutes, and the God of love is there even if we have a tough time shutting up.
Second, our kids need a listening ear. Like most moms, my standard question when my kids walked in the door from school was often, “How was your day?” Not a very creative way to elicit conversation, and depending on the age and the attitude of the kid, that question might result in lengthy banter or a muffled grunt.
Better to stop what you’re doing, look your child in the eye and ask some meatier questions, maybe over a quick snack. Put everything else aside for a few minutes and listen.
Because of the constant noise of our world — the Internet, social media, news — we often find ourselves listening to two things at once. I used to think multitasking was a good thing, but I realize it really means you’re just doing a couple of things very poorly instead of one thing well.
This is overwhelmingly true when it comes to listening to another. When my adult children or a friend phones, I’m often at the computer or maybe watching the news. It takes discipline to turn away from screens and give undivided attention for a few minutes to the person on the other end of the line. Focus on them. Say a prayer. Listen.
If you’ve had a good spiritual director, or “spiritual companion” as they’re often called, you know what good listening is. A good companion doesn’t tell you what you should be doing, shower you with advice or regale you with personal experiences. He listens and asks the right questions to lead you to clarity of thinking.
We should practice listening like that with our family and friends. In this Year of Mercy, we all need a trusted friend. Practice being that person.