We need to listen

Saturday 15 September 2018 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows.

In the opening scene of that irreverent British film from 1979, “Life of Brian,” the Monty Python comedy troupe presents the main character, a fictional Brian of Nazareth, standing in a small cluster of people on the periphery of the crowd during the Sermon on the Mount. They’re having a problem. The problem is that their little group is so far back in the crowd they can hardly hear what is being said. They strain to listen. “What was that? Blessed are the cheese makers? Cheese makers? What’s so special about cheese makers?” 

It seems to me that there’s a lot of this sort of thing going around these days. Some mishear. Some misspeak. Others aren’t even listening any more. Everybody has something to say, but nobody is listening to what anyone is saying. Is it just me, dear readers, or is this a big problem in our times? “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” sang those New York City troubadours Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel

I watch the so-called “talking heads” on the evening news broadcasts. Turn the channel and other “talking heads” will be saying something quite to the contrary. To whom does one listen? Whom do you believe? Who is speaking the truth? Pundit Stephen Colbert invented the word “truthiness” to describe the presentation of a personal opinion as the honest-to-goodness truth (while meanwhile disregarding all evidence, logic, and facts). I suspect we’re being buried under a big heap of truthiness. 

I see it in politics and business. I believe it’s called “spin” in the trade. “Spin,” in this sense, is a biased interpretation of reality with all the intents and purposes of persuading the general public in one direction or another. “Spin” is nothing more than propaganda. It’s been around forever. 

What about the Church? Is the Church listening? Well, the Church has to listen, no ifs, ands or buts about it. “The first duty of love is to listen,” observed Paul Tillich, the German-American existential philosopher and Lutheran theologian. People who fail to love will also fail to listen. People who love will always listen. How can we possibly keep the Lord’s Great Commandment to love God and to love neighbor if we don’t listen to either? A Church that doesn’t listen is a contradiction.

Listening is a skill. Like any skill, it’s learned by constant practice. I once had a dog named Lolo. Lolo, in my opinion, was loco. He came to me from Barcelona. Lolo refused to listen to my simplest commands. It took me a while to figure out the problem. It wasn’t that Lolo refused to listen. The problem was he knew basic commands in Spanish, not in English. I do not speak Spanish. !Que lástima!

There are obstacles to the skill of listening. The first is the presumption that there’s nothing to hear. If you have concluded you already know it all, you can be sure that you don’t. Being satisfied with the way things look or seem on the surface is an obstacle. I once had a pastor who would say, “Tim, I know you inside and out.” If we ate at a restaurant, for example, he would play a little game of predicting what I was about to order from the menu. I would, of course, order something completely different. You know me, dear readers.  

People are not always predictable. Things are not always what they seem. To know the truth, we need to look more closely and listen more attentively. This is the way we learn who people really are and what is actually happening.

I remember, decades ago, meeting with a distraught man in the rectory office. As I listened intently to his issues, I happened to look down at my wristwatch. It was just a habit. I really didn’t give a hoot what time it was. “I see you don’t have time for me,” said the man. I haven’t worn a wristwatch since. 

There are other obstacles to listening. 

If someone should come to me and ask me to listen, and instead I immediately begin to give advice, I am not listening. I’m not doing what I was asked to do. If I tell someone he or she shouldn’t think and feel the way they do, I am not listening. I’m denigrating their experience. If I get busy in my mind formulating a solution while the person is still speaking, I am not listening. I’m trying to categorize the presenting problem into some slot or other. I’ve learned that when someone asks me to listen, then that’s what I need to do. 

In this age of incivility, fake news, scandal, and spin, the Church (you and I) is called upon first to love as God loves, then to listen, and finally to act with wisdom, justice and mercy. As Church, the first service we owe to others is listening to them. Listening flows from love.

Know what I’m saying? 

Anchor columnist Father Tim Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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