This article is part of our Saintly Practices collection. Stay tuned for more!
When we think of the saints’ lives, we tend to imagine them existing on a plane high above us. Their glorious deeds and shining examples of holiness blaze out, making it easy to overlook the ordinary practices that led them to exemplary lives.
One of those practices is listening. In a culture where talking and being heard is prized, listening can feel pretty passive, right?
The saints have taught me that listening is actually a path to holiness. What’s more, it’s an incredibly active—and interactive—process.
Listening Like a Saint
Iain Matthew, author of The Impact of God: Soundings from Saint John of the Cross, describes one nun’s experience of St. John of the Cross when he gave her spiritual direction:
“As he was so holy, it seemed as if every word we spoke to him opened a door for him…”
For St. John of the Cross, listening to another person led to discovery, and a sincere desire to learn from the other person.
St. John seems to have mastered the art of conversation. As Matthew explains,
“When he listened, John wished to learn, to share a journey; and so for him a favourite way of teaching was to ask questions and draw the person further along the line of their answers.”
Though listening may not seem like an obvious saintly practice, once we reflect on how many blocks to good listening exist—especially in our modern world—this practice is actually pretty incredible.
St. John seems to have noticed that by nature of our unique personhood, each of us will listen differently. In a letter to a friend about his spiritual poems, he says,
Where words are born of love, it is better to leave them open, so that each person can benefit from them in their own way and at their own spiritual level—this rather than tying the verses down to a meaning that not everyone could relish.St. John of the Cross
What generosity! St. John is saying that his poems are gifts to each one of us. We don’t need to be master poets ourselves for his poems to benefit us, and we don’t need to seek to “properly understand” every word. Like a kind spiritual director, the poems will meet us where we are now, and speak to us right there. We need only bring ourselves and a desire to learn more.
This disposition is all we need when in the presence of others. Being present, ready to receive others, John suggests, opens a path to holiness.
Another Powerful Example of Saintly Listening
Listening also involves allowing ourselves to be met.
Perhaps you know someone who really listens well. What makes them a good listener? Of some saints, it is said that when they talked to another person, it was like that person was the only person in the world at that moment. To listen to others so deeply, the saints listened to God, first. They made room for Him to meet them.
I am reminded of a trip I took to India back in 2019 to work alongside St. Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity. Even at early morning Mass, the sound of traffic through the open windows was loud enough to almost drown out the reading of the Gospel. And yet, it is clear that the Missionaries of Charity have embodied the Gospel.
How have they done this? Prayer. In a talk she gave to lay members of the Missionaries of Charity in 1977, Mother Teresa said of the sisters’ daily routine:
Upon returning home, we spend an hour alone worshipping Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament…It is something that has worked important changes in our lives. It has brought us closer together and made us more understanding. It has helped us to know our poor better. It has fostered a greater tenderness and love in us…We cannot be co-workers or Missionaries of Charity without an intense life of prayer.St. Teresa of Calcutta
Beautiful, right? The Missionaries of Charity are anything but inactive, and yet, they prioritize listening, both to God and to the needs of the poor. And it seems that attuning their ears to God helps them better hear the needs of the poor.
3 Steps to Better Listening
So, what can we do to cultivate a listening spirit in our noisy world?
Here are a few ideas:
1. Make space for God.
As St. John shows us in his commentary on his poem “The Living Flame of Love,” God desires us deeply:
“…the Father of lights, whose hand is not shortened, and who pours himself out abundantly, without partiality, wherever he finds space, like a ray of sunlight, and joyfully discloses himself to people on the footpaths and highways—this God does not hesitate or disdain to find his delight among the children of men.”
Let’s heed this call to welcome our lavish, unhesitating God. Like the Missionaries of Charity, carve some time into your busy day to be met by God.
2. Listen for the “still, small voice.”
Read 1 Kings 19:11-12. Isn’t it lovely that Elijah heard God not in the strong wind or the earthquake, but in the silence? What is God saying to you in the silence?
3. Put the other person first.
It’s tempting to dismiss others, especially when their ideas, values, and perspectives don’t align with our own. Developing a listening spirit means putting the other person before anything else. When we do this, we make a space for our family member, co-worker, and the complete stranger to be cherished. We also open for ourselves an opportunity to learn more about others.
Like the saints, let’s endeavor to listen better and more often. Doing so will not only enrich our own lives, but will contribute to fashioning a more compassionate world.
Who is the best listener in your life, and what can you learn from them?
Have you tried to listen better? If so, what has helped you do this?
Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!