Listening: the Key to Wisdom and Conversion

We know that Benedict emphasized listening in his Holy Rule. It is the very first word of the Rule which has several chapters devoted to its importance. It seems so elemental, yet if we are honest most of us have to admit we are not very good listeners. The authors in this issue help us take a closer look at different aspects of listening and its relationship to our monastic life.

Michael Casey, OSCO, a well-known writer on monastic life, shares his perspective on “integral listening.” He explains eight different levels of hearing and uses the Chinese ideogram t’ing  to attain integral listening.  According to Casey, the Prologue “is the communication of wisdom from one generation to the next. But the words of wisdom must be chewed before being swallowed.” >

Sister Mary Jo Polak, a Benedictine from Yankton, Minn., explores listening from a psychological point of view. She writes of providing a hospitable space for the other to share at a deeper level. Polak emphasizes the importance of affirmation and detachment in the role of the listener. She quotes Krista Tippett, who said, “Listening is a way of honoring someone.”

Sister Elizabeth Meadows, a Benedictine from Cullman, Ala., speaks of the “kenotic love of a listening heart,” which puts one in a relationship with others. She acknowledges that sometimes our listening can be met with defiance or misunderstanding. Then she urges us to respond by affirming the other’s personhood and dignity. By our total self-giving, we undergo a transformation, a conversion of heart.

James Leachman, OSB, a monk from Ealey Abbey in London, relates listening to communication which can be verbal or non-verbal. He refers to a new field of “process work” that “includes a framework of experiential ‘channels’ (of communication) through which the dreaming of the person is expressed.” He also writes about listening to the voices from the history of our “earth spot” as well as the present day public groups around us.

Meinrad Miller, OSB, a monk from St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kan., emphasizes that the first listening is to God in lectio, in the liturgy of the hours and in the silence. Then we need to listen to ourselves, perhaps with the help of a spiritual guide, a counselor, or a good friend. Finally, he says, we ought to listen to those around us, both older and younger, to recognize how God is working in each person.

All of these writers provide valuable insights into listening as a way to conversion which is what monastic life is all about – not just our own conversion but also the conversion of the community in which we live. As Sister Mary Jo Polak expresses it, “Listening one another into being.” The way we communicate can lift others up or tear them down, bring us closer or keep us apart.

It is no wonder that St. Benedict begins his Rule with the word “Listen.” It is a sure path to wisdom and understanding of one another and ourselves. But it is not something that we acquire automatically. It needs to be learned and practiced every day in our prayer, in our interactions with others, and in the silence of our hearts.

I want to take this opportunity to inform our readers that this will be my last issue as editor of Benedictines. It has been a privilege to guide the magazine since 1995 when I replaced Sister Mary Alice Guilfoil, my highly creative and dedicated predecessor. I have enjoyed working with so many gifted authors through the years as well as my supportive editorial team. The new editor will be Sister Jennifer Halling, a very qualified editor, writer, and poet. Thank you for letting me serve you for these past 23 years, and I hope you will continue to be nourished by the words of this publication.

Barbara Mayer, OSB