Listening: The Most Neglected Aspect of Public Life

Reflection by Associate Ron Hustedde, OPA
Reflection by Associate Ron Hustedde, OPA

At a recent gathering of Dominican Sisters and Associates in Springfield, KY, I was amazed at the diversity and abundance of Dominican ministries that are linked with peace-making. The participants also talked about St. Catharine Motherhouse and how it is a sign of peace and welcome. One can viscerally sense the Divine Presence in our gatherings by just walking through St. Catharine’s doors.

Our Dominican work as peacemakers is often done in a public climate that is characterized by mistrust, divisiveness and exaggerated differences in which well-intentioned people are demonized and humiliated by their opponents. This form of verbal violence can also lay the groundwork for physical violence.

As I reflect on the goodness of Dominican peace-making, I want to focus on one aspect of peace: listening. It is one of the most neglected components of American public life and democracy. Our schools train us in debate with comebacks and counter-arguments. Media on both the left and right are quick to listen in ways that are highly judgmental with minimal reflection. At the same time, our postmodern world questions excessive rationality, and arbitrary truth as sources of violence. They tend to be more open to sensitivity, emotion and the present moment. In such contexts, listening can be viewed as a form of peace-making and part of the Dominican mission to infuse Christ’s peace into a world that is hungering for authenticity.

How can we strengthen listening among ourselves and incorporate listening into public life?

First, I believe listening starts in silence. Karl Rahner, the Jesuit theologian remarked: “The Christian of the future will either be a mystic or will not exist at all.” We know that personal encounters with the truth – with God – are rooted in listening. I believe we need to create settings for silence in public life to lay the groundwork for deep listening. Centering or “vegetable” prayer and other forms of silence strengthen our resilience, gentleness and openness to a deeper reality. There are public moments of silence when great leaders die, or after a tragedy. Assisi has been a venue for interreligious dialogue and shared silence. Can we expand on these concepts into days or hours of silence in public life to still our collective cacophony and to focus on what’s important? Our Dominican imagination can open us to opportunities to create times and venues for silence in our public life.

Second, we need to strengthen our own listening skills. There are five forms of listening. Each form has a different purpose: informational listening, improving relationships, gaining an appreciation, making judgments or engaging in critical reflection. Research shows that we tend to overuse our “natural” listening style even when other styles may be more appropriate for the situation. I believe we can incorporate listening theories and skills into our educational and preaching work to strengthen the capacity of others to listen more effectively. As we ask questions to clarify our understanding of the listener, we create a setting for calmness and peace to emerge.

Third, I believe we need to temporarily suspend judgments, especially during times of chaos and change. As we explore opportunities for solving public problems, we need to create public venues to explore choices that encourage groups and individuals to critique their favorite choices and to see why others might defend a particular choice. The Kettering Foundation’s National Issues Forums has worked closely with Catholic leaders over a lengthy period to do such work in public venues. These forums lead to better understanding of each other and reaching a common ground through our shared values.

Fourth, we need to create climates for those who may feel marginalized, oppressed or silenced to tell their stories and to be heard. It can be argued that we are not homo sapiens but homo narrans, the only species that tell stories. They are all we have. Our Jewish and Christian scriptures and rich faith traditions are filled with stories that inspire, encourage and challenge us in healthy ways. Dominicans also have stories that need to be published or shared in various ways because they add to our mission. We cannot hide our light.

There are other approaches that can be used to strengthen listening as part of Dominican peace-making. We can be inspired by Nicodemus, a Pharisee. Although the Pharisees were criticized by Jesus, Nicodemus saw him “as a teacher who comes from God” and visited Jesus privately – outside the glare of public opinion – to ask more questions and to listen. As a consequence, Jesus reveals his true nature to Nicodemus – not to a large crowd or the apostles (John: 3:1-21). Later on, when his colleagues are deciding what to do about Jesus, Nicodemus reminds them that the law requires that they listen before condemning anyone (John 7:50-51). Unfortunately, the Pharisees mocked him. In spite of the failure of Nicodemus’ intervention, we can view him as the patron saint of listening as we intensify our roles to “be peace, live peace, and preach peace.”

Posted in Just Reflecting

5 responses to “Listening: The Most Neglected Aspect of Public Life

  1. Thanks, my Dominican sisters, Brigid, Cathy Gemma and Catharine for your reflections. You have opened me to more possibilities about listening: to listen beyond words to other forms of communication; to listen to what is not said; the link between the words, silent and listen; to view listening and silence as gifts of the Spirit; and, the need for more mystics. I appreciate your encouragement in my attempts to be an authentic listener, mystic and to walk the talk. with gratitude and blessings.

  2. Thanks Ron for your reflection on listening so well articulated. In my former chaplaincy ministry, I often needed to listen below the words and what was not said to be able to understand a patient’s needs both spiritually and emotionally. Now that I am retired, I am learning to listen with more compassion and understanding to my sisters and myself as we age together.
    And yes, I couldn’t agree with you more that the world needs mystics who strive for a oneness with all God’s creation and creatures. Blessings and peace.

  3. Thanks Ron for your ‘preaching’ in word and deed. This reflection reminds me of a poster I have displayed in my classroom from time to time that reminds us that SILENT and LISTEN have the same letters…..Sometimes one ‘order’ is more a gift than the other, but both are gifts we can offer one another.

  4. Ron, Your call to listen, listen, listen challenges us all to control our reflex to attack or contradict and instead try to understand. Thank you for your encouraging but difficult words.

  5. Ron, what a thoughtful piece of writing!. I have just read it once and now intend to read it again, and copy it for friends. Yes, we need to listen, and listen again..K.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.