It’s time to listen!

Listening is not a one-way process but should be a matter of mutual concern, each paying attention to the other.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus concludes the parable of the Sower with the words, “Listen, anyone who has ears to hear”.

Talking is not enough. If real communication is to occur, each has to listen to the other.

There is a pertinent exchange recorded on the performance of Johnny Cash when he gave a concert in San Quentin Prison, the oldest prison in California.

When talking between songs, Cash is interrupted by a prisoner shouting a remark. The rejoinder was swift — “Excuse me, I couldn’t hear you. I was talking.”

How often do we talk over each other when if we actually listened there would be a more fruitful exchange? Impatience to respond with our own eloquence gets in the way and the result is confusion.

I would suggest that one of the significant responsibilities of the poet is to listen in many and varied ways — listening to the voices of others, listening to the mood of the times and then, after due reflection, responding to circumstance.

When it comes to making response, the carefully crafted choice of words is the valued skill of the poet.

It is a skill demonstrated in much of Seamus Heaney’s work, the listening poet making available to others the consequence of his attention, as in these lines from his poem, “Nesting-Ground”:

He heard cheeping far in but because the men had once shown him a rat’s nest in the butt of a stack where chaff and powdered cornstalks adhered to the moist pink necks and backs he only listened.

As he stood sentry, gazing, waiting, he thought of putting his ear to one of the abandoned holes and listening for the silence under the ground.

The poem is found in North, a collection of works Heaney published in 1975. It was his response to listening to the voices of people during the troubled decades of the late 20th century.

This work looks frequently to the past for images and symbols relevant to the violence and political unrest of the time.

The willingness to listen to those for whom he has responsibility has been the unbroken thread of the pontificate of Pope Francis. Time and again in Scripture we hear the lament, “My people would not listen to me.”

Listening demands a good filter to remove extraneous noise. It demands a focus on issues that allows for due consideration and informed response.

We first experience this need to listen within the context of our families. Young children listen to the advice, admonition and loving care of their parents, anxious to help them navigate a difficult path through an uncertain world.

Later, when they reach older years and have left home, we are still called on to listen, only now the relationship has changed.

As we listen to their stories, sharing joy and sorrow, our ability to solve problems is diminished, the times of applying a band-aid to a cut knee and giving a hug to make it better have long past. Yet, still, the hug is important, the knowledge of our “being there” supportive.

“Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” is the title of one of Heaney’s poems also found in North. Those words might serve as safe advice in times of political strife.

Within the context of family, they must be accompanied by attentive listening and the gentle touch of a cared-for hug.

  • Chris McDonnell is from England and a regular contributor to La Croix International.
  • Republished with permission from La Croix International.
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