Epictitus, an ancient Greek Stoic philosopher is said to have coined this proverb which I am sure you have heard before: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
There are a lot of points in our lives when we can surely use that wisdom! In my case, much of my work at the USCCB is based around developing standards for ministry formation so that those who exercise ministry leadership in our Church – especially lay ecclesial ministers – and those who help prepare them for ministry have a way of measuring and building upon their skills in ministry over time.
And, no matter what work a minister in the church is doing – whether they are a chaplain, a campus minister, a catechetical leader, a parish life coordinator, a minister with youth and young adults – one of the foundational standards of ministerial and pastoral care is the capacity to listen reflectively to the needs of those we encounter.
To be able to listen deeply, to, in a sense, get behind what a person is saying and connecting to the values, concerns, or motivations that lead a person to say what they say is the first and best way we can respond to their needs. It is especially helpful if, after listening to someone say something, that you can reflect back to them what they have said using your own words. This helps affirm that they are heard. This does not mean we fully understand why they say what they do, or even that we agree with it, but it invites us to be sure we “hear” them before we speak in response.
Being able to listen deeply to what others say to us is not only at the heart of ministry, but is at the heart of Christian discipleship. Unfortunately, it is not a skill that our culture values or promotes as much as it should. We find ourselves in a very hard time if we try to engage in active listening, because people are often focused on getting our own words in, making sure our views are heard. And our ways of engaging each other can often heighten divisions instead of addressing them.
Of course, it is important to make ourselves heard, especially when witnessing to the Gospel, and the divisions we often face are quite real and not going away easily. But we approach those important things differently, if we learn to listen. We may speak the same words, but if we listen first we enter the conversation with a different mindset – a mindset of care for what the other’s experience has been.
This practice of discipleship is at the heart of today’s readings. The letter of James reminds us concretely of the damage that can be done by literally speaking “care-less-ly” – that is, speaking without care or regard for others. We are reminded how hard of a discipline it is to be care-full in our speaking, but that, as Christians, we are called to practice that care.
And in the Gospel, the disciples’ encounter with Jesus’ glory through the Transfiguration reminds us of how much of the work of God is present even before we speak or encounter someone. The glory of God is already present and can be revealed with care-filled attention. Indeed, if we are that careful in our listening presence, we can be overwhelmed and even changed by the majesty of the divine breaking through in those moments – just like the disciples were. It is as if God the Father speaks to us at the moment and says “listen,” just as he told the disciples to listen to Jesus.
As we pray over these readings today, I invite you to consider where God might be inviting you to listen and hear with new ears and see with new eyes. Let’s all reflect on how we can best practice the call of God to be great listeners, so that when we witness to the Good News, we will do so like Jesus, with a heart shaped by love and care for all.
God give you peace!