My Sanctuary, Meng Shu Ch’ing, Chinese, Ming Dynasty, 1368 – 1643
On the low wall of my garden
There stands a tiny shrine,
In the shadow of the trees.
When I am weary of this sad world,
And of man’s turmoil and strife,
I steal off to my shrine among the trees.
We’re always listening, as an auditory function or as a figure of speech. We listen in a wide variety of ways and we listen for a wide variety of reasons.
We listen to be entertained – at the movies, or live theater; we listen to the radio and television. We listen to comedians, hoping for the medicinal effects of a good laugh. We listen to the news, which seldom makes us laugh but often makes us yearn for a good laugh, which is why we might turn on the Daily Show to watch the news from another angle with John Stewart, though it often makes the sting of the network news all the sharper and more cutting!
We listen to children as they learn to pronounce their first words, which we encourage, until they learn to use words that are overly demanding, interrupting conversations, reminding us of the old saying that they should be ‘seen and not heard.’
We listen to music, watching the performer or listening to a recording — we listen to music for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to invite a spiritual or meditative moment; hoping for some inspiration, stimulation, or the healing effects that music often brings.
We listen to natural sounds: the howling wind, the waves at the ocean shore, the birds or the cat’s meow.
Sometimes sounds intrude: the distant barking of a dog in the night; the sound of big trucks downshifting.
We have a noise machine in our bedroom to block out those intrusive sounds, like the beep, beep sound of a truck backing up, like the sand-loading trucks across the street from our house at the DPW.
There are sometimes unwanted sounds coming from loud stereos in cars or the boom box, or the sounds of voices in restaurants that get louder in proportion to the flow of the wine; or unwanted sounds of someone’s cell phone ringing, or the embarrassing sound of our own cell phone ringing in the middle of the sermon! Or the intrusive sound of someone beside us on Metro North talking on the cell phone.
Some sounds are annoying, and some sounds are alarming, like the sound of the siren on the ambulance or police car.
Some sounds are disturbing in other ways; my son Jonathan suffered from asthma – the sound of your child wheezing is particularly anxiety-producing.
There’s one special kind of listening that determines the quality of our most important relationships.
We’re not referring to the normal day-to-day conversations we all have, which is important, but mostly polite talk, catching up, exchanging news.
The listening to which we’re referring is not passive listening, but it’s an activity in which we’re involved from time to time.
In most conversations we listen casually. All that’s required at such times is that we stop talking and let the other speak, as when we listen to a family member or friend tell us how things went today. Politeness and civility require that we take turns.
But sometimes we’re called upon to forego our end of the conversation and listen in a different way, not passive but active.
Such listening is an art. Some of the skill that’s necessary in this kind of listening is intuitive; some of the skill that’s called for is, like any art form, ‘…a system of principles and methods employed in the performance of a set of activities,’ the art of listening is a skill we develop with observation or with practice (like the way to Carnegie Hall: prrrractice!)
As with any art form, none of us is perfect.
We sometimes disappoint one another….not sure how to listen to a loved one, or a dear friend. For those of us in helping professions, we’re sometimes not sure how to respond to people who come to talk, to tell their story — people in difficult times, with decisions to make.
This is where I want to remind you of the four things you have to do in life, as outlined by my Buddhist teacher: show up, speak truth, do what you do with intensity, and don’t get attached to outcomes.
To show up sometimes requires us to be fully present to another person, to put aside our own agenda or concerns and to practice ‘the art of listening.’
The great Jewish teacher and theologian Martin Buber tells a story from his experience as a young college teacher; he writes about a student who came to him with a big question. Buber writes:
“One forenoon, after a morning of (enthusiastic teaching) I had a visit from an unknown young man, without being there in spirit. I certainly did not fail to let the meeting be friendly, I did not treat him any more remissly than all his contemporaries who were in the habit of seeking me out about this time of day as an oracle that is ready to listen to reason. I conversed attentively and openly with him — only I omitted to guess the questions which he did not put. Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends — he himself was no longer alive — the essential content of these questions; I learned that he had come to me not casually, but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision.
“He had come to me, he had come in this hour. What do we expect when we are in despair and yet go to a man? Surely a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning.”
I’ve had my share of those encounters – more than my share, I think; wanting to be helpful, but not sure how to be helpful; how much to be quietly attentive and when to interrupt the flow of talk, when to give an opinion, when to ask a question either to get more information or to give direction to the anxious outpouring of words.
I understand Emerson’s assertion that, “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud.”
But it’s not simply a matter of listening to another’s words – the art of listening requires that we respond.
The famous psychotherapist, Carl Rogers, said, “Therapy is a special instance of all relationships.” Healing happens when we open ourselves to deep sharing.
There are things that happen in our best relationships that help us to get through difficult times; that help us to deal with decisions and to face changes or losses; that help us to endure.
It’s not easy to listen in a helpful way; there really no neat, easy set of rules or guidelines, but helpful listening boils down to a few essential ingredients. The first is to let the other person know that we’re really listening and that we care, and that we’re trying to understand.
We do this in an active way, saying, “I guess what you’re saying is this…” Or asking, “Is this what you mean?” Those statements or questions convey that you are listening; the art of listening is an active process.
When it works, something almost magic can happen, and there’s a theological dimension to the process. That’s a faith statement.
Henry Nelson Wieman defined God as ‘creative interchange.’ The art of listening generates ‘creative interchange.’ There’s a theological aspect to ‘the art of listening.’
I don’t mean to turn this into a ‘how to’ sermon, but more simply to acknowledge that there is such a thing as active listening; I want to encourage it. It’s one way we live out that part of our affirmation where we covenant ‘to help one another.’
Do you remember the wonderful little story by Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince? It’s a favorite page in my loose-leaf Bible, which is a collection of things that have spoken to me and inspired me over the years.
The story says that The Little Prince is exploring the universe, going from planet to planet, meeting interesting people, and asking questions of them, trying to understand. (Isn’t that what we’ve all been doing since day one – exploring the universe in which we find ourselves?)
The Little Prince gets lonely, and just in time he discovers a single rose with whom he forms a relationship, watering it, protecting it from caterpillars, giving it enough sun, and so forth. He’s never seen a rose before, so he assumes that his rose is the only rose in the entire universe.
Then he comes across a huge field of roses and feels devastated:
“It was then that the fox appeared.
“Good morning,” said the fox.
“Good morning,” the little prince responded politely, although when he turned around he saw nothing.
“I am right here,” the voice said, “under the apple tree.”
“Who are you?” asked the little prince, and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”
“I am a fox,” said the fox.
“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”
“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”
“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince.
But, after some thought, he added:
“What does that mean — ‘tame’?”
“You do not live here,” said the fox. “What is it that you are looking for?”
“I am looking for men,” said the little prince. “What does that mean — ‘tame’?”
“Men,” said the fox. “They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?”
“No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean — ‘tame’?”
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince. “There is a flower… I think that she has tamed me…”
“It is possible,” said the fox. “On the Earth one sees all sorts of things.”
“Oh, but this is not on the Earth!” said the little prince.
The fox seemed perplexed, and very curious.
“On another planet?”
“Are there hunters on this planet?”
“Ah, that is interesting! Are there chickens?”
“Nothing is perfect,” sighed the fox.
But he came back to his idea.
“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”
The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.
“Please — tame me!” he said.
“I want to, very much,” the little prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”
“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”
“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.
“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me — like that — in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day…”
The next day the little prince came back.
“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you… One must observe the proper rites…”
“What is a rite?” asked the little prince.
“Those also are actions too often neglected,” said the fox. “They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours. There is a rite, for example, among my hunters. Every Thursday they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a walk as far as the vineyards. But if the hunters danced at just any time, every day would be like every other day, and I should never have any vacation at all.”
So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near —
“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”
“It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you…”
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“Then it has done you no good at all!”
“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.” And then he added: “Go and look again at the roses. You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world. Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret.”
The little prince went away, to look again at the roses.
“You are not at all like my rose,” he said. “As yet you are nothing. No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one. You are like my fox when I first knew him. He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.”
And the roses were very much embarrassed.
“You are beautiful, but you are empty,” he went on. “One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you — the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.”
And he went back to meet the fox.
“Goodbye,” he said.
“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
“It is the time I have wasted for my rose — ” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”
“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
When I recently invited suggestions for sermon topics someone said, “I like to hear sermons about relationships – how we get along; what is helpful and what is not helpful.”
Another contributor was very specific about the kind of listening that is helpful, and the kind of listening that feels unhelpful or even harmful of a relationship.
One person wrote, “I need to have people in my life who will respond to me in respectful ways. I need to be authentic and to create and participate in authentic relationships. Without that kind of relationship in my life I feel terribly and painfully alone. I don’t need someone to solve my problems for me, but I need to feel understood; I need someone who cares.”
Someone sent a poem titled ‘Is Anyone There?’
What does it mean
To not be heard?
What does it mean
To send your words,
Which are really your soul,
Into a blank, cold void?
Will someone listen,
Will someone listen,
Is there anyone there?
We listen all the time, but sometimes we’re called upon to practice the art of helpful listening, for which we need certain skills as well as patience, understanding, insight
Helpful listening happens when a person feels heard; you can’t feel respected unless you feel listened to and understood; it’s not simply a matter of having someone be quiet while we say some words, but it’s a matter of getting a response, verbal or nonverbal, that indicates that we’re fully with the other person present in that moment.