Be still and listen - Madonna Magazine

Be still and listen

Brendan Nicholls 27 August 2023

Our Church continues to excite and surprise the faithful and the world. The ‘Francis phenomenon’ has been powerful and transformative for the Church, and the perception of our Church.

Francis has not so much bought renewal to the Church, but reminded us of what the Church is. Appreciating the approach of broad and deep listening is key to understanding the transformative approach of Francis.

Since the election of Francis, the Church has entered an era where seeking the wisdom of the laity and actively pursuing the voice of marginalised groups has become the norm. Synodality is a deep listening to the thoughts of others and allowing those thoughts to affirm, alter or re-direct one’s own thinking.

The concept of synodality is not new to the Church. Councils have occurred many times in the Church’s history, and a synod is simply a more streamlined, although less authoritative, way to explore issues and seek a way forward. Francis has made this approach central to his leadership. He has held synods with specific groups through to the ‘Synod on synodality’.

As the current synod reveals the vitality and centrality of listening for our Church it seems that Francis’ legacy will be enlightenment on the importance of listening.

His approach is not surprising. Vatican II was a seminal moment for synodality. The Council was called to listen and respond to the modern world. Non-Christians, women and the laity were intentionally included in many sessions. Their commentary on the documents and the uncounted associated conversations with the Council Fathers who voted on the final documents moved the Church forward in such a way that even today we have yet to fully understand or implement.

In the Old Testament we observe key characters exhibit a deep desire to listen and encounter God. We read of the prophet Elijah who after fleeing to the mountain meets God. The great lesson for the reader is that God was not found in the earthquake or the fire but heard in gentle whisper. God is not found in the spectacular but the small. Not everyone would have heard his voice. Being attentive and desiring to listen and discern are the key aspects of this experience.

We read of the patience of Jesus and the concise manner in which he spoke. He listens carefully and observes before he speaks, and when he does he wastes no words. It’s amazing how the powerful do not speak too much or argue. But also, it’s interesting that what is said is more than enough. Jesus teaches us to listen by saying ‘whoever has ears, let them hear’. We all have ears but who actually hears?

In the Ignatian tradition we can see these themes drawn together. St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, begins his pilgrimage with a great desire to encounter and know God. It takes him many months of travel and then reflection in the cave next to the river to truly listen and receive the mystical experiences that transformed the expression of his beliefs.

The longer Ignatius contemplated his own sinfulness and developed the patience required to encounter God the more he was able to hear; and just like Elijah, he found that God was not in the extraordinary.

Encountering God filled Ignatius gently and peacefully, like drops of water wetting a sponge and the consolation he experienced there was enough to last him is whole life.

Fortunately, Ignatius wrote down the process he used to assist his great listening and passed it on to others, including us, in his book of spiritual exercises. Fr Michael Hansen SJ developed these from the traditional 30-day silent retreat to a retreat in daily life. The ‘First Spiritual Exercises’ (FSE) allow people in their busy lives to practise the method Ignatius passed on. Regardless of the form of the exercises, the retreatant must listen carefully for God.

When completing the exercises in daily life each weekly gathering centres on an Ignatian conversation. All this practice is a formalised process for listening and considering deeply what has been shared. Hearing more deeply than the words alone can help one understand clearly what has been shared and may spark a significant revelation to the listener.

As Pope Francis is a Jesuit it’s no surprise that the concept of synodality has become a priority within the Church.

Francis knows well the importance of listening and hearing what is truly being said. If we can enter into the process of deep listening and detachment with our own thoughts, we may be able to like Elijah and Ignatius hear the quiet and gentle voice of God: even by listening to others.