Concerning Listening: Five Lessons we can draw from the Great Commandment
“Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
Notice how it is written “hear” in relation to and as a requirement of the commandment to love the Lord our God. Yet in many ways this is a poor translation, for what we understand as ‘hear’ is a mere sensory act, whereas the original Hebrew word used is shama,[i] which means to listen, obey and gain knowledge. Yet not the type of knowledge that is abstract, but concrete and experiential, knowledge which comes from ‘doing’. So it is that those who listen to God, obey Him and carry out His Will; and such is understood from the following complaint of the Lord, where He associates listening to Him with abiding in His Will which is Love: “O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!” (Ps 81:13). What then does this ‘listening’ teach us in regards to love? It teaches us many things I am sure, yet let us concentrate on a few lessons we can learn.
Firstly, in order to love we must listen to the voice of Truth. A voice which speaks forth from the cloud of the mystery of the Eucharistic presence, saying: “this is my Beloved Son, listen to him!” (Lk 9:35). A voice which cries out in the wilderness of our heart to repent of our sins, of our stubbornness and self-centeredness. A voice which whispers in our conscience to choose the hard way, the heavenly way, the selfless way. A voice which calls out to us to forget about ourselves and to serve our neighbour for the sake of our Lord. A voice which beacons us to take time to truly pray from the depths of our heart –because our God yearns to hear our voice, since He says: “let thy voice sound in my ears: for thy voice is sweet” (Song 2:14b). A voice which reaches out to us from the heart's of our neighbours with the yearnings to be accepted, welcomed, loved. A voice which speaks through Holy Scripture and through the teachings of the Church.[ii] A voice which proclaims from the roof top of our souls: 'I am the way, the truth and the life; so come to me all you who are weary and overburdened; give all your troubles over to me, for I will give you rest.' (Jn 14:6; Mt 11:28). And a voice which nourishes our minds with morsels of faith. “God is One” this voice says, “Do no fear”, “I am with you always”, “There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus”, “all things work together for those who love God” and in a like manner this voice resounds with the very melody in which we are in need. Yet why must we must listen to this voice, the voice of Truth, in order to love? Because in listening to the Truth we come to know the Truth, and by coming to know the Truth we come to love the Truth- for God is the Truth, and the knowing of Him is synonymous with loving Him. For what person after coming to know the taste of a delicious food, doesn't come to love it and desire it again? In an immensely greater way is this true of coming to know the taste of God, for henceforth one is helplessly addicted to Him more so than one can be addicted to any temporal food. For "how sweet are thy words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" (Ps 119:103) says she who comes to know Truth; and yet again: "O taste and see that the Lord is good!" (Ps 34:8), does such a soul repeat. For indeed she has come to know the Truth, and thus she has fallen in love.
Secondly, in order to love we must learn how to be silent. Since in order for us to hear physical sounds, we must find relative external silence; and the more profound this silence is, the greater is the clarity with which we hear. However if we want to truly listen, we do not need to obtain absolute external silence, but rather we must obtain interior silence. That silence and peace of the soul which suffocates the pride of self-will, and creates a dwelling place for genuine encounter and intimacy to take place. Thus whilst external silence is not so much silence as it is the absence of external sound; interior silence is itself the abiding presence of Divine Beauty within the soul, radiating with Its harmonies of grace and loving mercy. But why is Beauty associated with silence? This is because when we behold beautiful things, we are left speechless and are thus compelled to listen to the voice of the other, or to the message that such beauty reveals. For is not silence the immediate response one has to a sunset beyond all sighs? And is not a most beautiful woman met with gaping silences? Indeed such beauties are imperfect and temporal, and thus so is the response they illicit; but when through passive contemplative we come face to face with our God who is Beauty Itself, we are left speechless in a manner beyond all speechlessness, and thus we are willingly compelled by the irresistible force of love, to truly and sincerely listen to our God. And so it is that through faith and with love, we are left in a state of interior silence, a state in which our spiritual ears are healed and opened; so that we find ourselves listening to the Lord our God who speaks to us in our hearts, in our neighbours, in the Holy Eucharist, in the teachings of Holy Mother Church, and in creation. Therefore in this state of silence the soul can say “I sleep, and my heart watcheth”. For though she rests in peace, she labours -as does the watchman who keeps vigil- for the coming dawn of Beauties voice. And this voice of the Beloved she hears persistently saying: "Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night." (Song 5:2). Which is to say, ‘Listen to me my lovely one, and let me come to dwell in your soul; for my desire is to be with you, and to share your meal of love by your side.’[iii]
|The Silent Madonna with Saint John the Baptist,|
So important is this interior silence which results in listening, that our Lord through the Prophet Isaiah says: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Is 30:15). For when we return home by abandoning the labour of working in the field of our own humanity, we arrive home in the rest of Christ’s Presence, in the dwelling place of His Divine Humanity. There it is that we find salvation, in the quietness of the hollow of His pierced Heart; from which we feed upon the honeycomb of Divine Trust, and thus draw strength to love and labour in a Divine way, in a restful way, for then it is the Spirit operating in us, and not we by our own might. Yet what does one do within this house of rest? This dwelling place; this temple; this cloister; this sanctuary and abode of Nazareth; this state of inner-silence and place of listening? David the Beloved of God answers our query: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord.” (Ps 27:4). For “strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Ps 96:6b); so indeed as we dwell in this sanctuary of silence let us ‘behold the beauty of the Lord’ through the looking glass of faith, for then our “eyes will see the king in his beauty” (Is 33:17), and we will become transfigured into His likeness -mirroring His Divine Beauty, in an even greater degree than was Moses on Mount Sinai when He beheld the Lord (Ex 34:29-35). For to you and I the voice of God beacons, saying: “Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father's house, and the king will desire your beauty.” (Ps 45:10-11). Which is to say: ‘Listen to me my beloved, and incline your ear to me in the silence of prayer; forget the shallow love of people, for you they cannot satisfy; and abandon the distractions and fading comforts of the world; for then will I your God behold my own Beauty within you, and O how I shall desire you.’
|Made in God's Image and Likeness|
Thirdly, we learn a simple and profound truth: that to love is to listen, and that to listen is to love. Since when we play around with the Divine Wording of this great commandment, we come to glean the following command: ‘Hear O Israel, and you shall love.’ For indeed it could never be said of any person that he loved someone whom he never listened to. For if we fail to listen, we fail to grow in knowledge of who that person is and therefore we fail to grow in love of them, for one cannot love that which one does not know. Thus if we fail to listen, we fail to love; since it is only in listening that we “lay down our lives” for the sake of the other; it is only in listening that we are left exposed on the Cross with Christ, left vulnerable and open; and it is only in listening that we allow the other to reveal themselves to us. This is why the righteous thief was able to speak to Christ on the Cross and was saved, because one, Christ was listening to Him –as He does to all- and two, he was listening to Christ –in a spiritual way I mean; and for this very reason he came to know Christ for who He was: the innocent and merciful Son of God. The wicked thief however did not listen to Christ, for he spoke at Jesus as opposed to Jesus, and indeed being spiritually deaf he didn’t know who Christ was at all, and thus he jeered at Him saying: “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” (Lk 23:29b).
It is true that the Spirit says through St. James: “But be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” (Jas 1:22); yet what we are saying is that we are called to be listeners of the Word, and this involves both hearing and doing, for listening itself is the disposition of the one who is in love; and such listening is not merely passive but perfectly active, since it involves forgetting oneself and actively concentrating upon the other. And so it is that to shama, to listen to the Lord your God, is to love Him “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” It is thus that to him who listens with the ears of his soul –a listening which involves hearing the Word whilst putting it into practice- the promise of our Lord resounds as an enchanting echo within the valley of his heart: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:43). For to him who listens and thus loves the Lord His God both directly and through His created mediations, the here and now of this land of exile becomes itself a paradise. Since whatever the man of love does, wherever the man of love goes, the songs of paradise go with him and are heard by him; for “Hark” says the Psalmist, “glad songs of victory in the tents" -which is to say the 'in the souls' "of the righteous” (Ps 118:15). Yet what are these songs of paradise that abide in the man of love? The peaceful joy of God’s abiding Presence.
Fourthly, we must be aware that God is the one listening to us, the one who waits on us to speak to Him with bursts of love. Thus we learn that any action –including the passive act of listening, is in fact a response to God, for God is always the one who acts first, who speaks first, and listens first. This we read in the Catechism where it says: “In prayer, the faithful God's initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response.” (CCC 2567). Thus although to speak and to listen in the flesh are distinct operations for us finite beings, for God to speak is to listen, and to listen is to speak. This is why we ‘hear’ the voice of God through silence, and why the Spirit prays on our behalf through the silence of our heart’s when words are not enough (Rom 8:26). Yet what about God’s listening to us? Which is the same as saying, what about God’s love for us? For “this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us” (1 Jn 4:10a). And this is but another way of saying: ‘this is listening, not that we listen to God but that He listens to us.’ Can we say that God listens to everyone? After all in the Gospel of John we read: “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” (Jn 9:31). What then are we to make of this? Are we not all sinners? Thus perhaps God doesn’t listen to any of us. Indeed nothing could be further away from the truth; thus by the use of the term sinner we should here understand it refers to one who is intentionally unrepentant of their sins. To such a person as this, God does not listen. However, this is not because of God’s fault, but because such a person never opens their heart to God in prayer, “they have not called upon the Lord” (Ps 14:4b). Thus in reality there is nothing for God to listen to, for they remain speechless until they repent of their sins and cry out for God’s merciful embrace –and become a worshiper by so doing. This is one way of understanding the Scripture above: “that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” In this way we cannot blame God as being some harsh tyrant if he fails to listen to sinners who have no intention of changing; yet remember this excludes those people who sin out of ignorance –these God will certainly be able to hear if they cry out to Him saying: “If you exist O God, come to me, give me faith, help me!”. Yet what about ourselves? Do we speak to God in heartfelt prayer, with silent sighs of faith from the heart, whether we feel as though our prayers are ‘working’ or not? And if we do, how clear and audible is our voice to God? The more we love, the louder the voice of our prayers become; whereas the weaker our love, the softer and more feeble is our voice. Yet this is not meant to be understood in a literal way as if literally screaming is more holy than silent prayer –for I’m sure that many people who scream in such a way are for the most part merely mad. Thus what we mean by the loudness of our voice we mean in spiritual way; thus the silent prayers of the saint speak louder to God than the vocal prayers of the lukewarm.
|Worshiping of the Golden Calf|
Indeed to the degree in which we are attached to the idols of this world –whether these idols are other persons, material goods, our own ideas, or the desires of our self-will- this is the degree in which we are rendered speechless. Since in the Psalms we read: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but do not speak…and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.” (Ps 115:4-5a, 7b-8). Yet there is no need to despair, for it is true that we all have attachments and various idols in some way, shape or form; for all we must do is repent and trust in God; as we ask Him to give us the strength to abandon these idols and so come to love Him and our neighbour ever more deeply. Yet the key is trust, for it is said: “Trust in him, and he will help you” (Sirach 2:6). Let us ask God for His very own Divine Trust –the Holy Spirit- and in this way we shall be filled with the boldness of that Spirit of Adoption which already lives in our heart. That boldness of children who trust in their father to hear their every word and attend to their every need and desire. For “what father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:11-13). So it is that we should pray with trusting confidence. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear” says St. Paul, “but you have received the spirit of sonship. [So] when we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:15-16). Thus considering ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11) as children of the Father, we ought to be confident that our God will hear us, that He will listen to us, and that indeed He does listen to us, and that He even waits on us to speak to Him with love. Let us be assured in faith therefore, that even if we think our prayers are being naught but poured out like water on the sand, in reality they are been carried by the Spirit to the lap of God above. For "ask, and it will be given you” says the Lord (Mt 7:7).
Fifthly, we learn that love is a gift which we can only receive from God in His Goodness. How is it that we learn this lesson from the Great Commandment? Because it begins with the demand to listen, and listening is a receptive act, that is, an act which receives from another source. So it is that in order to love we must listen to God for otherwise we will not have any love to offer Him. How important than it is to listen to God, and this we can do through adoration –which is the total submission and surrendering of oneself to God, just as a bride who surrenders herself into the arms of her groom on the night of their honeymoon. This form of spiritual listening, of adoration, is the secret to loving God with His very own Divine Love. For as the Lord our God has said: “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Lk 6:38); and so if one gives all that they are to God in the listening of adoration, will not God give all of himself to such a soul? Why of course! For as the saying goes: God cannot be outdone in generosity. So with confidence and love cast all your heart, all your soul, and all your might before the Lord your God, as wood that is cast into the furnace. For “A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.” (Ps 33:16-17). So why bother relying on the feeble army of our heart’s affections, or on the strength of our own soul’s, or on the horse of our own will’s might; when instead we can rely on the Lord our God? For what is the point of trying to love a God so great with such imperfect means? Let us therefore exchange our heart with the Heart of Jesus, our soul with the Soul of Jesus, and our might with the Might of Jesus. And this exchange happens whenever we give to our God all our heart, soul and might. Thus if we persist in such surrender, we shall be hidden in the Lord our God –who is Christ- as soldiers that hide in a fortress and make use of its strength and its might in order to make their assault. It is thus that we recall the words of the Psalmist: “I love thee, O Lord, my strength…my rock, and my fortress…in whom I take refuge.” (Ps 18:1c-2). Therefore let us begin our assault of love in Christ our Fortress, by firing the flaming arrows of God’s very own Love upon Himself. For only in this Fortress can we really fulfill the Great Commandment:
“Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
And by abiding by faith in this Fortress -which we gain entry into and remain within through listening to the Lord our God and by extension, by listening to our neighbours- we fulfill this command in a perfect and eternal way as though Christ Himself was fulfilling it, in, with and through us. Why is this so? Because Christ actually will be fulfilling this command of love in, with and through us; and so in such an instance we can truly say that “it is no longer I that live, but Christ that lives in me.” (Gal 2:20).
[i] Strong’s Concordance: 8085.
[ii] "For Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself." (CCC 105; Dei Verbum 11); To the Apostles Christ spoke saying: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Lk 10:16).
[iii] With allusions from Revelation 3:20.