I have a rule of life…never make New Year’s resolutions. Too discouraging!
A few weeks ago I reviewed the 2010 ministry plan that I made last January. As usual it was full of wonderful ideas but too ambitious. Along with the regular work I do—preparing for retreats, giving retreats, teaching, writing, correspondence, slogging my way through the mysteries of technology and the like, I had added a considerable amount of administrative work, study and personal goals. Fueled with the fervor of the planning process, I coupled my enthusiasm for the envisioned activities with a characteristic absence of discernment about what I really could do. Instead of making choices that were realistic, I happily vowed to do it all. Benedictine moderation thrown to the wind! I had forgotten that one word that Benedict gives us to open his Rule…”Listen!” Listen with the ear of the heart to what is really important and throw your energies into that!
Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice.
RB Prologue 1
And so I offer to all of us, me included, one word for 2011, just one word to keep before us as we journey through 2011…LISTEN.
Listening is one of the most difficult practices in the spiritual life. So much conspires against deep listening: our busyness, anxieties, and desires; our discontent with what’s going on in our lives, preoccupation with self or efforts to control people and events; our underlying uneasiness or the drive to win. Most of the time we half-listen or we listen through a veil of distraction. We hear but don’t listen. We look but we really don’t see. Can we listen beyond just hearing? Can we see beyond just looking? How might we do this?
In the Prologue Benedict reminds us that God already looks upon each of us as God’s child and that God has given us “good gifts.” Perhaps one way to exercise the spiritual practice of listening is to intentionally look for and celebrate these good gifts. I invite you to join me for a little experiment in what I’ll call “intentional listening.” Intentional listening happens when we stop and focus our full attention on what we hear.
Right now as I stop to listen, I hear my husband coming through the door from the garage, finished with his trip to the post office and grocery store. I hear the voices of the Cambridge Singers offering “In dulci Jubilo.” Beyond that I hear quiet. Oops. I also hear the keys of my computer.
As you stop, focus your attention and listen, what do you hear?
Family members, co-workers, the sound of the radio, the sound of the washing machine, cars and trucks or planes outside?
Each of these things can become doorways to prayer which will bring our hearts into the presence of God. For example, in my listening, I am VERY grateful that my husband likes to grocery shop. Giving thanks for his generosity prompted an action–I got up from the computer to greet him with hug and kiss. Here, listening coupled with thanksgiving led to an expression of love. The music I stop to listen to carries me on the wings of angels – more gratitude and more joy. With all the frustration that technology can bring, my computer is a tool for good works, allowing me to connect with you through this newsletter and to reach out to friend and stranger through email. I give thanks for this amazing tool, for the people who somehow figure all of it out and also for my own desire to reach out to you.
When you listen intentionally right now, what doorways to prayer are opened?
We can also “listen” with our eyes. Like the above exercise we can pause in our busy day and really look around us and see intently what is before us. How might what we see be a good gift from God? How might what we see be calling us to learn and grow. What we see can also be doorways that open to prayer and to God.
Another way to listen intentionally to listen to ourselves – our thoughts, our words, our feelings. I don’t always like what I hear, however. I confess to spending a considerable amount of time fretting and grumbling about this or that. Many of us know what Benedict says about grumbling, that most divisive of activities.
First and foremost, there must be no word or sign of thee evil of grumbling, no manifestation of it for any reason at all. RB 34.6
When I catch myself grumbling I pause to consider that my brain power could be better spent with thoughts and words that build up others ( )and that support my own work rather than pull me away from that work through negative talk. Time to stop grumbling! I also know that too often I live with an underlying anxiety brought on by niggling and unnecessary fears. Will I create something good and meaningful? Will I get everything done that needs to get done? (The Ministry Plan for 2010…) Will people like what I offer? And on and on. In doing this I undermine myself and, more seriously, my connection to God. I plain shut the door. (Slam!) This will continue until I am suddenly aware of these thoughts and choose to replace them with thoughts that are more positive or at least neutral. So it becomes very important to listen to myself. Where is my head right now? What are my thoughts? Do they support my relationships with God, with others and even with myself? Benedict knew that thoughts could be a great obstacle in the search for God. In the chapter on humility his fifth step of humility is that “sinful thoughts” be shared with one’s abbot or prioress. (RB 7.44) You and I can listen to our negative thoughts and “prune them away with prudence and love.” (RB 64.14) We can turn in a different direction…to the light that comes from God.
The new year has begun and I do plan to look over my old ambitious Ministry Plan for 2010 and revise it to be a more doable, saner guide for 2011. I’ll follow what Benedict recommends to the prioress or abbot as they assign work – to exercise some discretion and “so arrange everything that the strong [part of me has] something to yearn for and the weak [part of me has] nothing to run from.” RB 64.19 At the top of the list I’ll type
Won’t you join me in this plan to listen in 2011? It’s urgent! Benedict says,
Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to arise from sleep (Rom 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts. (Ps 95:8 and Prologue 8-9)
Let’s listen with ears and eyes for the good gifts that God has given. Then let these gifts become a doorway to prayers that can infuse us with joy and energy for life. Let’s listen to ourselves too, and become aware of those thoughts that pull us from the present moment and from God. Then turn and open our ears and eyes to the light that comes from God.
Blessings and peace in 2011.
© 2011 The Rev. Dr. Jane A. Tomaine