The Spiritual Place and Moment of Listening

The Spiritual Moment of Listening

No one knew at the time that she would soon be dead, that she would soon “quit this life.” Stuck at Ostia—St. Augustine and his mother, St. Monica—they were caught in a blockade, in a civil war, in a fading empire. Ostia was no longer a glorious city; its better past had passed, but it was still important.[1] From Africa to its port came grain for the annona civica for the citizens of Rome.[2] Hence the blockade, one of but many skirmishes and spasms in a world suffering profound change. Such is why they stayed so long at Ostia; at least, that was the external cause—civil disintegration, a crumbling world.

We do not know exactly where they stayed, perhaps with some aristocratic Christian family. Christians, as well as Jews, had been in Ostia for centuries.[3] We just know they were in a room with a window overlooking a garden. They happened to be alone, Augustine tells us—he and his mother. Upon hindsight, it seemed to have happened according to the “mysterious workings” of God’s will, he said—this accidental meeting, this dialogue, this mystical conversation. They were “far from the crowds,” Augustine tells us. They found a garden; in the bustling city, they managed to find a quiet spot, some sort of Edenic refuge. They were not at home but displaced. They were travelers still on a journey, yet they managed to find a place—as I said, accidentally, providentially—for themselves alone, quiet.

And they did not waste the moment. Rather, they began to speak to each other “very intimately.” They did not hold back; they did not fall into the rote ruts of small talk, tripped up by words that really are only noise, empty cliché, sentimentality. Instead, they talked about real things; it was a real conversation. They talked about heaven: “We inquired between ourselves in the light of present truth, the Truth which is yourself, what the eternal life of the saints would be like,” Augustine wrote. They wondered together what heaven was like. Their subject was spiritual; their hearts and minds, therefore, were turned toward the spiritual. Their hearts “panted thirstily for the celestial streams.” And by that conversation, arousing that desire, “we lifted ourselves,” Augustine said. Material pleasures, the body’s senses, were not abandoned. They were just put in clearer perspective besides the joy of eternity. Together, Augustine and Monica, “by inward thought and wondering discourse,” transcended the summit of their minds and contemplated together eternal life—Wisdom itself, Being itself. And “we just touched the edge of it,” Augustine said, only for a moment before falling back into the “noise of articulate speech.” This is what happened at Ostia: two saints longed for heaven and listened to each other; and with each other, they listened to God.[4]

It is one of the most beautiful moments in all Christian literature—this mystical moment of mother and son, this shared moment of contemplation. Yet it is also a paradigmatic moment of listening. It is an example of what listening can be like, what it perhaps—hidden under all our noise—always is. Pilgrims in a world suffering profound change—boxed in, halted by so much external noise, by external chaos—perhaps we too can be like Monica and her son and find what they found, even if—like them—just for a moment. We too, perhaps, can find a little window, a little garden, a quiet spot away from the crowds. Maybe that is all it takes, but that is not all it takes. What is necessary also is to be free within that spiritual moment, in the place and at the time when listening can really happen—to be free then and there to talk about real things. This is the spiritual moment of listening: not simply the cloister, the reserved safe space away from the noise but also the moment the soul is free to step nakedly before the other when we finally speak not in rehearsed clichés, not in rambling that fears silence, but genuinely with words that as much as possible incarnate ourselves, which bare our genuine selves to others. Aristotle simply called this “complete friendship.”[5] Augustine at the end of the City of God—again talking about heaven—said this is what heaven is like, that in heaven “our minds will lie open to mutual observation.”[6] That is what genuine listening can be like—like real friendship, like heaven. If only we can find a way to risk being ourselves before others and to risk allowing others to be themselves before us. If only we can risk being friends.

But that is exactly what is so difficult: genuine friendship. Here they are the poets who help me talk about this. Rilke talked about masks: “Masks offer themselves to us . . . . All is double,” he wrote.[7] Matthew Arnold’s poem, “The Buried Life,” is a lover’s plea to his beloved simply to speak the truth, which should be possible for lovers but often is not. Arnold describes best what I am talking about:

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal

To one another what indeed they feel?

I knew the mass of men conceal’d

Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d

They would by other men be met

With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;

I knew they lived and moved

Trick'd in disguises, alien to the rest

Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet

The same heart beats in every human breast!

But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb

Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?[8]

Our incapacity to speak freely, to say what we really mean, fearful to speak, fearful that if we did speak truly, we would not be accepted; preferring false words, preferring masks, “light words” as Matthew Arnold called them: that is what hinders our speaking freely to each other, as Augustine spoke to Monica in heavenlike friendship. Here the psychoanalysts would want to talk about the difference between the symbolic and the semiotic (as Kristeva does) or about the Real (as Lacan does) or about the id, the ego, and the superego (as Freud does).[9] And although these are often helpful ways to think about it, I prefer more simply to think—as Vaclav Havel said—that we compromised humans have a tendency to “live within the lie.” Because, as Havel suggested, each of us is like the greengrocer. We put the sign in our window; we repeat the slogans no matter what we think, because otherwise “there could be trouble,” and we don not want that.[10] Described in personal terms, we desire communication but without communion; that is how Martin Buber put it.[11] “The Shekinah,” Buber said, “is between the beings.” Yet, we are plagued repeatedly by what he called “mismeetings.”[12] We fear being hurt. We fear betrayal. We fear the ruin of friendship. So, for personal safety, we do not risk friendship. It is that pain described in the Psalms we try to avoid: “If an enemy had reviled me, that I could bear . . . . But it was you, my other self, my comrade and friend.”[13]

Desperate to avoid precisely that alienation, that painful loneliness, we prefer the more palatable loneliness of shallow relationships, cheap words, slogans, tweets, tribes, identities. This—as an aside, speaking of the Church and of my own kind—is what is behind so much of what we call “clericalism.” It is behavior designed to keep the cleric and the layperson at a distance. And often it has little to do about power at all. It is more that the cleric is simply afraid to draw anyone close to him, afraid he will unmercifully see him for who he really is. That is what Balthasar said; in the priest it is the “latent anxiety at the prospect of being exposed to the unprotected, defenseless character of an encounter between men.”[14] That is why he keeps aloof, the fear of encounter: that is clericalism. But it is also but one instance of the common lie in which we all live, which prevents us from risking authenticity—to sound silly, authentic authenticity, not merely performative or emotive authenticity. We all fear encounter. This we should name our psychological incapacity to listen. It is the same as our incapacity to speak. It is our fear to be real with each other, fear for ourselves, the fear of exposure. Anyway, perhaps you know what I mean.

About our social incapacity to listen, we need only speak briefly. I think we all readily know about that, about the irony of social media—that it has not helped us socially at all, that for its global reach, it has not genuinely brought us closer together, that on the whole it has not helped us listen to each other. Aside from a few instances of connection, I suggest this is largely the case. Seeing, reading, hearing the whole world through screens, if anything, it has blinded us to what is nearest us, to the immediate and the proximate, to our real, if not our virtual, neighbors. That is what Stefan Zweig said long ago—eighty years ago—lamenting the radio (who only knows what he would say now). Sitting in Vienna, listening to reports of bombing in Shanghai, he wrote that we are “constantly drawn into the events of our time.” Constantly, “we’re forced to witness them.” Bombarded by news from all over the globe, there is “no shelter, no safety from constant involvement.”[15] And our minds are not made for that. Still, for us all today, it remains a new, traumatizing experience no matter how much we are used to it—to suffer constantly before our screen’s endless images, endless information, endless advertising from all over the globe, all while we forget the city, the neighborhood, the family. This, I suggest, has not been good for us as a species, as a society—to have become sleepless, anxious voyeurs of all the terrors of the whole wide world. It has simply increased the volume of everything. To be heard in such a large crowd, one must shout, then another must shout, then another. And whoever shouts the loudest, whose technology shouts the loudest or whose words or gestures shock the most, gains power and influence (think about that word “influence”). But, of course, no one has gained the whole world (not even Elon Musk); no one can shout that loud. So, the world is broken up into shouting tribes, proud identities, virtual lifestyle enclaves. This is how we hate each other today.

Of course, hatred is primeval, but this is how we hate today. Before our televisions, staring at our phones: it is eerily like Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate.” Told who to hate, who to praise or blame, we are like Winston who “could not help sharing in the general delirium . . . . Of course he chanted with the rest: it was impossible to do otherwise.” Or we are like Julia who said, “Always yell with the crowd, that is what I say. It is the only way to be safe.”[16] Such—at least, socially—is how we fail to listen to one another today. I simply am not optimistic about the medium, how we have changed so thoroughly the manner in which we interact with the world, with the people around us—too much through screens. Fulfilling Screwtape’s prophecy—“we will make the whole universe noise in the end”—that is what has become us, what is becoming of us.[17] Not only are we afraid to be real, everything is just too loud. Even if we would speak, could we be heard? Is listening even possible today in such a noisy world?

And the problem, you see—since we are Christians—is that no longer are we able to listen, no longer are we able to be Christians. For listening is constitutive for the believer. In Mark’s Gospel, preaching from a boat just off the shore, Jesus begins simply by saying, “Listen.”[18] We forget how thoroughly the sense of hearing was primary to early Christian experience, early Jewish experience too—in an age of mass illiteracy, in an unscreened, much less visual age. The image of the invisible God is “Word” from the beginning.[19] And God’s word does not return empty, Isaiah said.[20] God is spoken; he is heard. That is the primeval experience of the faith. To learn the faith was to become a “hearer,” to be a “catechumen,” literally to be a person in whose ears the kerygma echoes. Hearing precedes theorein. That is John’s Gospel; that is Christianity. We must hear God and keep his word to see his glory.[21] But today everything is different, backwards; our experience of the faith, of the world, is more visual than aural today. That is what Carol Harrison suggests in her fascinating book, The Art of Listening in the Early Church. She asks, “When did you last simply listen?” Whatever is auditory today is almost always also visual, except sometimes when we listen to music or talk on the phone—but do we no text more than talk these days? Our experience of sound today is almost always cinematic: listening plots us within visual and virtual worlds. Rarely does listening today transport us to heavenly worlds; rarely, as it did for Augustine, does listening turn into the silence that announces creation, in which we hear the Word, which becomes the vision of God.[22] Today we listen differently. We employ the senses differently from the way our ancestors employed them. They listened to the world differently; they received the proclamation of the truth differently.[23] And hearing so differently, maybe it is done something to the way we hear—or do not hear—God. Maybe we are they with “itching ears.” Maybe we are they who have stopped listening to truth.[24] And maybe that is the Christian task today: to learn how to listen again—as did our mothers and fathers before us—to each other and to God. Maybe that is what is urgent for the Church—to learn to listen again. But how do we go about it?

Is a Question of Where

To think about this, we should think about bells—church bells.

If churches today even have bells, they are purely ornamental. Relics of a bygone ecclesiastical age, these days a parish’s bells are purely aesthetic, like follies dotting the English countryside, or Belvedere Castle in Central Park, or the Parthenon in Nashville. Church bells are not essential anymore; we do not need them. But that has not always been the case. In the past, church bells served a vital purpose. They were essential; we did need them. In earlier ages, to be in earshot of the parish bells very much mattered, not only to the pious but to the entire community. And it is that, what we have forgotten—how important church bells once were—that we should think about as we begin to think about how we should learn to listen. Because it offers us a clue where to begin, a hint that our learning anew how to listen is not so much a question of how—that is, a question of technique—but a question of where—that is, a question of place.

But what are Church bells for? Among our Christian ancestors, they served a number of purposes. Ritually, at the Mass, one thinks of the bells ringing at the “sacring,” that is, at the elevation of the Host. In some parishes not only were sanctuary bells rung inside the church but also those in the parish’s bell tower, announcing to the entire community (not just worshippers) the advent of God on the altar.[25] Behind this practice is likely the more primitive association of bells with the apocalypse, with the opening up of heaven.[26] They also were rung at weddings, processions, and funerals. In the Middle Ages, parish bells tolled to remind the living to pray for the dead; the bells sounded as the corpse was carried from the church to the grave. “Send not to know/ For whom the bell tolls/ It tolls for thee,” Donne wrote.[27] That is what he was talking about. The sound of the bells reminded the living of their solidarity with the dead. Bells were often inscribed to describe their purpose: “Vitam metior mortem ploro”/ “I measure life, I bewail death” one bell reads; or, “defunctos ploro vivos voco funera claudo”/ “I weep for the dead, I call the living, I close funerals,” reads another. Church bells were often personified, named after saints or angels. Often bells were named after Michael the archangel; the tolling bell was meant to alert the archangel to protect the departed soul making her way to heaven. These quasi-personified bells were in a sense more ordained than they were blessed.[28] They sounded and served the borders of heaven and earth, the living and the dead, reminding those in earshot of a much larger world, of heaven and hell. Such was the religious purpose of church bells, which, as I mentioned, we have mostly forgotten today.

But a church’s bells also served a secular purpose. Before clocks, calendars, radios, the internet, and push notifications, bells marked the rhythm and business of the day. Not only announcing the morning Mass, the bells also tolled to open trading in the market. They tolled to let people know when they could let their pigs and cows out into the streets to scavenge. They tolled to let foreign travelers know when they could begin selling their wares; locals, you see, got a head start. Bells were the “most important source of information” in the community, the very sound of civil authority in the premodern and early modern world.[29] But all together a parish’s bells served an even deeper, more fundamental, purpose. They marked out the geography of the parish itself. They were, as Alain Corbin called them in his fascinating history of village bells in nineteenth-century rural France, “auditory markers of the village.” The range of the sound of the bells determined the boundaries of the parish. He wrote, “It was important to ensure that no part of that territory remained obdurately deaf to public announcements, alarms, or commands, and that there were no fragments of isolated space in which the auditory identity was ill-defined and threatened to impede rapid assembly.”

To hear the bells was to belong; not to hear them was not to belong. Before the Industrial Revolution, even the sound of the bells marked the unique character of each parish; each bell, you see, cast locally sounded differently. To hear your bells was to belong to your parish and not another. Bells uniquely shaped each community. Corbin continues, “They served to anchor localism, imparting depth to the desire for rootedness and offering the peace of near, well-defined horizons.”[30] When only bells rung, when there was no other noise, sound measured place. Sound determined space, marked borders and boundaries. To belong to the community, one had to be in earshot of the bells. One had to be held by the sound of the bells within the limits of a particular place. One had to be close enough to hear.

This is what is so different today. As sociologists have pointed out, we no longer exist within the sorts of traditional communities measured by the tolling of bells. Today we belong to multiple communities at once. Our commitments are voluntary more than prescribed. The communities to which we belong today are “not tied solely to a specific geographical place but can encompass other shared statuses and interests.” Communities today more readily form around issues or chosen identities.[31] Place is now almost entirely an accident of economics or systems of inequality or something called urban planning or development. All of which makes communities that are unchosen, like families, harder to understand.[32] It makes communities bound by geography, like parishes, also hard to understand. When, for instance, in the 1920s the social reformer and Presbyterian Warren Wilson wrote about the advent of the automobile and its effect upon churches, he suggested churches relocate nearer the highway as quickly as possible or die. He was, of course, correct. The car made us mobile, enabling us to choose our church, our parish. Wilson did not lament this at all; to him, it simply was what it was. If churches were smart, if they were alert to the mission, he said, then they simply ought to account for this new reality.[33] This is our world: a world of chosen associations. The world of the village is not coming back, at least not like it was. The technology which has done this to us is not going away. But what does that mean if what I suggest is correct, that learning to listen is at least as much a question of where as it is how? Is it possible to learn to listen if we do not hear together sounds that make us a community as did the church bells of old?

It seems this is a monastic question, and not just because monks still use bells in the old way. That is, if learning to listen is first a question of where before it is a question of how, then it seems people like St. Benedict have something to teach us. It seems monks like Benedict have much to say, much to remind us of in our loud world of disparate communities, a world growing only more disparate, only louder.

The goal of monastic life is simply the goal of the Christian life generally—salvation. “Are you hastening toward your heavenly home?” Benedict asks at the end of the Rule.[34] That is what it is all about. But that is a goal achieved best within a relationship, Benedict suggests—of father and son, of master and disciple, of abbot and monk. Here one thinks of the first line of the Rule: “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This advice is from a father who loves you.”[35] To seek perfection, one must seek a teacher. This is simply monastic, Christian, Jewish wisdom. But such masters are best found in community; such life is best lived in “the enclosure of the monastery and stability in community.”[36] It is an insight not original to Benedict, of course, but to the desert, particularly to monks like St. Pachomius. Only slowly over many years did Pachomius discern the good of coenobitic life, living in covenant with his friends Palamon, John, and Hieracapollon.[37] Only within community, he learned, can one practice virtues like forgiveness and forbearance.[38] These are, of course, insights belonging to the genesis and nature of monasticism as such. But it also relates to our question about listening—if listening is genuinely a question of where before it is a question of how. I think Benedict and Pachomius and others would answer in the affirmative. It is first a question of where. For only in community—close to another person—can one really listen to another person. Without community, listening is, at the least, disoriented, anemic, performative, sentimental, uncommitted, unreal. And that is because, for Benedict, because it was practiced in community, listening was also at the same time obedience—not only to the abbot but to all the brethren.[39]

This is precisely what makes our listening so different from monastic listening, so unlike listening to another person in community. For us—members only of communities we have chosen—listening is more like shopping, changing the channel, scrolling, swiping right or swiping left. And it is possibly why for us God is harder to hear, harder to find, because we have disregarded listening’s native environment—community—and made it more like shopping and less like obedience. This matters to Christians, for practicing obedience to one another is how we are Christ to one another. It is one of the ways Christ is made present among us—in the listening that is obedience. St. Basil the Great talked about this in his Rule. “How ought we to obey one another?” Answer: “Whoever wants to be great among you, let him be the last of all and the servant of all . . . . Just as the Son of Man came not be served, but to serve.” “What ought to be the measure of obedience of one who desires to fulfill the rule of being well pleasing to God?” Answer: “The Apostle shows us when he sets before us the obedience of the Lord, who was made obedient he says, unto death, even death on a cross.”[40] Obedience, Basil makes clear, is an imitation of Christ. Perhaps it is even a sacramental imitation. St. Aelred of Rievaulx, at the beginning of his dialogue, Spiritual Friendship, says beautifully, “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst.”[41]

Beautiful, as I said, but it is not magic; it is not cheap sentiment. Rather, it is what happens when two people in community live together their baptism in virtues like obedience. That is what happens when among Christians listening has become obedience—“Christ, is in our midst.” And it is what I call the spiritual moment of listening—how the saints listened to each other and to God—and the spiritual places of listening, communities of obedience.

And it is something we Christians must remember and recover—the spiritual moment of listening, the listening that becomes obedience in spiritual place. The world too could use to recover this; as Simone Weil suggested long ago, obedience is “necessary food for the soul, whoever is definitely deprived of it is ill.” The world is “starved of obedience,” she said.[42] But I am talking about Christians. This, I suggest, is the more profound need underneath whatever we Catholics mean by “synodality.” This—if we truly want to become a listening Church—is what we must rediscover. But, as I said, the spiritual moment of listening always has its place. So, where is your where? It is not Twitter. It is not Meta. It is not the global community. It is not the nation. It is not a self-selected collective of people like you. Those are not wheres at all. Those are whats. A community—the sort I have been talking about—is a where. Where is your community? Where is your parish? Where is your religious community? Where is your learning community? That is the first question to ask yourself if, as a Christian, you are concerned with listening. And then, you should ask yourself how committed you are to your parish, to your community? Do you think you belong to several parishes; you do not. How did you choose the parish you attend? Did you choose it in that problematically modern consumerist sense? Are you in earshot of the bells of your community, or do you drive to it? If you drive to your community, that is fine. For most of us, it is unavoidable. But have you examined the quality of your listening in the community? Is there obedience in it?

These, I am afraid, are the sorts of unattractive questions we must ask ourselves if we want truly to become a listening Church. We must ask ourselves where and who before we ask how? This is probably not what many think about when they think about listening: namely, if you want to learn to listen (which, as Christians, you must want to learn), then you need to find your local parish and stay there; and then listen close, for God is speaking—probably through that sister or brother you have bound yourself to and who is bound to you. But maybe that is the best advice, to remember the place of listening. Because maybe that will help us discover fully the spiritual moment of listening, which is to be invited into community. For Augustine did not catch his glimpse of heaven alone.

[1] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 121.

[2] Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity, 350–550 AD, 110.

[3] Early Christianity in Contexts: An Exploration across Cultures and Continents, ed., William Tabbernee, 384.

[4] Augustine, Confessions 9.10, 23–24.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1156b.

[6] Augustine, City of God 22.29.

[7] Rainer Maria Rilke, “(Masks Offer Themselves),” The Complete French Poems, 269.

[8] Matthew Arnold, “The Buried Life” (1852).

[9] See Noëlle McAfee, Julia Kristeva, 13–27; Lionel Bailly, Lacan, 97–103; Jonathan Lear, Freud, 180–182.

[10] Vaclav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless,” Open Letters, 132–136.

[11] Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, 5.

[12] Maurice Friedman, Encounter on the Narrow Bridge, 126, 131.

[13] Psalm 55:13–14.

[14] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology II.394–395.

[15] Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, XV.

[16] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classics, 1977), 17, 122.

[17] C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, Letter 22.

[18] Mark 4:3.

[19] Colossians 1:15; John 1:1.

[20] Isaiah 55:11.

[21] John 17:24.

[22] Confessions 9.10, 25.

[23] Carol Harrison, The Art of Listening in the Early Church, 2–3.

[24] 2 Timothy 4:3-4.

[25] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400­–1580, 126.

[26] Dragos-Andrei Giulea, “Pseudo-Hippolytus’s In Sanctum Pascha,” in Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity, 131.

[27] John Donne, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1624).

[28] Richard Morris, Evensong: People, Discoveries and Reflections on the Church in England, 120–121.

[29] Sophia Menache, The Vox Dei: Communication in the Middle Ages, 30.

[30] Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th-Century French Countryside, 97.

[31] Michele Dillon, “Multiple Belongings: The Persistence of Community amidst Societal Differentiation,” in At the Limits of the Secular: Reflections on Faith and Public Life, 275­–304.

[32] Stanley Hauerwas, “Character, Narrative, and Growth in the Christian Life,” The Hauerwas Reader, 224.

[33] Warren H. Wilson, “The Automobile: Its Province and Its Problems,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 116 (Nov. 1924).

[34] The Rule of Benedict 73.8, trans. George Holzheer, OSB.

[35] Ibid., Prologue 1.

[36] Ibid., 4.78.

[37] Philip Rousseau, Pachomius: The Making of a Community in Fourth-Century Egypt, 65.

[38] Jordan Aumann, Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition, 41.

[39] The Rule of Benedict 5, 71.

[40] The Rule of St. Basil in Latin and English qq. 64–65, trans. Anna M. Silvas.

[41] Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship 1.1.

[42] Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, 14–15.

Featured Image: Gioacchino Assereto, Sts. Augustine and Monica, 17th c.; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Joshua Whitfield

Fr. Joshua J. Whitfield is the Pastoral Administrator of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas, Texas. He is a frequent contributor to The Dallas Morning News and the author of The Crisis of Bad Preaching: Redeeming the Heart and Way of the Catholic Preacher.

Read more by Joshua Whitfield

An Ethic of Listening

I love to write and speak—definitely a verbal processor—but I wouldn’t say I’m naturally a good listener. This double-edged sword makes me an effective rhetorician but also a candidate for what St. Paul refers to ...

Fyrqvist Crop