by Sr. Maura Ramsbottom (1931 – 2007) Ireland 14.06.2023
To listen with ‘the ear of the heart’ is the challenge that Benedict puts to us in his Rule. It is the art of deep listening. Imagine a large group in a room. Among them is the mother of a baby and the baby is in another room. If the baby makes even the smallest sound, the mother is likely to be the person who hears it before anyone else because she is listening with ‘the ear of her heart’.
When we talk about listening we are talking about being present to the deepest meaning of reality. We are truly present to what is happening around us, to the people speaking to us, to their needs and their desires. We are attentive, we are aware, we are awake. We are ready to be touched by reality, we are vulnerable. Such an attitude calls for courage together with the conviction that we are unconditionally loved. Reality invites rather than threatens us.
We are unafraid to be present, to listen, because God is present everywhere and is inviting us: ‘today if you will listen’ says Benedict in the Prologue to the Rule. Thus, for Benedict, seeking God becomes a very practical thing. God is present everywhere, in creation, in the guest, in the person who is sick, in the Abbot and in each other. Awareness of this presence of God forms and sustains an attitude of listening and of seeking, it brings about a sense of deep reverence for every person and for all creation. Being enfolded in this presence is a healing experience.
If we believe God is present in what is happening to us, it follows that what God is asking of us can be revealed to us through events and circumstances. For Benedict, these circumstances can be quite mundane, but in each case, we are called to listen and to respond with attention and reverence.
We are asked to obey one another. (Obey comes from the latin ab audire meaning to listen). Much more than physical hearing is involved here. We must not follow what seems good for ourselves but what seems good for another. T o obey one another is to practise fraternal charity with a pure love, to obey the Abbot involves a sincere and humble affection for him. Listening with the ear of the heart is far-reaching.
The cellarer, i.e. the person responsible for the store-room of the monastery, must listen, even if the demand is unreasonable, and at least give a good word in reply. The person making a request must show reverence for and listen to the needs of the cellarer: let the things that have to be asked for be asked for at the proper (i.e. convenient) time, says the Rule.
Before all things and above all things, care must be taken of the sick. However, the sick, on their part, must not provoke those who are caring for them by unreasonable demands. Nevertheless, the carers are reminded to be patient with those who are sick, to listen with the ear of the heart, thus being open to the gift of compassion.
Let guests that come be received like Christ, the Rule says. Let Christ be worshipped in them for indeed He is received in their person. Fitting honour is to be shown to them. To recognise what is fitting in each case calls for listening in a way that is far from superficial. We must also listen to complaints, perhaps we are being invited to greater sensitivity and more authentic service.
Discretion is the mother of virtues. It expresses itself in flexibility and adaptability. It calls for a readiness to listen anew to the call of the Gospel in each situation. The Abbot is asked to arrange all things so that the strong have something to strive after while the weak do not draw back in alarm. A daunting task, not only for an Abbot, but for each of us in our personal lives.
Balance is an important word for Benedict. There is time for work, time for prayerful reading, time for the Divine Office, for meals and for sleep. The balanced life enables us to listen and to give expression to the sacredness of every aspect of life. In his Prologue to the Rule, Benedict says he is establishing a School of the Lord’s Service. The art of deep listening is not something we master in a day.
Editor’s Note: First published in MMM Yearbook 2004