In times of flux, which can be soil for new growth, Benedict reminds us that the first step is to listen. Yet have we gotten better at listening in the 15 centuries since he died? Have we cultivated a culture that promotes and privileges listening, asks Evan Ellis.
BY Evan Ellis
Worlds die. Although not like us. We have our little exit stage left scrawled once, somewhere in our life. A world dies more like a tree; creaking, snapping, falling, thudding, lying and then decaying, importantly decaying.
Possibilities then spring up. In a dark little cavity bugs huddle around the warm glow of the Book of Kells. Across a wet expanse of timber a centipede carries a printing press on its back. A moth takes flight (it actually flies) while tiny green shoots start to awake.
St Benedict of Nursia knew a thing or two about living in a dying world. He was born about 25 years after the Vandals sacked Rome and died only months after the Ostrogoths had their turn. He watched with his contemporaries as old certainties quite literally went up in flame. As existing institutions were hollowed out or winnowed completely, Benedict started a revolution.
Not that his life tracks like a revolutionary. He was not ignited by his studies but abandoned them, nor was he drawn to the centres of power but lived on the periphery. His great work, The Rule of Benedict has more in common with an IKEA construction manual than The Communist Manifesto, plodding systematically forward the way it does. After three years of solitude he became an Abbot, a founder of monasteries and then, according to tradition, died standing up.
Again, not textbook revolutionary stuff. Yet the man is honoured in the Catholic Church as an architect of a new civilisation. Which raises the question, with apologies to Aristotle, do 12 monasteries a new civilisation make?
Well, only if you understand what Benedict was really doing. With each monastery he founded, he essentially planted a new, stable community into the dead tree of Imperial Rome. In an era characterised by rupture and division, between Byzantine and the West, Romans and Ostrogoths, the old order and the new political vacuum, Benedict was knitting disparate individuals into communities, making things whole.
The Rule of Benedict was the glue. The IKEA jibe is not altogether unfair as The Rule of Benedict is self consciously a user’s manual. It was designed, according to the writer Judith Knighton, “to give his motley collection of serfs, scholars, shepherds, and wealthy scions of nobility a commonsense set of instructions for finding God in the ordinary circumstances of daily life”.
Writing the instructions down not only ensured his wisdom was retained after his death; it provided a sound template that could be exported. This enabled communities characterised by service and hospitality to spread throughout Europe, which helped promote a new political and spiritual unity. The revolutionary text that made this possible opens with a simple injunction.
It’s the sixth century equivalent of “Don’t Panic”, the advice written in large, friendly letters on the cover of the fictional The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Yet it goes deeper than that. It is more foundational. Not panicking is wise. Listening leads to the very source of wisdom.
It’s also something our world desperately needs to cultivate. Old certainties are dying again. Our economic system, like some giant Jenga set, has risen impossibly high under the premise of endless growth and is now wobbling on our finite planet. How do you tweak something like that without bringing it down on your head? How do you play Jenga with the world?
Meanwhile the international order America helped forge after World War II, an elaborate system of trade and alliances that spanned the globe, is unravelling. We are slipping back into the more historically familiar multi-polar world.
In times of flux, which can be soil for new growth, Benedict reminds us that the first step is to listen. Yet have we gotten better at listening in the 15 centuries since he died? Have we cultivated a culture that promotes and privileges listening?
I’m not so sure. Go out into the thrum of a work day and have a look for any bubbles of silence where there is no glowing iPad, clicking blackberry or dull humming mp3 player where listening might grow. Turn on the television and watch our politicians at question time. Or better yet, don’t turn off the television at all and see how you listen to those around you.
While you’re watching, switch over to ABC 1 on a Monday night for Q&A’s self styled “Adventures in democracy”. Evaluate the panellists and audience not on how well they speak but on how well they listen.
While you do that you could send a tweet. Is there anything more democratic than participation? Yet as I watch those tweets march dutifully across the bottom of the screen, I’m reminded of a study that showed audiences retain less information from news bulletins when updates scroll beneath the screen. Are we inviting people in to speak while showing listeners the door? And are they the same people?
Democracies thrive on a well informed citizenry but that’s not necessarily the result of more information. As early as 1971, the Nobel Prize winning polymath Herbert Simon noted, “What information consumes is rather obvious… the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”.
A poverty of attention is the enemy of listening. This can be a disaster for our society. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who turned his back on safety in America to suffer in Nazi occupied Europe, once observed:
“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them… those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer even notice it… The death of the spiritual life starts here.”
It’s a chilling line. “And finally no longer even notice it.” Perhaps whole societies can fall into this trap; so eager to be heard, understood and recognised that we don’t even realise that we’re all shouting at each other, on Facebook, via email, over the phone, across the shopping aisle, at the lights, in our cars.
An interesting thought experiment is to reread the above passage and replace ‘the spiritual life’ with an institution or social group that you belong to. It could be something large like ‘democracy’, ‘civil society’, or ‘the Church’, or a smaller unit like ‘our parish’ or ‘our branch’. I suspect that whatever you choose it won’t do violence to Bonhoeffer’s observation. No group can live long without listening.
Benedict understood this. It might seem ephemeral to explore The Rule of Benedict and get no further than the first word of the prologue but listening underpins everything else. Even prayer, which is at the pinnacle of monastic life (43:3), begins with an act of listening (Prol. 9-11). Listening is a process, like photosynthesis for a plant, whereby we convert God’s will (light) into action (oxygen). “The Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings.” (Prol. 35)
In a secular sense, listening allows us to first know our fellow citizens, which then opens up the possibility of collective action. It is intrinsic to both Christianity and democracy.
This land has seen what a culture looks like when listening is privileged and cultivated. The concept of dadirri, so eloquently expounded by the Indigenous artist, educator and elder Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, has become increasingly well known. However it is worth revisiting in this context.
“It is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. It is something like what you call ‘contemplation’. When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening.
“In our Aboriginal way, we learnt to listen from our earliest days. We could not live good and useful lives unless we listened.”
For Ungunmerr-Baumann, dadirri is “the gift that Australia is thirsting for”. As I watch the political blood sport that is Australia’s border protection policy, drive past cars that buzz like angry hornets on our roads and see my generation toggle endlessly, even compulsively between their iPods and iPhones, I think she’s right. We’re crying out for some inner deep listening and quiet, still awareness. It would be a cornerstone moment if this gift was received into the mainstream of Australian society.
I invite you to read the original and unabridged text on dadirri. Then in a quiet space sit with the passage, long and patiently. It captures what I have tried to say and much more. As Ungunmerr-Baumann writes “even if someone close to me has passed away”, or for Benedict and for us even if entire worlds are passing away, “I can find my peace in this silent awareness”.
And then follow in the footsteps of Benedict.
This article was first published in Eureka Street, September 11, 2012, and was the winning entry in the 2012 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers.