September 2018

We’re losing touch with the art of listening

Listening for Benedictines isn’t a passive endeavour. It is an act of will, of paying attention, writes Judith Valente.

BY Judith Valente

When I finished guiding a retreat recently, a woman came over to thank me, saying I have “a gift for speaking”. The words struck me because I don’t often think of myself as a “speaker”. I consider myself a writer who sometimes speaks in public. Still, the woman’s kind comment set me thinking. My speaking really stems not from any verbal agility, but an ability to listen.

As a broadcast journalist, I interview people and then I put those interviews on the air. When I lead retreats, my talks set the tone for the event. I talk and talk. Yet neither my broadcast interviews nor retreat talks would be worth much if they didn’t emerge from a deep place of listening.

If an interview is going to be engaging, I need to listen intently to what people are telling me, and not jump ahead in my mind to the next question. If I do that, I might miss the opportunity to follow up on something significant they’ve said. Much of what I say in retreats comes from “listening” to experiences I’ve had, or to stories others have told me, as I mine them for deeper meaning.

As a culture, we are losing touch with the art of listening. Increasingly, we get our news from echo chambers that merely serve to reinforce what we already think. On news programs here in the US, commentators talk at and over one another. Who then can discern any meaning in what they are saying?

Our national leaders aren’t accomplishing much because one political party refuses to sit down with and listen to the other. As we know from studying The Rule of St Benedict, dialogue paves the way for consensus. But it is careful listening that opens the door to dialogue.

It has always impressed me that the first word of The Rule isn’t worship, or pray, or even love. It is listen. St Benedict asks us to go farther, to listen with the ear of the heart. In the Latin, the word is often translated as obsculta, which can also mean attend to or incline toward. Listening for Benedictines isn’t a passive endeavour. It is an act of will, of paying attention.

When I look at the failures and disappointments in my own life, often I can trace them to an operator error in listening – usually my own. I am a person of strong opinions. But that can also be a prescription for tone deafness. Once, a journalism colleague of mine suggested I might come across too forcefully at staff meetings. My first reaction: ridiculous! Then I started replaying scenes in my mind from recent meetings where I had expressed an opinion. I listened to my own voice. And yes, I could see that what I considered passionately advocating for a position, others might find argumentative, or worse.

Our Church suffered a massive failure to listen in the unfolding clergy sexual abuse scandal. Earlier this year, the state of Pennsylvania released documents showing more than a thousand minors were abused by priests in that jurisdiction over a period of decades. Other states in the US have begun undertaking a similar reckoning. What burgeoned into a massive scandal – destroying trust in the clergy and driving thousands from the Church – could have been avoided if from the start our leaders had opened their ears and not covered their eyes.

Bishops in too many cases failed to listen – to the people who suffered abuse, and their parents. They failed to listen to experts who said priest abusers could not be “cured” by moving them to a new location. And they failed to listen to people who said these acts are not just moral failings, they are crimes. Worse yet, they not only failed to listen, they failed to speak out.

The clergy abuse scandal was left to simmer for decades. It will likely take several more decades to repair the damage done to the trust parishioners lost in the US, Australia and indeed around the world. That’s assuming the Church will ever recover. Parishioners in America have heard too many apologies from our bishops, too many promises to do better. It is time for Church leaders to listen to the laity: to our pleas for greater transparency on Church finances and personnel matters, and for a greater role in decision-making.

Obedience is an important form of listening. But it isn’t solely an authoritarian, top-down dynamic. St Benedict stresses mutual obedience. This is a horizontal relationship where careful listening and consideration is due to each person from each person, as brothers and sisters. In the Benedictine sense, listening becomes a blessing. It is by this way of obedience, St Benedict reminds us, that we go to God.

How can we each practice less talking, more listening in our lives? Who are the people who have been trying to tell us something that is perhaps difficult or unwelcome, but nonetheless important to hear? Are we listening to them with the ear of the heart?

Judith Valente

Judith Valente is an American broadcast and print journalist, and author, most recently of 'How To Live: What The Rule of St Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning and Community'. She lives in Normal, Illinois, in the US and is an Oblate of Mount St Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas. Her website is

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