Listening

7/18/04
Lk. 10:38-42
PENT.7

The stories in the Gospels grab our attention and hold it. They are not pat and transparent. They are vivid and unpredictable. The Good Samaritan story last week, ends with a twist, a switch as to who is the “neighbor.” Today’s story of Mary and Martha is also vivid with an unexpected twist. Martha, a woman of property and the hostess, is busy trying to handle all the details involved in providing hospitality to an honored guest. She asks Jesus to prod her sister, Mary, who is sitting on her heels listening to Jesus, to give Martha a hand. Jesus reprimands Martha, telling her that she is too caught up in the details and that Mary has made a better choice of the use of her time.

This story really annoys my wife. Too often has she been left holding the bag of responsibility that is crucial to a successful outcome of situations and events. Too often if she doesn’t take care of it, it doesn’t get done. She is the major breadwinner in our household. She has been a department chairman for twenty years and president of various volunteer organizations. She can recognize goldbricking when she sees it. Martha has every right to ask the visiting teacher to make an object lesson out of Mary.

On the one hand my wife is absolutely right. In Judaism hospitality is a major obligation. Hospitality is part of the law and it is the responsibility of everyone. Martha is the head of the house. Mary’s position should not only help but also show deference to Martha. On the surface Jesus is being rude.

On the other hand the story is told in order to focus on who Jesus is. It is concerned about defining Jesus and defining our response to Him. The story is not about sibling rivalry, the role of the first born vs. that of the second born, nor is it about “A” type personalities vs. XYZ types. It is not about contemplatives vs. activists. The story stresses the Lordship of Jesus. Lordship determines priorities, choices, focus and values. Jesus is known as a prophet, rabbi, healer, one who is following in the line of the messianic expectation and one who is exercising lordship. What Martha does is good. Jesus does not doubt that. She is following the law. But what the story is saying is that the actions of God in Jesus take precedence over the law. The turkey will get cooked. The feast will be held, but now is the time to listen, to seriously listen.

On June 27th I talked about the importance of words and sentences. Last week I talked about the importance of deeds, about the grace of God in good actions, plus its impact on our souls. The story of Mary and Martha is important because it is shaping a theological definition of Jesus — it is the early Church¹s formation of a Christology. Essential to the story is the importance of listening. Mary was listening to Jesus. Having talked about words and deeds, I want to spend a few minutes talking about listening.

Listening is different from being silent or being mute. Listening involves paying attention, focusing, allowing your mind and senses to be alert and to move you, or sort of “take over.” Anyone who has done counseling will tell you that listening intently is exhausting. In your listening you are trying to figure out what is going on here? What is really being said? What is the relationship of one thing to another? Where are the various levels of meaning? Why is the sequence thus and so? Where is the conversation going? I suspect that Mary was asking all of those questions in her own mind as she listened to Jesus. Always in the retelling of Jesus’ parables and sayings even now the listener wonders. “What is He really talking about?”

For most of us our experience of listening starts at an early age. We are aware of pitch and tone, inflection and spacing. As children we lie in bed and listen to our parents. Are they arguing? Is it serious? What is going on? Will things be all right? How does it affect me? In school we listen to our peers and try to scope out what the teacher is really saying. In dating we try to listen to what the other person is saying in order to determine his/her heart and our own as well. At work we listen to the inferences as well as the specific meanings of words. We also listen to “the rhythm of the work place.”

All religions are predicated upon listening. To listen is part of the basic religious experience. When one has a sense of the holy, when one confronts that which is mysterious, when one encounters the mysterium tremendum often the response is to be struck dumb. You don¹t know or meet God; you don’t encounter that which is profound in life while beating your gums or chasing around madly. The encounter may follow that activity, but the encounter comes when there is silence on your part and serious listening.

There is no doubt that the Church is dependent upon diligent and conscientious attention to details. (After all, “the devil is in the details,” as they say.) But for there to be any meaning and sense to things, there has to be a solid core of paying attention to that which defines our experience and our existence. Otherwise, everything is rush rush and frantic activity.

To speak from my own experience: When I was on Martha’s Vineyard in June, one day I read Morning Prayer and than just sat. Everyone went off to play golf or shop. I sat and concentrated on listening, allowing images and thoughts to pass through my mind. I prayed and focused on God in Christ, the living Word. After about four hours I moved on to other things. It was one the most important part of that visit. Later during our stay at Old Saybrook I did the same thing, while sitting on our porch. The experience realigned my priorities, sorted out a lot of things and helped me to understand other things. I was not being “spiritual,” or “meditating,” or “wondering.” I was listening.

As some of you know I got into the habit of listening when I was in college. I had a very heavy workload, and I was chasing frantically from one thing to another. I decided that at five o’clock every day I would go into a chapel and sit there for twenty minutes. I would sit and listen. Everything was laid out before God. Priorities and scheduling fell into place and the habit got me through college. Later, when I came back to Stamford to work in my parents¹ business, because of the pressure I left the office everyday at noon and walked over to St. Andrews’ and sat for twenty minutes. For twenty years I did that. I sat and listened. It got me through crisis after crisis, birth, dying and death. It eventually lead me back to the priesthood.

I am amused that the hospitals promote Yoga for health. If they promoted Christian meditation or listening, they would be accused of evangelizing. But Yoga is medication and concentration. It is for attainment of a religious goal: completion and unity. Christian listening is simply sitting and allowing oneself to be in the presence of that which is ultimate, and that which we know as the incarnate Word of God. If God is revealed in the Word, then isn¹t it the natural response to take some time to listen? It does lower one¹s blood pressure and stress level, if you want a “medical” benefit. Our lives are hectic. We are in a constant hurry to move on. Our demands are legion. Our time is precious and the homily is “too long.” Jesus calls us from the tyranny of little lords — all of the things that demand our time and attention. He knows that those deeds are good and important. But He also knows that it is important to have One Lord, one ultimate source from which all other values take their cues, all other actions find their purpose and meaning. We build buildings, make sanctuaries and chapels not for gossip and concerts but for worship and to be set aside, sacred spaces, for people to go and to be able to sit in the quiet and listen deeply.

Don’t worry about listening. It is not “just sentimentality.” It is not naivety. It is not weird or scary. It is okay to allow your thoughts to be lifted up, to set out your worries, to ask for help. It is okay to just be present. To just listen. You see, God, Himself is the great listener, and we reflect His image when we allow ourselves to set aside even the most important tasks and to take time to just Be — to just be in the presence of Being — to be like Mary and take time for a little while to choose the better part of things.

Words and sentences are important. Deeds are important. Listening is crucial.

Amen. Fr. Gage