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Listening with Understanding Hearts

by Kenneth O’Malley, C.P.

Kenneth O’Malley, C.PKenneth O’Malley, C.P

Since the Second Vatican Council, there has been a renewed interest in the theology of the Trinity. One aspect of these studies is that God is described as a Listening God. The First Person of the Trinity is described as the Great Listener, while the Second Person is portrayed as the Obedient Listener. The Third Person of the Trinity is described as the Obedient Inspirer.

The words used to present God as Listener may be new, but this divine reality has its roots throughout Sacred Scripture. In Exodus 2:23-24, we read: “Still the Israelites groaned and cried out because of their slavery. As their cry for release went up to God, He heard their groaning and was mindful of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” A little further along the Lord said, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers.” (Exodus 3:7) Even before God reveals his name to Moses as “I am who I am," God’s real name seems to be “I am the one who listens to the cry of my people.”

Could this be part of the reason we also instinctively strive to be the best listeners we can be!

In 1989, while doing an internship in spiritual direction, I had to attend three major workshops related to spiritual direction. Fortunately, James Campbell and Edwin McMahon offered a “Focusing” program in Chicago. Later, they would write Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way to Grow (1997). Their method is rooted in Jungian psychology which highlights that we are both body and soul, spiritual and physical. If we listen to both aspects of our reality, God speaks to us.

Therapeutic exchange

A Listening Workshop offered valuable lessons as well. When talking to a stranger, or someone who is upset or angry, whether an adult or a child, certain methods prove to be very important. A person might say, “I have never been so angry in all my life!” My instinct before the Listening Workshop would have been to say, “Oh, that’s perfectly understandable, “ or “I know exactly how you feel.” But it is much more helpful for the listener to say, “You have never been so angry in all your life?” By using the same words, we give the person permission to share what or who has caused this anger. Thus it becomes a therapeutic exchange rather than the end of the discussion because the listener has all the answers.

Sometimes, a person will make a statement that is apparently contradictory. For instance, someone might say, “This is the happiest day of my life, but I have never been so upset in all my life!” We might want to avoid the negative so we say, “I am so happy for you that today is the happiest day of your life!” We pay no attention to the fact that at the same time the person has “never been so upset!” Again, repeating the person’s original words, allows them to explain the ambivalent feelings. You have not decided for them that only part of the conversation is worth discussing.

next: Listening hearts