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Listening with Understanding Hearts

by Kenneth 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.

Listening hearts

Recent studies about counseling have shown that the most certified or credentialed person is not always the most successful counselor. Rather, it is the person who is capable of the most empathy. In other words, the best counselors are the ones who are able to “listen” to others with an “understanding heart.” They are able to hear what others are feeling beyond their words. In most religious traditions, the great wisdom teachers, shamans, gurus, sages, and spiritual directors are those who have “listening hearts.”

In conducting retreats, parish renewal programs, counseling or spiritual direction, pastoral ministers find that people are always searching to get closer to God in their lives. Karl Jung worked with people from all different cultures, religious traditions and ages. Jung said that in the “second part of life,” that is after thirty-five, all the questions people have are religious questions. Bernard McGinn in his multi-volume work on the history of mysticism entitled The Presence of God writes that, there are two things which motivated the great mystics in their lives. First, they were made in the image of God, and second they were seeking the will of God in their lives.

Isn’t this what we are all about? We need to remember that we are made in the image of God, and that the one truth which will make us happy is to know and do the Will of God in our lives.
That is why we seek out people who are good listeners. That is why we try to be the best listeners of God and God’s will for us.


Jung said that the greatest achievements of the human spirit cannot be taught. They are gifts. These gifts are faith, hope, love and insight. We are not surprised that he mentions the first three, the great theological virtues. But “insight” is perhaps “new.” I understand insight to be the ability to make sense out of life. It is what really touches my heart, gives meaning to my life, and makes me tick. Insight is what ties up the tangled, loose ends in my life and puts them together into a beautiful mosaic. That is why we need to listen to what is happening in our lives, and to hear how and where God is present to us. It is what we do when we seek out spiritual directors to help us. What we are saying to these “listeners” is, “Here is the story of my life. Help me turn it into a prayer.”

“Summary moments”

Sometimes, when accompanying someone in spiritual direction, it is good to stop and “listen” to what is happening in the conversation. After listening intently to the person speaking, the director might say, “Let’s just stop for a moment here and listen to what the Holy Spirit might be saying to us.” It is amazing what can happen. Often, all of a sudden, the presence of the Spirit is most tangible.

I once heard Dr. David Cronin of the University of Chicago Medical School tell his students at their “white coat” commissioning ceremony that they would experience “Summary Moments.” He went on to describe these moments as a time when “you will see more clearly than you ever saw before, hear more keenly than you ever heard before, and feel more intensely than you ever felt before. You will realize that something happened in that operating room that was bigger than you, or the patient, or the support staff.” He continued, “You can call it God, or Ground of Being, or Higher Power, but you will feel it and know something extraordinary happened.”

He gave examples of men and women who unexpectedly survived surgery. He also spoke of a child only a few months old whom the doctor could not save. He laid the child in the arms of her parents for them to be parents to her for the last time. Something like these “Summary Moments” can happen to us also when we least expect it. But we will recognize them only if we are attentive, only if we are good “listeners.”

Fr. Kenneth O’Malley, C.P. is a writer, preacher, and currently serves as Archivist for Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

The Passionists' Compassion - Fall, 2009