Inclining the Ear of Your Heart
This morning I like to speak about ‘listening’, by turning to the commentary and reflections of Sr. Aquinata Bockmann on the first verse of the Prologue of the Rule. Sr. Aquinata in her latest book, A Listening Community, emphasizes the importance of the Prologue because it points out the “basic attitudes” that are to be cultivated and developed for anyone desiring to become a monastic (p.vii). It is interesting to note Bockmann’s general comment about any ‘prologue’ accompanying a written text. She says “the author presents us with important values so that it (the ‘prologue’) becomes like the key to a musical piece” (p.vii). What summarizes the Prologue, according to Bockmann, is this fundamental attitude of ‘listening’ (p.ix). We are given the Rule of St. Benedict, this centuries old text of wisdom, to help us live monastic life. What a beautiful image to see the whole text of the Rule as a musical piece and the key to entering fully into to its ‘musical composition’ is ‘listening’.
“Listen…to the precepts of the master and incline the ear of your heart; willingly receive the admonition of the loving father and put it into practice” (Prologue, verse 1). Bockmann points out that one characteristic of Benedictine spirituality is receptivity, and that receptivity precedes activity. What creates this receptivity is the interior gesture of inclining the ear of the heart. ‘Incline’ means to lean…it means to be favorably disposed, willing and ready, bending deep enough beneath those many voices to listen. The manner in which we are to listen, the posture of listening is to ‘incline the ear’… and it is a posture of humility…it is not about ‘me’ and what I have to say…I am bending the ear of my heart, ready and willing to hear the Divine voice…to receive it, to have it affect me and then to act on it.
Listening in the Rule presupposes a dimension of silence. Bockmann points out that: “The principle reason for keeping silence lies in the fact that it enables the disciple to listen” (p.6). How can we truly listen inside and out when there is the distraction of noise in our hearts? When we fail to incline the ear of our heart, we fall prey to those voices that block us from hearing and receiving the quieter voice of the Spirit. We impulsively respond forgetting to bend deeper into that quiet space where the Divine voice is speaking.
I like to note several salient points of Sr. Aquinata from her earlier book, Perspectives on the Rule, on this first verse of the Prologue:1. “One listens with the heart,” meaning “from the core of the person” (p.15), from our heart center.2. Biblically speaking not listening leads to sin: “They obeyed not nor did they pay heed…” 3. “A full vessel cannot receive life; emptiness is needed. Thus a person must remove or silence certain things in order to be open” (p.16).4. “Many might open their physical ears and hear sounds, but if they don’t bend their hearts, they will never experience truth” (p.17)5. To willingly receive means we are to be “open from the inside” (p.18). This describes how deep our surrender is to go…how we deep we are bend the ear of the heart!
The dimension that Bockmann expands on in her new book is how listening is indispensable for communal life. She says, “listening builds community” (A Listening Community, p.ix). She continues by referencing chapter 72: “Without listening we cannot anticipate one another with respect, nor obey one another; we cannot do what is useful for the other nor show each other pure fraternal love” (p.6). Both verse 1 of the Prologue and chapter 72 of the Rule were written by Benedict himself, which underscores how important the monastic value of listening is for Benedict for the individual monk and for community life. Bockmann points out that all aspects of living monastic life are shaped by ‘listening’: to listen to the abbot or abbess, the community, the younger, newer members, those visitors from outside; we are called to listen to the Word of God in lectio and the liturgy. And for today she says our listening has to be expanded: “to have the ear of our heart on the pulse of the world” (p.6).
In conclusion, I want to stress that listening in the Rule is not just a surface level of hearing. It goes far deeper. As we watch over our hearts, remember the emptiness, the surrender that is needed and the opening from inside…Listening, writes Bockmann, “presupposes that I am not filled to the brim with my own needs, desires, and activities but rather have some empty space in me allowing myself to be surprised and startled. Listening can easily be blocked. The Word of God again and again calls me out of my certainty, doesn’t leave me alone” (p.7). Reflecting on our recent Visitation: could we practice a little more silence, especially in those moments when we are flooded with ‘words’: words that have a ‘defensive’ tone in them, words that are so full of my own needs, words that have hurt in them, words that carry resentment, and we can add more to the list. The practice of silence before any of this will bring grace and will help build community. Let us work together in our common conversion to become more ‘a listening community’ for then most surely the Spirit of God will be leading us in our communal life.