Last week I attended an evening gathering of retreat facilitators. We were asked to consider the act of listening.
“When was the last time you felt really listened to?” That was our prompt. Simple, yet profound.
Friends, spouses, God, even pets — we quickly realized that our desire to be heard opened our souls up to the fullness of creation. Hurts and hopes, dreams and despondency, all these spiritual energies tumbling about in our lives called out for the kindness and generosity and presence of others.
A grandmother’s inclined ear. A cat’s warmth curled up on our lap. The sound of God whispering in the chirping birds. All of these things and more reminded us that we were alive and that we mattered and that all of creation was laboring with us. Could we hear it? Could we be heard?
Ultimately, we realized that the holy act of listening asks us to stop, to sit, to dwell on what’s happening in our very selves. Perhaps in silence but always with intention. Were we taking the time we needed to listen to the Spirit at work within? Or, were we rushing without reflection?
This past weekend, members of the Ignatian family gathered in Washington, D.C., for the annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, hosted by the Ignatian Solidarity Network. A commitment to listen was a prerequisite.
Of course, there were presentations and workshops and talks. There were conversations had among exhibitors and there were conversations had among friends new and old. There were stories shared and facts relayed that brought into dialogue the stark realities of war and poverty and ecological degradation and human suffering — in this way, we listened to the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor, if somewhat indirectly.
But for me, I’m left chewing on the words of Fr. Bryan Massingale. Fr. Massingale is a theologian and professor at Fordham University, and he is the author of the important book “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” (Orbis, 2010).
Fr. Massingale knew that many of us gathered at the Teach-In would be tempted to leave his session — or, any session, really — saying, “That was really tough.” We’d be tempted to let the horrors visited upon our fellow human beings affect us in the moment but remain ideas we leave behind in the room.
From racism to sexism to antisemitism to Islamophobia. From asylum seekers to the formerly incarcerated. From families simply trying to survive to children simply daring to dream.
Our challenge wasn’t only to listen to these stories. What Fr. Massingale insisted was that we listen to what these stories do to us. To settle into the discomfort and allow it to move us, to motivate us, to make us rethink the role we play in our communities.
Are we working toward a more just world? Or, are we comfortable in a status quo that has seemingly failed so many members of our human family, that has allowed God’s creation to wither?
How tempting it is to listen to the stories and the facts but then to close our ears as the Spirit within us tries to speak!
St. Ignatius of Loyola reminds us to seek the magis: that unique pathway upon which we can most successfully live out the end for which we have been made. That, I believe, is how each of us individually discovers how to respond to our shared biblical call to act justly, to love the good and to walk with God and God’s people (Micah 6:8).
But we have to listen. All of creation is groaning; we feel that within ourselves, too. So, take the time to listen, to be heard, to sit in the discomfort and then to allow the Spirt to guide you to where you need to be.
Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Small Wonders Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here. His next book, My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars, an exploration of Star Wars through the lens of Ignatian spirituality, is due out in February 2024 from Loyola Press.