The First Call is to Listen

In The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden Lane relates the story of Peter Matthiesson, who in the late '60s set out on a 250-mile trek across the Himalayas.

The public object of the trip was to document the mating and migratory patterns of the Himalayan blue sheep. But the real goal, near to the heart of Peter Matthiesson, was to glimpse the rare snow leopard. (He discovered that he could easily raise funds for a trip to research the Himalayan blue sheep; no one was very interested in the elusive creature that haunted his dreams.)

While reading the story I was struck by a parallel: the public persona of spiritual leaders today is to get things done. Somewhere along the way, spirituality became an acceptable vocation that was marketable, framed within technical and managerial thinking. This was a huge subversion of the meaning of spiritual vocation.

People will pay pastors, priests, and other spiritual leaders to do work that is measurable, to get results. They will pay us to write, plan, manage and lead. But they won’t pay us to be on pilgrimage. They won’t pay us and sometimes won’t even ask us about the more important work we do. Yet it is the inner vocation that roots the outer. We talk about sheep, count sheep, and map their history, when we long for a glimpse of something more elusive. Lane writes:

The holy is seldom captured in the places where we seek it most. While we’re preoccupied with Himalayan blue sheep, it slips onto the periphery of our vision in the furtive silhouette of a great cat.

I'm not saying there is no intention in this, no awareness of the real purpose of our pilgrimage. But sometimes in the busyness of our lives we start to identify with the roles we are paid to play. We lose the sense of inner call and purpose. We forget who we are. We forget that we began this journey in response to Love, that the spiritual life is all about moving from the House of Fear to the House of Love.

The greatest risk attends spiritual vocation because it is a vocation that requires so many words. "Words, words, words... is that all you blighters can do?" moans Elisa Doolittle. And Henri Nouwen answers: "I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant."

When we forget that there is no spiritual vocation apart from internal silence, we have all but given up. The first call is to listen. Nouwen reflects:

To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations.

True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept. Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that those who are listened to start feeling accepted. They start taking their words more seriously and start to discover their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which we invite strangers to become friends, even daring to be silent with them.

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