Heart of Listening
Learning to listen with the heart moves us from the role of observers and enables us to become participants with the Creator in a world full of grace and possibility.
Communication consists of both speaking and listening. It seems that in our modern culture, listening well is the most difficult challenge of the two. There are many sources available today that address the topic of how to communicate effectively. These include books on the “art” of listening or of active listening in which skills such as paying attention to not only content but to the emotional substance and the meaning behind the words. They may address listening to not only verbal expression but also to body language as well as providing many other good and helpful principles of effective communication in our relationships with others.
Another level of listening is contemplative listening. This level of listening operates on a deeper spiritual plane than even active listening does. Contemplative listening refers to ways of hearing God and experiencing his presence but also applies to listening to others. When we listen to others at this level, we are able to sense the presence of God and oftentimes hear the voice of God in the other person. Required in this kind of listening is a stillness and a quietness of heart that is open to the spiritual dimension. Austrian pianist, poet and author Alfred Bendel insightfully wrote that, “The word 'listen' contains the same letters as the word 'silent'.”1 Author and Professor Rachel Naomi Remen says that this kind of generous listening creates a holy silence that allows for both the speaker and the listener to better understand themselves.2
This is more than a “psychological strategy” says Henri Nouwen. On the contrary, it is opening ourselves to the Spirit of God within us and to the Spirit of God in the other. He says that, “the Spirit of Jesus prays in us and listens in us to all who come to us with their sufferings and pains. When we dare to trust fully in the power of God’s Spirit listening in us, we will see true healing occur.”3 This is at the heart of contemplative listening where a sanctuary of wholeness is created for those parts of our lives that have “been denied, unloved, [and] devalued by themselves and by others.”4 The heart of listening reflects the heart of God who hears the cry of his people and responds (Psalm 34:17).
As a spiritual director, I continue to learn how to listen to others at the soul level, where the Spirit of God dwells. This practice extends out to family, friends, associates and those who come to be ministered to. I concur with Nouwen who wrote that listening at this level is a form of “spiritual hospitality” in which we invite even strangers to become friends. Listening contemplatively opens the door for a greater knowing, loving, empathic caring and a deeper relational heart connection with the Triune God
If you would like to learn more about and to experience this contemplative “heart of listening” you may consider participating in an Odyssey in Christ retreat, seminar or workshop.
2 Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom (New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2006), 220.
3 Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 81.
4 Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom.
Larry Hinkle, DMin., DASD, is founder and director of the ministry of Odyssey in Christ, Spiritual Formation for Leadership. Larry has served in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and is a teacher, spiritual director and retreat leader.