Listening with the heart

art 06The miracle of Pentecost was not about speaking in tongues; it was about hearing with clarity. The Spirit of God was poured out on all flesh not that we might speak in unfamiliar languages but that we might hear a familiar truth whatever our language, whatever the differences that distinguish and seem to separate us.

Many years ago, at a small dinner gathering, I sat next to a refugee from Ecuador. He spoke no English, and I spoke no Spanish. During the meal, our eyes would occasionally meet, both of us hoping, I think, to find some way to communicate, some way to share with each other something more than mere physical proximity.

Despite our hopes, we could not break through the language barrier. After the meal, during a lull in the conversation, the host asked if anyone wanted ice cream. My companion’s eyes and mine met again as we both said in one breath, with big smiles, “ice cream!” We had found common ground, a link that connected us across cultures and continents, and we met each other somewhere nearer the heart.

How do we meet each other today somewhere nearer the heart? How do we bridge the distance and differences that separate us and find our common home in God? The psalmist sings of Zion, the perfect city of God, that counts as its citizen-children even Egypt and Babylon, historic enemies of God’s people (Psalm 87). Where is Zion for us? Where is that place where we can meet and, despite historic differences, find our common roots, our common citizenship, our common humanity?

Debate around the country is heating up over the issue of transgender public bathrooms. Despite eloquent and passionate voices – and voices of deep faith – on both sides of the issue, I don’t see signs that we’re closer to reaching agreement anytime soon. And that’s only one of the issues that seem to be deeply dividing us today. It seems we’re not talking to each other about those issues in order to come together as much as we’re yelling at each other across walls that seem unscalable as we try to annihilate the other position.

When President Obama spoke to Notre Dame’s graduating class a few years ago, he highlighted another debate, the stormy debate over abortion. Speaking about the two sides in that debate, the president said, “the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.” He also said that we must be able to deal with things that make us uncomfortable. We must continue the difficult and unsettling search for common ground, for the place where all of us can be at home together, despite our sometimes deep and seemingly irreconcilable differences.

The miracle of Pentecost was not about speaking; it was about hearing. God’s Spirit is not given to us so we can speak to each other in foreign languages; the Spirit is given to us that we might hear in each other a familiar truth in a language we can understand.

And if, like the first disciples, we are to testify about the work of God in the world, we need first of all to be less concerned with how we speak our truth to each other and more concerned with how we listen to the truth the other person embodies. That’s true whether the subject is the fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures, or transgender bathrooms, or abortion, or the rebuilding of the city and nation, or any of the other difficult issues we have before us.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with [my people]. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer. 31:31-34 sel.). The Spirit is not given to me so I may teach you to know God, nor is it given to you so you may teach me. The Spirit is given to us so we may listen to each other with what St. Benedict called the “ear of the heart” and discover the greater truth of which each one of us has a small part.

That doesn’t mean we stop talking about difficult issues. It does mean at times that we press each other to talk about the real, meaningful issues of our common life, even though they are difficult. It means we listen to each other in difficult issues without letting differences divide us.

Robert Pinsky, former poet laureate of the United States, was a beginning teacher at Wellesley College when he saw an amazingly poised senior class president at that school deliver some off-the-cuff remarks to Senator Edward Brooke. Brooke had just delivered the 1970 commencement address at Wellesley, an address that is remembered mainly because it was dull as ditch water. The class president, twenty-one-year-old Hillary Rodham, responded extemporaneously: We need you to speak to us about the crisis in our cities, Senator, and we need you to speak to us about the war in Southeast Asia. Or words to that effect.

There stood the senator, whom Pinsky described as “the handsome man of power wearing the robes of study and contemplation,” spouting commencement platitudes, and there stood this thin bespectacled young woman, who seemed almost out of place in the robes she was wearing, demanding relevance and insight and truth.*

The times in which we live demand relevance and insight and truth. The world in which we live demands those things, and it demands them especially of us, the body of Christ, who are the incarnation of God’s Word today. And we are here to testify, to be witnesses of these things. Before we testify, however, we need to wait for the Spirit that gives us not new languages in which to speak our truth but new ears with which to hear one another, to hear the principles of life that God has written on the heart of every other one of us.

When the words we speak in our debate are aimed at teaching, convincing, or converting the other person, when they’re aimed at winning the argument or defeating an opponent, we risk dishonoring the great truth of which the other person is an expression. But if we will risk listening first, listening with the ear of our heart to what the other person’s heart says, then the time may be at hand when our time of waiting is over and the reign of God is fulfilled.


* Robert Pinksy, “A musing on the costumes of commencement,” Christian Science Monitor, 1 June 2001.

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