10. Prayerful listening



Ted Grimsrud

Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.  Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for God will speak peace to God’s people, to God’s faithful, to those who turn to God in their hearts.  Surely God’s salvation is at hand for those who fear God, that God’s glory may dwell in our land.  Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.  Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.  The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.  Righteousness will go before the Lord, and will make a path for the Lord’s steps. – Psalm 85: 7-13

 When I first sketched out my outline for these reflections on spirituality, I felt like it would be proper for me to include prayer.  So I made that topic part of my section on encouragements to spirituality.  However, I have to admit that I found myself with a tension as I began to think about this topic.  In a sense, the tension was between what I felt I should deal with – prayer – and my focus on what I personally find encouraging.

I have two rules that I think ought to govern conversations about spirituality.  The first is that we should not talk about what other people should do.  Spirituality is very personal, though it certainly has a crucial communal part.  However, it connects with our hearts and souls.  It cannot be governed by other people’s rules.  Spirituality has to be free, internally generated, and personal to who we each are.  So we do not make lists of shoulds.

The second rule is that we should be very honest and speak with integrity when we talk about our own spirituality.  What we say should correspond with what we are living.  Otherwise, we are apt to mouth platitudes.  We are apt to only facilitate un-spirituality by fostering a split between what we say about our ideals and what our actual lives are like.  Spirituality has mostly to do with who we genuinely are, with the lives we actually live.

Due to this second rule, that what we say have integrity, I felt stymied in reflecting on prayer and meditation.  In terms of the traditional understanding of prayer I learned, I can’t say that it actually is a major source of spiritual encouragement for me.

One of the first Christian books I bought, back around 1972, was a book on prayer.  It was a big, hard-backed book, and I was pretty proud of myself when I went into the Christian bookstore and bought it.  It was by a major fundamentalist leader, John R. Rice.  The title was, Prayer:  Asking and Receiving.  I read the book thoroughly and tried to practice the techniques Rice outlined.  I do not remember much about his approach.  I do know the basic idea was that God acts directly in our lives.  If we specifically ask God to intervene on our behalf and truly believe that that will happen, it will.

As I think back, I remember that most of what I asked for was that events would occur in a way that I would not have to work myself.  Like getting a good grade or succeeding in a basketball game.  Once, at a crucial moment in a big basketball game I got fouled.  I prayed that God would help me make the free throws – and they did go in.  I sang extra loud and joyfully in church that Sunday.  There have been a few times since that I wished I still had that kind of faith.

Before too long, I began to have doubts about the techniques of prayer I had learned.  They did not really seem to work.  I also had major intellectual problems with the idea, to quote Bob Dylan, that God was “just an errand boy to satisfy my wandering desires.”  So I fell out of the habit of regular petitionary prayer.  I respect people to whom such prayer is meaningful, but I can not with honesty write a chapter about that kind of prayer.

However, I have not replaced overt petitionary prayer, asking and receiving, with practices of self-conscious meditation and intentional silence.  I read Thomas Merton’s little book, Contemplative Prayer, which discusses this approach to prayer.  I believe Merton is helpful.  He is such a good writer.  He is honest and serious about wholistic spirituality.  I have to say, though, that I am not nearly as moved by Merton as I used to be.  I read several of his books in the early 1980s and felt they were extremely profound.

Now that I am looking again at his writings, I am less impressed.  I think his guilt feelings, his idealism, his apparent need always to be more pure, more holy – these make his approach less attractive to me.  I still am sure I have much to learn from him and I want to keep reading his writings.  Nonetheless, this book, Contemplative Prayer, while certainly a quite worthy book, does not truly speak to my soul.  It does not provide a lot of help for me getting at what is encouraging – if anything – about prayer for me these days.  If I am to speak of what has been and is encouraging for me in my life now, I can not really talk about self-conscious, prayerful meditation.

In the middle of my thinking about prayer, though, I came across a little article that helped me to put some pieces together.  Brenda Ueland was a writer, free thinker, world traveler who died several years ago at the age of 93.  The Utne Reader, reprints some of her essays from time to time.  The November-December 1992 issue carries an article by her called “Tell Me More: On the Fine Art of Listening.”  As I read the article, I realized that she was describing what I would call prayer in my life.  She describes the power of listening.  She pictures it as the power for making our lives more full and interesting.  Listening also evokes creativity and vitality from the person to whom we are listening.

Ueland discusses listening as in two people communicating with each other.  As I thought about it, though, I realized that this listening mode also may apply to our posture toward ourselves and toward God.  I want to reflect on three aspects of listening – listening to other people, listening to myself, and listening to God.  I certainly do not want to say that this is all there is to prayer.  At this time, though, I think it is most helpful to me to focus on listening as the most encouraging aspect of prayer.

Ultimately, I think listening has to do with respect, even reverence.  When we listen, we give up on control.  We give up on ideology.  We give up on trying to convince others or to impress others or to impose our will on others.  This has to do both with people and with God.  We can think, for example, of Jesus’ well-known words about prayer.  He spoke of you going into your room, shutting the door, and praying in secrecy, not trying to impress people or God (Matthew 6:6).  Certainly, in my experience, I have seen prayer used for looking good much more so than for listening.  I see this in human relations as well.  We speak and talk and argue.  When we do listen, we do not do so genuinely to hear the other person.  We do so to sharpen our argument or, at most, so we can catch our breath.

“Listening is a great and powerful thing,” Ueland writes.  “We forget this.  We don’t listen to our children, or those we love.  And – which is so important too – we don’t listen to those we do not love.  But we should.  Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.  Think how the friends that really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius as though it did us good, like ultraviolet rays.

“This is the reason: When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.  Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.  You know how if people laugh at your jokes you become funnier, and if they don’t, every tiny little joke in you weakens up and dies.  Well, that is the principle of it.  It makes people happy and free when they are listened to.  And if you are a listener, it is the secret of having a good time in society (because everybody around you becomes lively and interesting), of comforting people, of doing them good.”[1]

“When we listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other.  We are constantly being re-created.  Now there are brilliant people who cannot listen much.  They have no in-going wires on their apparatus.  They are entertaining, but exhausting, too.  I think it is because these lecturers, these brilliant performers, by not giving us a chance to talk, do not let us express our thoughts and expand.  It is this little creative fountain inside us that begins to spring and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom.  That is why, when someone has listened to you, you go home rested and lighthearted.

“Now this little creative fountain is in us all.  It is the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination – whatever you want to call it.  If you are very tired, strained, have no solitude, run too many errands, talk to too many people, drink too many cocktails, this little fountain is muddied over and covered with a lot of debris.  The result is you stop living from the center, the creative fountain, and you live from the periphery, from externals.  That is, you go along on mere will power without imagination.

“It is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention, that the little fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising way.

“I discovered all this about three years ago, and truly it made a revolutionary change in my life.  Before that, when I went to a party I would think anxiously:  ‘Now try hard.  Be lively.  Say bright things.  Talk.  Don’t let down.’  And when tired, I would have to drink a lot of coffee to keep this up.

“Now before going to a party, I just tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me, to be in their shoes when they talk.  I try to know them without my mind pressing against theirs, or arguing, or changing the subject.  No.  My attitude is: ‘Tell me more.  This person is showing me her soul.  It is a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk just now, but presently she will begin to think, not just automatically to talk.  She will show her true self.  Then she will be wonderfully alive.’

“Sometime, of course, I cannot listen as well as other.  But when I have this listening power, people crowd around and their heads keep turning to me as though irresistibly pulled.  It is not because people are conceited and want to show off that they are drawn to me, the listener.  It is because by listening I have started up their creative fountain.”[2]

“Unless you listen, people are wizened in your presence; they become about a third of themselves.  Unless you listen, you can’t know anybody.  Oh, you will know facts and what is in the newspapers and all of history, perhaps, but you will not know one single person.  I have come to think listening is love, that’s what it really is.”[3]

I think Ueland’s thoughts struck a chord in me because they fit with my own experience of being listened to and listening to others.  Since I was thinking about spirituality anyhow, I realized that listening actually is a major part of spirituality, a major source of encouragement.

I like how she speaks of listening as evoking the creativity of the other.  I certainly can relate to her example of humor.  When people laugh, I actually do think I am funny.  When I preached a sermon as a visiting pastor once, people laughed heartily at my jokes.  That made me stand a little higher in the pulpit and think I had finally developed the ability to be funny.  It was only later that I realized that their laughter likely revealed more about their senses of humor than my funniness.

I have experienced this sense of evoking creativity from others.  I remember the highlight of my time as a journalism student at the University of Oregon.  I took a class on journalistic interviewing.  One assignment was for us to interview people who were themselves journalists.  We were supposed to interview them about interviewing.  I talked with Dean Baker, a writer for the local newspaper.  As we talked, it became obvious that he was himself quite a good interviewer.  He talked about what he called “the Columbo technique,” where he would kind of fumble around to help the person he was interviewing relax.  He shared with me several other vivid anecdotes and metaphors.

When I wrote up and turned in the interview, the professor genuinely liked it.  He invited Baker to come speak to our class about interviewing.  Over the next several years this actually evolved into a second career in teaching for Baker.  When he spoke to the class, he said he was thinking about giving me a hard time and refusing to answer my questions honestly.  However, he realized that I had good questions, that I was truly listening, and that he was even thinking new thoughts.  So he got caught up in the experience and ended up learning himself from our talk.

If we connect expressing creativity with spirituality, we can see how listening and spirituality fit together.  When we listen, when we live life openly to others, then we will find ourselves engaged in creative interaction.  We will see creativity emerge from others and drawn out from us.

When we feel overwhelmed with our struggle to find hope and encouragement in life, chances are we are not doing very much listening.  As I reflected on these issues with the new insights I drew from Ueland’s article, I saw that as characteristic of my life.  I have striven in the past at times to meet discouragement with greater discipline, more efforts to pray or meditate.  I tried to work harder as spirituality so I might wrest hope and encouragement out of life with my strong will-power.  If not harder work at spiritual disciplines, at least I worked harder at my various projects.  If I am discouraged, I can work out of it by reading more or writing more.  I am thinking now, though, that the key may lie more in adjusting to a more listening mode.  To hear from others, to listen to my own soul, to listen to God.  When we move more to a listening mode, we may find unexpected sources for hope.

A few years ago, National Geographic carried an article about a tour of Eastern Europe by journalist Tad Szulc.  After several days in Romania, Szulc and his companion were feeling great despair.  Romania felt like such a grim place that would only get worse, despite of the overthrow of the communist dictatorship.  Then, as they drove along a country road they happened upon a wedding party.  They asked to take some pictures, and found themselves invited to join the party.  They had a good time and had their spirits lifted.

Then, Szulc writes, “making our way back to the city, we round a switchback on a mountain road and encounter an old man walking.  He has a white beard and he carries a scythe, the very image of Father Time.  He flags us down.  ‘I am Astride Cosmiuc,’ he says with a flourish, ‘a poet and a philosopher.’  He begs to recite a few verses.  His voice is soft but strong, rising and falling through the poetry.  I catch only the drift of his Romanian, enough to know he’s saying something about love and faith and wisdom.  When he is finished, he tips his hat and resumes his solitary progress up the mountain, stepping lightly.”[4]  Because of an ability to listen, Szulc was not left in his despair.  He found hope in people still celebrating, people still writing poetry.

This is how genuine listening works.  When we let go of needing always to speak and control, and instead listen, we hear that which will nourish our souls.  Some of the most encouraging “devotional” reading I have found are the books of Studs Terkel.  That is because he is such a great listener.  His books such as Working and American Dreams: Lost and Found,[5] contain all interviews.  The most encouraging stories are those of the heroes.  We meet ordinary people who in extraordinary ways carry on, act creatively, show caring and compassion.  However, Terkel also manages to capture the humanity of people such as Jesse Helms and other apparent villains.  That is encouraging, too.

This is that of which Brenda Ueland writes.  You listen.  Maybe what you hear is “a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk.”  However, presently the person will begin to think, not just automatically talk.  The person shows one’s true self.  Then that person, too, will be wonderfully alive.

I suspect that this same dynamic works when we listen to ourselves as well.  So much of our dis-couragement comes from not trusting ourselves, not genuinely listening (or even knowing how to listen) to what we really want.  Maybe we don’t trust that we also have a fountain of creativity within waiting to come out.

We have two tasks here.  One is to realize that we, too, are worth listening to.  The second is to find other people who will listen to us.  If we listen sincerely, we will also find opportunity to speak ourselves.  In this speaking, we may find ourselves discovering something new – even about ourselves.

I have experienced this many times.  I start talking, not expecting to have much to say.  As I talk to someone who is genuinely listening, though, I find myself expressing insights that I had not clearly seen before.  I think of these kinds of experiences as prayerful.  That is because self-discovery, discovery of the selves of others – these are profoundly spiritual experiences.  These are some of the main ways we learn of God.  God, who is imaged in human beings, is present when human beings connect.  Where there is love, where there is understanding, where there is genuine communication – God is there also.

For me, what makes listening and being listened to prayerful is that they serve some of the major functions of prayer.  They lift my spirits.  They evoke creativity.  They help me better to experience soul-full living.  To experience the love of a listening encounter is to know at least a little of the salvation proclaimed by the Psalmist.  The Psalmist promises that when we listen, that when we hear God, we will hear God speaking peace.  We will see righteousness and peace kissing each other (Psalm 85: 8, 10).

[1]Brenda Ueland, “Tell Me More: The Fine Art of Listening,” Utne Reader (November-December 1992), 104.

[2]Ueland, “Tell Me More,” 106-107.

[3]Ueland, “Tell Me More,” 108.

[4]Tad Szulc, National Geographic (March 1991), 31.

[5]Studs Terkel, Working (New York: Avon, 1974); American Dreams: Lost and Found (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980).

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