Listening is an Act of Love

The first time I heard the phrase, “Listening is an act of love,” was when I started listening to Storycorps on NPR, probably over ten years ago. The first time I heard it, I thought it was cheesy. “Okay, NPR,” I said out loud, talking back to the radio as I tend to do. But the NPR hosts kept repeating it, and I kept listening to the show, drawn in to all the stories of people I would never meet. The phrase seeped in and settled in me, like when you forget that you put the bread in the egg mixture and when you turn around, the French toast has absorbed every bit of liquid. Listening is an act of love, my subconscious repeats.

So on New Years’ Eve in 2019, when Pope Francis said, “Listening is already an act of love!” I was primed. He is right, just as Storycorps is right, and whoever first said this phrase was right. Sometimes we just want someone to listen, and the way we know that we are loved is that he or she puts down their fork, looks us in the eye, and nods. There’s a pause between when we stop talking and when they start. Even when they can’t fix a situation or advise us on what to do, they hear us and take in what we say. We leave feeling lighter for having spoken and shared. Listening alone conveys love.

As does talking with purpose. Sometimes we are too wrapped up in our own “telling” to notice (or care) if the other person is paying attention– our talking is less about sharing something with that particular person than it is about our need to talk. Once, when a priest admonished me to get to bed on time, I responded that sometimes a housemate came home and just needed to talk. He asked, “But does she really?” That was a harder question to answer than I expected. To indulge in stereotypes a bit, sometimes women just want to talk as a way of connecting; the substance of what is spoken is less important than the fact of speaking it out loud. It is perhaps especially then that we (and this is for men and women alike) need to be reminded that there is always another person on the other end of our “venting,” and that if we want to be listened to attentively, we should take care that what we are saying is worth hearing! If I listen to you repeat the same complaints over and over again, for example, I am increasingly less likely to pay close attention when you speak.

There is an echo to listening: the fact that we are truly listened to may only become clear later. Maybe we say something simple and (essentially) meaningless, just making conversation at a party, and someone remembers it a week later; We feel valued and like we matter: “I picked up that book you mentioned to me last week, and you’re right, it’s really good!” “How is your mom’s back? I know she threw it out and you were worried about her.” Sometimes people remember things that you don’t even remember telling them: “Oh, I told you about that? Thanks! Yeah, mom’s fine now.” It doesn’t take much, but if I am laboring this point, it is because, after two years of COVID-caused isolation, I fear that we are getting pretty bad at listening.

The pope repeated the idea that listening is a way to show love, if not in the same words, as he announced the current synod on synodality. This synod is all about listening—such that, for many, the question becomes, “But to whom? Someone has to speak!” The Holy Father answers this when he says that the Holy Spirit is the protagonist of the synod: “In the one People of God, therefore, let us journey together, in order to experience a Church that receives and lives this gift of unity, and is open to the voice of the Spirit.” Silence, therefore, is the first environment in which this synod on synodality takes place. It begins in each of our hearts before it becomes listening sessions in small groups. If we aren’t praying sincerely, open to the Holy Spirit, genuinely asking for guidance, then we won’t be prepared to offer the fruits of that prayer to other people.

Catholic University is going to engage in a synod process this semester. We will be sharing the details soon, but for now, I simply want to encourage all of us to begin readying our hearts to listen: first, to the Spirit; next, to each other. We are not going to be all of the same mind on the direction the Church should go to proclaim the Gospel today. We are not going to have the same experiences of grace or pain— for example, someone may have been deeply hurt by a priest who helped me in a dark time. Or maybe one form of worship really speaks to my soul but it leaves you cold. That’s okay. To enter into the spirit of the synod, we will need to be humble enough to realize that our own thoughts and feelings aren’t the litmus test for what is true – any more than our classmates’ are. We will need patience to sit still while someone says something that we would rather not hear. We will need courage to say things that we are afraid others will judge us for. And we will need confidence and trust that if God is asking us to be a part of the synod in His Church, it’s because we have something meaningful to offer—and something to learn.

To prepare for the synod journey on campus, I encourage everyone to spend a little time in Eucharistic adoration. On campus, there are multiple times that are offered:

  • Praise and Worship Adoration, Wednesday, 9 to 10 p.m., St. Vincent’s Chapel
  • Silent Adoration, Tuesday, 7 to 8 p.m., St. Paul’s Chapel (Caldwell Hall)
  • Silent Adoration, Thursday, 3 to 4 p.m., St. Michael Chapel (Maloney Hall)
  • Solemn Adoration, Thursday, 9 to 10 p.m., St. Paul’s Chapel (Caldwell Hall)

Or of course, you can just pop into a chapel at any time of day to be with the Lord by yourself. I would also strongly advise all of us to go to confession before we attend a synod session, so that we are free and more open than we might otherwise be.

To the extroverts like myself, I say: Don’t speak first unless you have to. To the introverts: think of (at least) one thing that you would like to say in advance, and if it doesn’t seem to fit with the discussion, say it anyway. We are going to enter into this together as a Catholic University community, because listening is an act of love.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash