May 2016
Transition and Change

Where Is the Invitation Here?

Listening Deeply to the Self, the Other, and God

Listening, not speaking, is the primary stance in which revelation occurs. This is true both in our prayer and in our discernment with others. When we listen deeply, as individuals and as a group, we can begin to let go of our own personal aims and listen together for the will of God moving in and through us.

A Brother in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, I experience listening as directly connected to obedience, one of the three vows that we take upon profession. Now obedience means something very different in the monastic context than in the colloquial one: It is not about authority, nor is it some promise to follow by rote every ruling passed down from those above us. Rather, this is a vow about listening and it’s the one that shapes our community life. As the chapter in our Society’s Rule defines it, obedience “is a promise to work together to discern God’s will as a body and act in concert to God’s glory.” All of us, as members of Christ’s Body, are called to practice obedience in this sense of common engagement and deep listening. When people asked Jesus, “What is the most important commandment?” he replied by quoting the Shema: “Hear, O Israel.” The English word “obedience” comes from the Latin root obaudire, which means to listen deeply. That is where we are to begin, congregations, vestries, and monastics alike: We listen.

While certainly no vestry would take a vow of obedience, I imagine most vestries could benefit from knowing more about how the monastic practice of obedience asks us to listen. Perhaps most of all because it presupposes some letting go of individual desires to benefit the common good. Our Rule explains, “Monastic obedience gives us constant practice in letting go of attachment to our individual preferences and learning to trust in the wisdom of the community. It trains us to be resilient and prompt in responding to the Lord in the here and now.” It places us in a receptive posture, the prime posture from which to listen deeply.

When engaged in listening, the question I always find helpful to ask is, “Where is the invitation here?” “To what is this person, or this situation, or this challenge inviting them – me – us?” In raising this question, we aim to engage with the whole person as we listen; to recognize that their life, their experience, their givens, are very different than my own; they’re coming to this from a completely different angle, which needs to be recognized and honored. When I recognize the wholeness of another’s experience, it becomes much harder to dismiss them when I encounter conflict or differences of opinion. If somebody is reacting to an issue badly, or strangely, or oddly, or negatively, rather than dismissing them, or arguing back with my own position, I ask: “Where is the invitation here?” It may be that what I’m hearing actually has more to do with what happened to this individual last week, or last year, than it does with what’s in the room right now. Rather than just thinking “They’re nuts,” I try to ask them “What do you think is behind this reaction?” And if I cannot do that, then at least I admit that there’s clearly more going on here than I know; at least I recognize that I don’t have the whole picture.

Deep listening may lead to unexpected places

We Brothers recently experienced a concrete example of this kind of deep, receptive listening in our monastic internship program, which hopes to help young people discern the next steps of their lives. The program was begun a few years ago at the instigation of our late brother, Tom Shaw, who was reading the signs of the times that he was experiencing as bishop: especially how young adults are searching for authentic community and rich worship, a connection with the environment, and the desire to serve. We began the monastic internship program to meet these needs. As these young people live and work alongside us for a year, we’ve found that it provides an exceptional opportunity for listening deeply to them in the totality of their being. We encounter them over the dishes, in mentoring relationships, in profound conversations, in worship, and in all kinds of silliness. Because we can engage the whole person – rather than just aspects of the person, like “straight-A student” or “son” – we can listen in a very multidimensional way. And this is not the way they’re used to being listened to. In fact, it’s often the first time that these individuals have been listened to and treated as whole adults, rather than as students or sons and daughters. They’ve shown us again and again the transformation that happens when a person’s full humanity is recognized and honored in discernment.

This happened quite profoundly with one young woman named Tedi. It was amazing watching her transformation. At first, she came to us as a fairly typical university graduate, who rebelled against having to do the same thing every day at the same time. But over the course of the internship, she discovered that she really thrived under the discipline of a fairly ordered life. She discovered in herself a need for this sense of stability, as well as the freedom to be found in order, routine, and repetition. In our conversations with her, she began to ask where else in the world there might be such an ordered life. I think she was quite surprised in the end – as were we – when she signed up for the Marines! Three years later, she is thriving in that life.

She recently wrote to us from Okinawa, where she is serving as an officer: “The environment during my internship provided me with the kind of focus necessary to dedicate myself to the vocation that called to me in that time. Listening and being listened to was a vital part of the decisions I made and the success that I found. The decision to join the military was the biggest decision I'd ever had to make, and it was the first decision that I felt I needed to make solely on my own. I decided not to inform my family or ask their opinion, because after all, I alone would be the one responsible for all actions to follow. I had many discussions with the Brothers regarding that decision, and their words of encouragement gave me the strength and insight that I needed to push forward on my journey.”

Tedi reflects back to us one final, crucial point about listening: Listening well to others requires that we listen well to ourselves. Again, an insight from our Rule’s chapter on obedience: “The vow of obedience requires us to be constantly attentive to the voice of the Spirit within our hearts, endowing us with our own unique authority and gifts. We are called to be obedient to our true selves as they are being formed in Christ. Only where there is a growing respect for our true selves can there be authentic participation in the community’s common endeavor to discern and carry out God’s will.” Listening deeply enables us to grow in obedience to the Spirit’s voice, speaking deep within us.

Be willing to be surprised

When we listen deeply, engaging the wholeness of the other people in the group, we can make room for real surprises. When we’re too agenda-oriented, we can miss the ideas waiting beyond the margins of the practical and the necessary. It can be transformational, from time to time, to invite one another to discover and listen to our wildest ideas and inspirations.

In her reflections on her own discernment process during the internship program, Tedi shared with us how meaningful such free play was for her:

I recall quite clearly the particular exercise that helped guide me to where I am today. We had to list anything and everything we could imagine ever doing in our lives, without limitations. I had a two-page list, ranging from learning to play the piano, to building my own house. On that list however, there was one thing that was heavily dependent on time and circumstance. I only listed it out of curiosity. And that was to become a United States Marine. The more I contemplated, the more I read over my list repeatedly, the more I saw that was the only thing that had to be done while I was of a certain age and able-bodied. The tipping point that really made me jump and dive into the process was the fact that opening that door did not close a single other door on my list. I could become a Marine and still strive to do the multitude of other projects or vocations that my imagination cooked up for me that day.

Tedi surprised herself – and us – in the decision she ultimately reached by listening to what this time of brainstorming revealed about her deepest desires.

Don’t go into a conversation with your mind already made up

One of the most helpful pieces of advice I have ever received was to keep an open mind. All too often we go into a situation knowing what we want to hear or knowing the outcome that we want. Real listening involves a willingness to have our minds changed and our hearts set on fire because we are willing to be converted by another. Real listening is a willingness, on our part, to be converted.

In our Rule’s chapter on obedience, we read how “it is a pledge to listen to the voice of the Spirit speaking within the heart and to respond to God’s invitations to self-surrender.” God loves to catch us unawares. In your times of discernment, be ready to be surprised by where the Spirit might be leading you.

Try This:
Make Room for Silence

It’s hard enough to find silence in our own lives; it can be almost impossible to do so in a group setting. Yet silence is essential to deep listening – alone, as well as in a group of two or twenty! Sometimes an individual needs a minute or two to be able to put into words what they are thinking and feeling. If other people are constantly jumping in, then they may never be able to do that internal, archeological work that allows them to speak from the heart.

I see this all the time in spiritual direction: somebody will say something and there will be a moment of silence; then without any prodding on my part, they’ll say something else, which has taken them down to a slightly deeper level; they’ll sit with that for a minute and then they’ll say something else, which is even deeper. The silence has allowed something deeper to emerge, so that we end up talking not about the first thing that they said, but about the fifth thing. If I’d responded immediately to item A, we would never have gotten down to items C or D.

In your vestry meetings, try building intentional times of silence into your conversations, so that people can really listen to what is being said. Used in this way, silence honors what has already been said, by not overlaying it immediately with something else. We value silence not because there aren’t important things to be said –there are – but because there are good things to hear, which we might miss without the silence that invites them forth.

Br. James Koester, SSJE, was born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada. After serving parishes in British Columbia, he came to the United States in 1989 to test his vocation with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Currently he serves as the Superior of the community.


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This article is part of the May 2016 Vestry Papers issue on Transition and Change