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Lenten Listening

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Listening well: A royal welcome

Baudouin was King of Belgium from 1951 until his death in 1993. He was a very conscientious worker with a strong sense of his mission to be a source of unity for all Belgians. He and his wife Fabiola were deeply committed to their faith and were united in their love for Our Lady. In 1990 when the Belgian parliament brought in a law in favour of abortion, King Baudouin temporarily stepped off the throne to give a clear and strong witness to the sanctity of human life. He was greatly loved by his people. Half a million Belgians filed past his coffin as he lay in state.

In 1990, to mark the fortieth anniversary of his reign, an article was published in the newspaper La Libre Belgique, entitled “A man who makes you exist” (Un homme qui fait exister). The writer focused on the king’s capacity for active listening: “It is the whole of the king who – with his gestures, gaze, facial expression, questions and attitude – goes out to the person in front of him.” Baudouin’s attention to each individual, be they famous or unknown, young or old, sick or healthy invited each of his interlocutors to be themselves and to speak about what really mattered to each one. By the way he listened, the king was a man who “made people exist” fully.

In the Lenten season the liturgy of the Church encourages us to open up fully to listen to God: “O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts” (Ps 95:7-8). Why is it so important to listen to God during Lent? Three reasons come to mind.

1. Listening for Salvation

We need to listen to God because He is the Word. Our one and only Saviour becomes flesh as the Word (cf. Jn 1:14). The Book of Wisdom prophesied the coming of the Word in Bethlehem with poetic precision: “While gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed” (Wis 18:14-15). Christ is the Word we all desire and need to hear. He is the “both the mediator and the fullness of all Revelation” (Dei Verbum 2). In the Word made flesh, God has said everything he wants to say to us. At the sublime moment of the Transfiguration the voice of God the Father is heard: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Mt 17:5). For our part, and especially during Lent, we would like to respond to Christ with St Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).

“In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”, wrote St John Henry Newman. Lent is a privileged time to change, to be converted, to let Christ be formed in us (cf. Gal 4:19). In order to know where and how to be converted we seek to dispose ourselves, through prayer, sacrifice and almsgiving, to hear the will of God. The prayer St Josemaría learned as a child expresses the trusting openness of the Christian soul: “Yours am I; I was born for Thee; What is it, O Jesus, you want of me?” In sum Lent is the time to take to heart the words of the Letter of James: “Put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (1:21). Lent is a season for listening carefully to the Word in Person: Jesus Christ. 

True listening involves silence, which St Josemaría calls “the doorkeeper of the interior life” (The Way 281). For a daughter or son of God, silence is not emptiness or a retreat into our solitary selves, but rather a space for intimate and deep communication. In a beautiful reflection on silence as communication, Benedict XVI wrote that “silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist…. Silence gives rise to even more active communication, requiring sensitivity and a capacity to listen that often makes manifest the true measure and nature of the relationships involved” (Message for World Communications Day 2012 – “Silence and Word: Path of Evangelization”, January 24, 2012. This document is well worth reading and meditating on).

2. Listening as Love

We all know how hurtful it can be when we are talking to somebody who pretends to be listening but is in fact gazing abstractedly over our left shoulder or looking at their phone as we speak. Listening is not just about paying attention however. Nor is it merely a successful transfer of information from one person to another. True listening involves the affirmation of the other, with empathy and a certain identification with him or her. It involves a certain gift of oneself, which is love. It was in this sense that King Baudouin “made people exist”. In his book On Love, the philosopher Joseph Pieper says that to love somebody is in effect to say to them: “It is good that you exist”.

God does not dwell in splendid isolation. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, entitled precisely Dei Verbum (the Word of God) opens with the affirmation that 

In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature. Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself (DV 2). 

By revealing himself, by speaking with us, God tells us that “it is good that we exist”. He invites us to a loving relationship with him. In doing this he exposes himself, like all lovers, to the possibility of rejection. He assumes the vulnerability of a love which may not be returned, a reality which Jesus Christ does indeed experience (cf. Jn 1:11). Our challenge, especially during Lent, is to “let the word of God dwell in [us] richly” (Col 3:16). By recognising the loving voice of our Redeemer and welcoming his words, we can respond to the self-giving of God with “the obedience of faith … by which man commits his whole self freely to God” (Dei Verbum 5). In giving ourselves over entirely to the divine interlocutor we are the first beneficiaries.

3. Listening for the sake of Others

“By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 540). Through the three “pillars” of Lent – prayer, sacrifice and almsgiving – we relive with Jesus the period of solitude and prayer which was the prelude to his intense public ministry. 

While Lent is a privileged time for personal purification and growth in holiness, it is inseparable from the apostolate. To grow in intimacy with God, to listen to him, prepares us for the mission of evangelization. As with every aspect of the spiritual life, Lenten observance is both personal and social. In a certain sense we can all say with Christ: “I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:19). 

God’s words to us are for ourselves and also for others. The words we receive are to be shared. Lent can therefore be seen as a time to renew our apostolic zeal, our desire to share the joy of the Gospel, always, everywhere and with everyone. As St John Paul II taught: “It can be said that Christ introduced the tradition of forty days fast into the Church’s liturgical year, because he himself ‘fasted forty days and forty nights’ before beginning to teach. By this Lenten fast the Church is in a certain sense called every year to follow her Master and Lord if she wishes to preach the Gospel effectively” (Audience, February 28, 1979).

Listener par excellence

One day “a woman in the crowd” praised the Woman who had given birth to our Lord: “‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 11:27-28). Far from denigrating his Mother, Christ points to her greatness in virtue of the fact that she welcomed the Word spiritually as well as physically. Moreover she cherished and reverenced Christ’s being and message throughout her life: “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19 and 2:51).

Pope Francis has invoked Our Lady as “the Virgin of listening and contemplation, the first disciple of her beloved Son”. Mary teaches us to listen to and welcome the Word, to recognise that God truly exists, and to tell him with our whole heart that “it is good; very, very, very good, that You exist!”

Source: positionpapers.ie Author: Rev. Donncha Ó hAodha

Rev. Donncha Ó hAodha is the Regional Vicar of the Opus Dei Prelature in Ireland, author of several CTS booklets and a regular contributor to Position Papers.

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