On Learning to Hear

On Learning to Hear

Hear the other side.
— St. Augustine, De Duabus Animabus, XlV ii

Learning to hear has been a lifelong process for me, and the better I think I get, the more I know I miss. Part of it is like sorting one’s way through a blanket of static, desperately trying to pick out words of life in a cacophony of noise that seems designed to inflame rather than inform, to distract instead of clarify. But most of my problem is hubris, a deep-seated confidence that in something so ordinary and easy as hearing I have little to learn.

“Listening is so basic that we take it for granted,” Michael Nichols notes in The Lost Art of Listening. “Unfortunately, most of us think of ourselves as better listeners than we really are.” (pg. 11) This is an understatement, I suspect; I think of myself as a good listener even when I’m talking.

It’s not like I wasn’t warned. Even from childhood, I recall a quotation from Jesus that he is recorded as saying more than once while he taught: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”

I don’t remember much from my childhood — it’s like a thick fog when I try to think back — but this phrase stands out, burned into my memory. We were Fundamentalists, proudly anti-culture and always scanning the newspaper for some sign that the world was about to end. We hoped for the end, convinced that our relationship with God guaranteed we’d be spared the horror of that cataclysm, raptured just in time to miss all hell breaking loose. The earth didn’t matter, and caring for it was likened in sermons to arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. In this view of things, the spiritual and the physical were sharply distinguished, and since only the first had eternal value, most of what makes life worth living was dismissed as trivial, worldly, and quite possibly dangerous. We used the King James Bible, that noble translation featuring Shakespearean language which is simultaneously lovely in its prose and frustrating to understand.

The warning from Jesus was easy enough, though, coming at the end of teachings and stories that he told. “He that hath ears to hear,” Jesus would say, “let him hear.” I remember puzzling over what he meant and never realized until much later that I was discovering the answer in a way my parents never intended.

My parents deemed some school activities too “worldly”and sent notes excusing me from them. For example, my school had periodic assemblies where cartoons were shown, but Hollywood is decadent, so I spent those periods in the library, the only place I guess my teachers could think to send me. At first I was embarrassed, angry, and bored. Then I discovered books — stories to be exact. I remained embarrassed and angry, but no longer bored.

The irony of it still amuses me. Cartoons — little animated stories starring Bugs Bunny and Foghorn Leghorn — were too worldly for us spiritual people. So I was banished to a room packed with more stories than that — proof of God’s providence if I ever needed one.

My memories of those hours are faint except for the sense the stories gave me of being swept through space and time in adventures that went beyond anything I dreamed as a possibility. The stories, though not all great literature, need no justification: opening new worlds for a child is justification enough. But I know now that far more was transpiring in those library chairs. I could never have verbalized it at the time, but something was stirring deep within me. Somehow those stories planted in my heart and imagination the seeds of a great truth that only in story do we find meaning for life and reality, and that hearing story — truly hearing it — is more mysterious than merely listening to words.

Flash forward fifty years. I am a grandfather now, and I believe in that mystery more than ever. I believe it when I read stories to my grandchildren, stories like Runaway Bunny (for the younger ones) and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (for the oldest). I believe it when I read novels by beloved authors: The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Snow by Orhan Pamuk, Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. You can hear the story, and then if you have ears to hear, you can hear it as an echo of something deeper, of the story that touches the very deepest foundations of life and reality.

Our grandchildren, all eight of them, live at least a day’s ride from our home, named Toad Hall after the mansion featured so deliciously in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. When they visit certain rituals must be maintained, such as reading aloud before bed. One year our granddaughter picked out a book and curled up on the couch beside me. Sometimes with very special books, when I reached the final page she would say, “Read it again, Grandpa,” and I would.

One time, on the last page, she repeated her request, and that third reading brought out the improviser in me. Nothing too drastic, you understand — just subtle shifts in color or minor details not essential to the plot. I had already discovered that bigger changes could elicit a deep sigh and the taking of the book over to Grandma, which I wanted to avoid. So I introduced my little changes as I read, and each time my granddaughter would interrupt to correct me.

“No, Grandpa, that’s not right. It’s blue, not gray,” came her voice from under the afghan. She was too young to read at the time and wasn’t looking at the pictures, but not one of my changes slipped by her. She wanted me to reread the story not because she didn’t know it but because she did know it. Somehow, it resonated deeply within her. It’s what good stories do, for those who have ears to hear.

The Hebrew prophet Elijah spoke truth to the powerful of his day, and it wasn’t any more popular in the 9th century BC than it is today. He had to run for his life, ending up in a cave famished and exhausted (1 Kings 19). He was a seer and so expected to hear God’s voice; he listened for it but heard nothing. A wind blasted across the peaks of the mountains, but no divine voice was heard. An earthquake tore apart the landscape and a wild fire raged in the ravines, but there was nothing. It was only then, the Scriptures records, Elijah heard “the sound of a low whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). It was the voice of the Almighty.

I have never heard God’s voice, and even sensing God’s presence has been both a rare and brief experience. I have met people who claim that sense is almost constant for them, and I’m never certain how to respond to their claim. If anything, my spiritual pilgrimage is better described as a walk of faith through an abiding sense of God’s absence. Not that I think he does not exist, for I am a believer — passionately so. But I have no sense of God’s presence, no hint of hearing his voice as Elijah did.

Then again, if I listen, I hear God’s distinct echoes of glory — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — revealed in what he has made. The Creation is not silent but speaks, as the Hebrew poet notes (Psalm 19), and St. Paul insists the revelation in Creation has what philosophers call both metaphysical and ethical implications (Romans 1). “There is a way that nature speaks, the land speaks,” Native American environmentalist Linda Hogan says. “Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.”

On my desk is an African violet that blooms even in winter. I started the plant several decades ago when I carried a leaf half way across America from a plant in my aunt’s living room. We were visiting her in Massachusetts, and I wrapped the leaf in wet paper towels for the trip back home to Minnesota. She got the plant from her mother, who had made a hobby of raising them. The blooms are violet, as they should be, with a yellow center so bright and tiny as to be constantly surprising. The plant is just a plant, and yet it seems to me to be eloquent in its own silent way, providing a little glimmer of beauty and continuity in our badly fragmented world. And it is badly fragmented. My aunt, the favorite from all my years of growing up, is now in a memory care center, suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Many of us remember exactly where we were on September 11, 2001. I was in Jackson, Mississippi, teaching a weeklong class at Belhaven College. That morning, I was preparing for my afternoon class but found myself in front of a television, the class forgotten as I watched the World Trade Center towers collapse on themselves in horrifying explosions of dust, flames, and smoke.

I held airline tickets to return home the following morning, but, of course, that was not to be. Commercial aircraft were grounded, and no one was venturing guesses as to when air travel could return to normal. I called car rental firms only to discover their fleets were all at the Jackson airport, which had been closed to the public. A day later I learned the airport car rental lots would be opened for a limited period, and so I dashed over and managed to lease one. On the way out of Jackson, I stopped by a record store because I knew that Dylan’s album, Love & Theft, had been released that weekend. I slipped the CD into the car’s player and headed north on I-55. The second song on the album is called “Mississippi”:

Every step of the way, we walk the line

Your days are numbered, so are mine

Time is piling up, we struggle and we stray

We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape

City’s just a jungle, more games to play

Trapped in the heart of it, tryin’ to get away

I was raised in the country, I been working in the town

I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

To know the truth about things requires study, some serious research to make sure we are sorting out facts from fiction, actual events from urban myths. Books and essays by thoughtful scholars can help us understand context and history, the wider setting, chronology, and people involved. All that is vitally important in the pursuit of truth, and though I would never want to diminish its importance for an instant, we need something else if we are to probe to the very heart of things where there is not just information but meaning. For that, we need poets.

All great poets leave a record of their times by setting their times into all of time, and Bob Dylan is a great poet. “The first sound of his voice entered me like electricity,” novelist Larry Woiwode says of Dylan. “I didn’t think of him as a great poet, as academics have, but a troubadour, a news-bringer in touch with his and the world’s makeup and not about to falsify his report for any favored political group or audience. He has sung with eloquence about so many issues at times when the news about them was needed, and has so often hit the target dead center, I often wonder if he isn’t hot-wired to a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.”

Got nothing for you, I had nothing before

Don't even have anything for myself anymore

Sky full of fire, Pain pouring down

Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime

Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme

Only one thing I did wrong

Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

I almost drove off the road.

“Mississippi” is not about 9/11, but for those with ears to hear, it sure can speak to that day. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan said the album “feels like a work made specifically from inside an American temperament.” Then, about himself: “You’re talking to a person that feels like he’s walking around in the ruins of Pompeii all the time. Every one of the records I have made has emanated from the entire panorama of what America is to me . . . A song is a reflection of what I see all around me all the time.”

Centuries ago a Hebrew patriarch spent a curious night wrestling with an angel (Genesis 32). Jacob had become a wealthy man, a nomad wandering Palestine with huge flocks, multiple wives, and hordes of servants. Years earlier he had cheated his brother and fled, then while working for his father-in-law developed a system by which to siphon off the man’s wealth, so his success had come at a cost of relationships. He was pretty certain there were family members who wished him dead. Then one evening his servants told them another wealthy nomad was moving across the land towards them. It was Jacob’s brother Esau, and there were 400 men with him, armed and determined to meet him. Jacob spent an anxious night alone, and after crossing a brook named Jabbok, in the Jordan River valley about 24 miles north of the Dead Sea, he came upon a man who grappled with him throughout the night.

It’s a mysterious text, and I think it is meant to be. The details seem sketchy no matter how often I read the story, and I’ve come to believe it was meant to be recorded in such a manner. The vast majority of my questions turn out to be superfluous, more to satisfy my curiosity than to help me know the meaning of the words. The man turned out to be an angel of the Lord, a pre-incarnation manifestation of the Almighty in human form (Genesis 32:22-32).

Jacob wrestled with God all night, a brilliant metaphor for how the patriarch had lived his life. Jacob had listened to promises made to him by God but, not really hearing, had set out to make his own way in the world. He had done well as the nomadic traditions of his day measured success, but his path was littered with scheming, broken relationships, and a life that seemed almost pagan in its outline, a frantic effort to perform so that he would be favored by God. The God of his fathers, on the other hand, spurned such notions. The God of Abraham had sovereignly chosen Jacob and entered into a covenant with him; by grace, Jacob was then free to trust that God would fulfill his promises without ever needing to merit his favor.

So they wrestled, and at dawn the stranger asked to be released, but Jacob refused. By this time he had finally caught on that this was a man yet more than a man, so he determined to walk away a winner. He would not stop, he told the angel, until the angel blessed him. The angel touched Jacob’s hip, put it out of joint, and from that day forward Jacob walked with a limp. He gave Jacob a new name, Israel, which even his myriad descendants carry to this day. If that doesn’t seem like much of a blessing, we aren’t listening clearly. To wrestle with God and live, to be given a new name, and to have a physical sign to help us remember that the event wasn’t simply the product of a fevered religious imagination? Not bad for a night alone.

I’ve had no such encounter and don’t expect to. I’m not certain I’d even want such. But when I look back over my pilgrimage, Jacob’s night of wrestling with God seems to echo something in my long effort to learn to hear.

I, too, am a schemer, a performer anxious to have something to say that will impress. I, too, have said too much, using words to wound instead of heal, to manipulate instead of to free. “The simple fact of being able to express an opinion,” Henri Nouwen says, “to set up an argument, to defend a position, and to clarify a vision has given me, and gives me still, a sense of control.” A sense of control over the conversation, so it can go where I am most comfortable, so it can remain where I like it, so that I never have to admit I don’t know. This is one reason I am more apt to talk than to listen. If I talk, I can remain in control. If you talk, who knows where we’ll end up? “I like to do all the talking myself,” Oscar Wilde wrote. “It saves time, and prevents arguments.”

I’ve had to be alone to learn to hear. To break past the busyness and noise of our modern world into silence so I can learn to hear — hearing the voice of glory in Creation, hearing the voice of true poets in music, hearing the trajectory of timeless stories that delve past the surface into the real nature of things, hearing the person sitting opposite me instead of thinking what I want to say next. The effort always feels like wrestling, my soul being wrangled and twisted into a shape I only later notice is good.

Unhurried conversation, asking questions that kindly probe to the heart of things, creating a safe place so people can risk setting aside their masks, providing a sacred time where music can be given full attention, reading good stories aloud with friends eager to hear — this is radical stuff. It is deeply human, where communication touches on the heart. And it is profoundly divine, where the quiet music of the spheres suddenly becomes audible.

For those, that is, who have ears to hear.

Denis Haack is co-director, with his wife Margie, of Ransom Fellowship, which was formed in the conviction that Christian faith speaks creatively to all of life. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from Covenant Seminary where he serves as a visiting instructor teaching classes in film, popular music, and small group leadership. For more of his writing on faith, culture, and life visit Ransom’s web site and Denis’s blog, A Glass Darkly.

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