HAVE you ever sat with a friend when in the course of an easy and pleasant conversation the talk took a new tum and you both listened avidly to the other and to something that was emerging in your visit? You found yourselves saying things that astonished you and finally you stopped talking and there was an immense naturalness about the long silent pause that followed. In that silent interval you were possessed by what you had discovered together. If this has happened to you, you know that when you come up out of such an experience, there is a memory of rapture and a feeling in the heart of having touched holy ground.

Have you ever been writing a letter when your capacity to listen to the other and to his situation suddenly comes into focus and all you have been saying or meant to say is swept up into something infinitely more important? You have listened and you have been listened to and you have heard, even though a complete recasting of what you had set down before is now exacted of you.

Have you ever talked with someone who listened with abandon to what you were trying to tell him that you were yourself made clearer in what you were trying to express by the very quality of his listening? Have you ever found this listening changing what you started out to tell and moving it over into quite a different channel? Perhaps you had begun to speak of the loveless character of your own religious group, how little they cared for each other, and at bottom, how little concerned they were for what happened to each. In the course of telling this, although your listening companion had scarcely spoken a word, it may be that little by little it began to dawn upon you that you were describing not so much the situation of your religious group as the condition of your own heart. Now you began to see what was required of you, and you found yourself reduced to silence. You may have begun by describing your own inner agonies which had been mounting up until they finally blotted out all hope. You had meant to complain bitterly against a fate that had pressed you to such a state of desperation. You had meant to collect a litre or two of sympathy. But as you talked, and as your friend listened with that perfect understanding love which gave you his complete attention, the true state of things dawned upon you and you no longer needed sympathy or a towel for your tears. Painful as the insight was, you now saw things from another perspective and you stopped talking. You no longer needed to talk, or if you did continue, it was now another topic.

Perhaps you had sought a friend to confess something. you could no longer keep in the solitary confinement of your own heart. You were not sure you would have the courage to admit how low you had fallen and you began in evasively safe regions, not sure either of yourself or of your friend. But the utter and easy attentiveness, the free and open listening of your friend lifted the latch on the gate and it swung open noise­lessly and effortlessly, and all that you had held back tumbled out. Now it was out and now it was over and you had died a little death, but in the patient eyes of the friend which you scarcely dared to lift your own to look into, you discovered that you will still in the land of the living.

Have you had the contrary experience? Have you ever talked to a person on a subject that was of burning importance to you, something that you felt that you must enable him to feel, and in the course of it had the choking, stifling realization that he was not listening to you at all, and that his responses to what you said were purely automatic and mechanical? In February, 1941, I went to see one of the highest placed officials in the American Government to ask him to use his good offices to soften the American embargo to the extent of letting some American food get through to Southern France where the general population, and particularly the depressed groups like the Jewish refugees and the refugees from Franco Spain, were slowly starving to death. I had just returned from this region and had seen these people with my own eyes and I tried to help him to see what our embargo was doing.

I had only begun speaking when he apologized and reaching for his telephone asked his secretary to make appointments for him with certain senators. He jotted down things on his pad that had nothing to do with our interview. I faced his body. He said “yes” and “no”, now and then. But his mind was elsewhere. He had no interest in this concern. I was unable to draw his attention to its relevance. I went away sad and chastened that I had not been given the grace to draw him to listen.

More often the situation is not so crass as this. The listener is involved in the conversation but he is involved only to the degree that he is eager to give his own opinion. He listens to what is said only sufficiently to inject his own already-fashioned view at the earliest possible moment. He listens only with the outer ear. With the rest of him, he is preparing his own speech. In this situation there is no real listening. We have only two tangential monologues in process and neither person is in the least affected by the exchange.

Levels of listening and the price they exact

In order to listen discerningly to another, a certain maturity is required, a certain self-transcendence, a certain expectation, a patience, an openness to the new. In order really to listen, there must be a capacity to hear through many wrappings, and only a mature listener, listening beyond the outer layer of the words that are spoken, is capable of this. How falsely a listener may construe what we say if he takes only our words. Our words are often halting and many times plainly not what we mean. Back of what we mean on the conscious level, there is almost always a deeper un-conscious meaning that is at work.

A young minister in his first year of service tells his friend that he cannot bear the work and wishes he would find a place for him with some good farmer. Does he mean that he is not strong enough to stand the nervous toil that the work of a busy minister of the gospel involves? Does he think that he can really do manual labor for agricultural work instead of the ministry? This is what his words have indicated. But in all probability, he means neither the one nor the other. What does he mean? Only the listener who cares has the patience of his caring and the faith of his patience will ever know. In the presence of this understanding patience, he is soon telling others what he really means – that there is no let up from this work, no limit to the hours he is on duty, and that he feels utterly inadequate to the troubles people open to him, the faith they have in him, the opportunities that are about him night and day, and he wonders if he can ever measure up to them. If the truth were known you could not drive him from the work. Underneath in his hidden life, he senses that the noose of his own commitment is tightening and is closing around more and more of his life as he is being drawn into a situation where there is less and less chance to extricate himself, hence the above-surface ripples of what in words are complaint, but what in truth are signs that the calling he has chosen is taking him over. The harness is beginning to tighten as the pull of the wagon behind makes itself felt.

What old veteran in religious service has not confided to a companion that he will not bear the grief of it anymore! He is going to quit and look out for himself for a while. The Cure d’ Ars ran away periodically from his parish and his twenty-hour a day vigil in the confessional only to return promptly when the parish sent some peasant parishioner after him, as they always did. What parties to a marriage have not at moments had their long thoughts, “All for you, and nothing for me”, as the music-hall ballad puts it. What occupation has not at moments looked less attractive to one in the midst of it than other careers around it? But the patient listener soon finds that these “moments” so vociferously described, are not really what the person is meaning to say at all. He knows that at heart he is trying to tell him what he himself does not yet consciously know, namely, that the marriage needs another child, or another level of understanding or tenderness. The occupation may need a fresh dedication or another set of undertakings to change its aspect. The shoemaker may need a fresh vision of what his service means to those who go through life shod by his ministrations. But these unconscious meanings are only dimly felt by the speaker and they do not formulate well in words. Complaints and threats are so much easier to express. Only before an open listener do they disclose what they really mean, do the complaints and sighs give way to further understanding.

A Finn once suggested to me that in every conversation between two people there are always at least six persons present. What each person said are two; what each person meant to say are two more; and what each person understood the other to say are two more. There is certainly no reason to stop at six, but the fathomless depth of the listener who can go beyond words, who can even go beyond the conscious meanings behind words and who can listen with the third ear for what is unconsciously being meant by the speaker, this fashion of attentive listening furnishes a climate where the most unexpected disclosures occur that are in the way of being miracles in one sense, and the most natural and obvious things in the world, on the other.

The spectator listener within the one who speaks

This favorable climate for self-disclosure is a rare situation. For in all that has been mentioned, it is in the mind and heart of the speaker that the disclosures must finally come, and these disclosures come strangely enough because there is not only a listening friend sitting near, but because there is also a spectator listener within every speaker that listens while he speaks. That inward listener seems able to grasp what is going on at all levels at once so that it hears the words, it hears the conscious meaning of the words, and it even hears in a throbbing but inarticulate way, the unconscious meaning of what is being spoken of, and all three of these simultaneously. Without this inner unity, there would be no possibility of self-disclosure, no breaking through of the hidden unconscious meaning into the speaker’s conscious life.

There is a great shyness, a profound reticence about this inward spectator listener. It is acutely tuned to the situation in which the speaker is engaged – he speaks and another listens. It is tuned, however, not only to theselevels within the speaker himself and to the speaker’s sincerity in what he says. Curiously enough, it is always focused with an almost equal intensity upon these different levels within the outward listener. What is going on in the outward listener’s conscious mind, as well as what is occurring in the outward listener’sunconscious is never fully veiled to the speaker’s inward spectator listener. ls it any wonder then thatdisturbances in the outward listener that escape completely the most delicate outward seismographicrecorder may yet profoundly affect the situation of self-disclosure to the speaker? And is it any wonder that this favorable climate is so rare?

For in what listener is there the constant abundance of charity that springs from the depths of his own unconscious, that floods and illumines his conscious intelligence and understanding, making him a tuned and concentrated instrument that is able to reach through the words and even the conscious meanings to the unconscious meaning of the friend who is speaking, and to answer to it?

In what listener are there not vast stretches of bored inattention when the listener rests, or tries to rest, or wonders when, if ever, the speaker will subside? In listener are there not temptations early in the conversation to classify what is being said, to label and file it and once in this frame, to give it only such attention as this frame calls for? There is then no longer a person before styrene-butadiene type. There is no longer a creative unconscious solution that neither speaker nor listener sees but that could be disclosed if they reached the depths out of which it might coexist. There is now only a predictable automaton before him whosesymptoms and course of development he is all too familiar with.

In how many listeners is there not some adverse judgment on what is being revealed, some comparison between the listener’s own standard of assessment and that of the one who is speaking, a judgment which places the speaker at a point on a scale and neatly seals him off from the listener? In what listener is there not aroused by some remote congruity with what the speaker has mentioned, a compulsion to impose upon thespeaker a detailed account of his own personal experiences?

In what listener is there not upon listening to another, some involvement of his own unconscious meaningsand intentions, some stirring up of his own unfaced fears, or evaded decisions, or repressed longings, or hidden aspirations that flare up and involve him so completely that the speaker is scarcely present for him any longer? This may not be a negative reaction, on the contrary, it may indicate that the listener is alive, is involved, cares and has himself begun to speak whether he utters a word or not. But this inward speaking ofthe outward listener, genuine and moving as it may be, unless it is in the same direction as the speaker’sconcern may become an intrusive force in the situation.

There is no need to detail the role of the professional listener who, having studied a recent technique bywhich he has learned not to involve himself but to seek to act exclusively as a resonant Swiss valley, sends back an accurate echo to the speaker of what he has said and leaves the rest to him. Happily, few professional listeners are capable of any such total impassivity, and those that are, manage quite readily to uncover the mechanical character of their services to those who visit them. Yet in all of these situations that have been described, the rarity of the favorable climate for listening bears down even more formidably as the grounds for itbecome more apparent.

If all of these deficiencies on the part of the listener were heavily cloaked from the speaker and only rarely detected by him, it would be one thing. But as has already been noted, the vigilant inward spectatorlistener in most speakers never relaxes its surveillance. There is little in the outward listener that it misses. And when the outward listener is not really open, there is usually a closure effected in the speaker himself, a watering down to the conventional level, a safety factor is invoked, a self-preservative function that preventsmore than surface exposure. Now we begin to realize what “holy listening” involves, how it differs from what passes for listening, and some of the diseases that afflict it.

 

The true listener is vulnerable

But we have not yet plumbed it. We have still to look at this condition of openness in a genuine listener which the inward spectator listener in the speaker so swiftly recognizes and responds to, this condition that opens doors in the speaker, this condition that brings the climate for self-disclosure, this situation where the deepest longings in the heart of the speaker feel safe to reveal themselves, this atmosphere where nothing needs any longer to be concealed. The truth of the matter is that there are no perfectly open listeners. Yet inthose who approach this degree of openness, it is clear at the outset that they are involved. In some way I, the speaker, matter for them. Neither of us is a ventriloquist’s dummy for the other. Both of us affect each other and cannot come out of this encounter unscathed. Even the professional physician admits that he can only work at his best when the patient is convinced that he matters for him. The practice of old Dr. Wooster in Waltham, Massachusetts, who would turn his calls over to an adequate assistant and serve with his own hands, an old patient who was dying, relieving the nurse of the most menial and loathsome tasks, is a symbol of this involvement. The speaker matters to the listener. The listener is vulnerable. Behind any words of his, there is a quality of life which shows that this is the case.

The genuine listener must not only care. It greatly assists the openness if the speaker knows that the listener himself has been through some testing that is comparable to his own. When Father Damien on Molokai, after years of energetic service to the lepers there, began his sermon in the chapel one Sunday with “We lepers”, a new note of reality entered his relationship with the community. When at her missionary hostel in England, Florence Allshorn listened to countless furloughed missionaries telling of their inner numbness after years of taxing duty on the field, they knew that she had once been one of them and that they could be sure they were not simply being ridiculous or betraying the name of the exacting vocation they had chosen. The help that is given by members of the Alcoholics Anonymous to each other; by newly founded bands of alumni of mental institutions to those who have just come out; by parents who have lost children of their own through cancer and who make themselves available to parents whose children have newly entered the hospital and who are facingthe same ordeal; by nurses in tubercular institutions who have been cured of the disease themselves, is a clue to how openness is assisted by the assurance of a similar testing on the part of the listener.

In the depression days of 1931 when the merchants and business community of Morgantown, West Virginia,were in a state of utter confusion and despair, a Quaker woman named Alice Davice came into the communityto help in a child-feeding programme. Soon after her arrival, she was asked to speak at a widely-attendedluncheon club meeting. In the course of her talk, she described to them what conditions were like and yet how much was able to be done in a comparable Russian city where she had worked, between 1921and 1927, under conditions so infinitely worse than any they were experiencing that it seemed comparatively easy for them to trust this relative stranger with their confidences. Openness is assisted by the confidence that the listener, too, has been through the fire.

Acceptance, expectancy and constancy in human listening

A listener extends openness when he accepts the person who is speaking, when he relinquishes all buffing and finishing operations and takes the man as he comes. Such acceptance is no toleration born of indifference, but is rather a positive interest in this person, and interest that is so alive that judgment is withheld.

In South Africa, a white person who was deeply concerned for the improvement of the relations between the races confessed to me that in the situation there, the disease of racial prejudice was so deep that even people like himself who went about crossing lines had become so self-conscious about it as to cancel out all virtue and meaning from the gesture. He begged me to try to persuade some people, whose acceptance of the other race was so natural and genuine as to be beyond this stage of self-consciousness, to come out to South Africa and by their example to help to make such an attitude contagious. It is that kind of unconscious acceptance to which my friend referred, that a sensitive speaker requires of the open listener.

This acceptance, however, does not wither or dwarf the deep expectancy on the part of the listener for the partially concealed capacities which are within the speaker. At the best, the listener by something that is almost akin to divination, reaches through to these capacities in the speaker and evokes them. This very expectancy immeasurably assists the speaker in his response to the listener’s openness. When Thomas Kelly came toHaverford College for graduate study in 1914, he sought out Rufus Jones, and under the glow of the unfailing sense of expectancy which Rufus Jones seemed able to direct toward those who visited him, ThomasKelly, all restraints aside, bared his secret dream that in some way he wanted to make of his life a miracle.

This sense of expectancy in a listener must, however, have a durable quality, a constancy about it inorder to have an authentic ring. If it is to vindicate itself, it must reappear again and again, no matter what the evidence against it. It must have an infinite patience grounded in faith in what the person may become. A seasoned well-digger is not put off by the soiled muddy water which first appears in the pipe when he strikes a flowing well. He knows that given time, it will run clean.

Even Mathilde Wrede, the Finnish prisoner’s friend, who went on forgiving and believing when the same ex-prisoner failed her, deceived her and cheated her, not once, but time after time, could testify that only asshe held firmly and patiently to the expectation of what that man might become, could her listening matter. Herown confessions of her frailty in this regard are shattering to the rest of us in our humiliation before herpatent purity.

But as the circle of these qualities that are all of a piece is rounded, we return to the first which undergirds and nourishes all the rest. It is the listener’s capacity to care, to care enough to be involved. For the listener who knows what he is about, there is a realization that there is no withdrawal halfway. There is every prospect that he will not return unscathed. There is no lead apron that can protect his own life from being irradiated by the unconscious level of the one he engages with. A friend of mine, who has spent many years in listening, admits that in the course of it, he has learned something of what the Bible and the Apostles’ Creed refer to as the “descent into hell” and is quite frank in confessing that for him each act of listening that is not purely mechanical is a personal ordeal. Listening is never cheap. Only the listener who can say “for what else was I born” can fulfill this vocation.

Beyond human listening

It should be more than apparent after the things that have been said about what open listening exacts from the listener, why such listeners are scarce and why they are so deeply prized. To “listen” another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another. But in this scrutiny of the business of listening, is that all that has emerged? Is it possible to set forth the perfect listener without a flash of realization that we have been engaged in something more? Is it blasphemous to suggest that over the shoulder of the human listener we have been looking at, there is never absent the silent presence of the Eternal Listener, the living God? For in penetrating to what is involved in listening do we now disclose the thinness of the filament that separates men listening openly to one another, and that of God intently listening to each soul?

In his Purity of Heart, Soren Kierkegaard gives an image that compellingly reveals this emergence of the Eternal background in listening from the human foreground. There he is speaking of how a devotional address should be listened to, but his image will illumine the way of listening to all vocal ministry. The natural way to listen to such a message, Kierkegaard suggests, is to consider oneself as seated in the audience and the one giving the message as an actor on the stage. The listener is therefore quite free as a member of the audience to criticize both the content of the message and the art, or the lack of it, in the one who delivers the message. But Kierkegaard insists that this is not the right way to listen. And until it is reversed, the exercise oflistening is likely to have little result, no matter how habitually it is practiced. To listen correctly, we must radically shift the roles. Now it is not the deliverer of the message who is performing before me, but I myself am on the stage speaking the part. Now there is only a single listener in the audience. That listener is God. Butwhere in this altered scene has the deliverer of the message been placed? In the wings, where he belongs. Hehas no more than the role of the prompter on the old Danish stage who stood in the wings and spoke over the actor’s lines in a low voice so that if the actor missed them at any point, he could recover them with thisassistance.

Kierkegaard could have gone on with his figure if he had chosen to do so and could have indicated that this reversal of roles in listening to a religious message was not alone something that a man by an act of his own will could do for him. He might quite as readily have pointed out that when a religious message reaches not only the ears but the soul of a man, that apparently without any effort of will whatever on his part, this very reversal of roles is precisely what happens within him. The message bearer has been in the focus of his attention as he has been listening, perhaps even critically listening. Then suddenly the message bearer drops out of sight and the man who a moment ago thought he was the listener is now face to face with the compassionate presence of the listener from whom nothing is d? but who, in spite of all, loves and accepts him.

There is no deeper spiritual insight in Kierkegaard’s writings than this vision of a man placed squarely before God, the Listener, and he continually returns to it in his works. Finally, we shall be alone with God and therewill be no hurry. Finally there will be no crowd to hide in, no favorable comparisons with others to draw about us like a protective coat, no more self-deception. Finally, we shall realize that we cannot evade him. In walking on the Jutland heath, Kierkegaard had seen great stretches of land without a tree or a bush that could conceal a man. Finally, it will be like that. Kierkegaard might well have evoked the witness of the 139th Psalm.

“O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me.
Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up.
Thou discernest my thoughts from afar.
Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,
And art acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue
Lo, o Lord, thou knowest it altogether.
Thou dost beset me behind and before
And layest thy hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high, I cannot attain to it.
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol [hell] thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning 
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea
Even there thy hand shall lead me,
And thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, ‘Let the darkness cover me,
And the light about me be night,’
Even the darkness is not dark to thee
The night is bright as the day,
For darkness is as light to thee.
Search me, o God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.”

Here in the 139th Psalm, a clarified man is speaking. Like the prophet Amos, he has had a vision of the Lord standing beside a wall with a plumb line in his hand. He has recognized the Listener for who he is and gratefully abandoned all concealment. Now he is listened to with a listening that hears as no stethoscope hasever been devised to hear. Now he is known not as he thinks himself to be, not as his friends think him to be, nor as his enemies depict him, but as he is. And with this has come a wave of liberation. Search me, know me, try me, lead me: these are the stages of disclosure and discovery which the Psalmist bas revealed. To speak to a Listener from whom it becomes progressively clearer that nothing can be concealed; to talk on and onbefore such a Listener until our silence answers his, until disclosure and discovery come, is a longing that is so universal that it could be called one of the “givens” of all human experience.

Clarification and the eternal listener

How many attempts there have been to portray the stripping, the cleansing and the final valley of decision which marks this experience of confronting the One who listens. I came across a striking example of this portrayal some years ago in the form of a painting by a German Quaker artist, Eberhard Tacke, who with his little family lives in East Berlin. He had painted a scene where a vision of the crucified Christ appears to three men who stand holding their masks in their hands. The vision stripped them of this covering. In their freshly exposed eyes there seems to be a mingled look of yearning and of fear: yearning to give what this figure asks of them, fear of what such giving would cost. “Search me, now me, try me, lead me.”

The German writer, Bergengruen, has given a thinly veiled portrait of the listening God in his A Matter of Conscience where the various figures accused of a capital crime painfully unwind their tangled skein of deception and truth before the Prince who knows the truth from the beginning. The clarification of those involved comes about because there is present an incorruptible Listener to who all is known.

Perhaps nowhere is this condition more powerfully described than in the Grand Inquisitor scene in Dostoevsky s Brothers Karamazov. There Jesus Christ appears again in the streets of the 16th-century Seville, and by his acts of healing is joyously recognized by the common people. He is promptly arrested by the Inquisitor’s guard and brought to the Inquisitor’s priso to face the inquisitor Cardinal alone: There the Cardinal begins his “I accuse”. and there in response to wave after wave of rationalization and self-justification of the course that has been taken by the Church in order to correct his original work, Jesus is completely silent. He does not in turn accuse, he does not defend any more than he did before Pilate. He onlyis what he is, and listens. Slowly his listening penetrates to the core of the Cardinal and reduces him to silence.There is a final violent thrust: the threat of invoking the death penalty if Jesus does not go at once.

In Dostoevsky’s scene, Jesus then crosses the room, kisses the aged Cardinal on his bloodless lips, and disappears. Seldom in any literature has the course of the human spirit when it confronts the Eternal Listener been more magnificently depicted than here. Yet even here, the Cardinal has spent himself, has had his own arguments and defenses revealed for what they are in the presence of the silent, patient, all-knowing,all-loving one but we are not told that he has come to the end of himself. The Cardinal has entered the valley of decision but has turned back or he would have fled in search of his visitor that he might follow him.

In a lighter vein, the gay, saucy, sparkling Italian post-war fantasy The Little World of Don Camillo brings Don Camillo regularly before the crucifix to expound, to argue out and to defend his preposterous and ethically dubious proposals. In spite of the delicate line between humor and blasphemy which this novel often bends, if it does not transgress, the course of this unorthodox priest’s pleas before the crucified one is intenselyrevealing. Slowly and surely as he argues, the assurance wanes, the insistence weakens, and the real course is reluctantly but finally seen and accepted. The Listener has silenced and clarified the petitioner until thepetitioner yields and is transformed.

With the exception of Bergengruen’s symbolic portrait of the Prince, and possibly even this is no exception,each of these examples has given us a further confirmation that all that we discovered earlier about ordinary listening is even more characteristic of the greatest listening of all. Though it is not merely in being perfectly known that the listener finally brings the speaker to silence and to the discovery of what is his deepest yearning. It is in being what he is and confirming what he is by what he does that the Listener becomes something morethan a Roentgen [x-ray] machine. And what he is in the Christian experience is one that cares infinitely for the speaker. He speaks to the speaker’s condition because he has loved him from the beginning of the world.

Vulnerability, Acceptance, Expectancy and Constancy in the eternal Listener

It was this unremitting love of the Listener for the speaker that Pascal was inwardly swept by three hundred years ago on the memorable night of November 23rd, 1654 and it was this experience which authenticated his declaration that Jesus would suffer in agony for men until the end of the world. For he whohas listened to another person with a bowed mind and tendered heart, how much is vindicated, is inwardlyconfirmed and made alive by the gospel story of the Listener entering flesh and blood and caring so deeply as toconsent to have it stripped from him giving order to arouse men to his infinite caring. Phillips Brooks once said,”If you want to know the worth of a human soul, try to save one.” He might as well have said, “try to listen oneinto life”. For to listen, there can be no bottom to the caring for the other. Yet we know that this caring cannot be a verbal affair. It must be sealed by some unmistakable material evidence of vulnerability on the part of the Listener.

Bishop Stephen Neill told once of hearing an Indian village evangelist telling the story of the Prodigal Son and allowing himself some of the liberties of misinterpretation which his vivid imagination begged for. The evangelist explained how the prodigal’s real change had not come about when he made his own decision inthe far country to return to his Father. And it had not come about when, to his astonishment, his Father had come out to meet him and welcomed him home with loving tears and a feast. The real change of heart had not come about until some days later when in looking at his Father, the prodigal realized in a flash that theFather’s hair had turned grey since he had gone away.

The Abbe Huvelin [a well-known 19th century spiritual director] once told Friedrich van Hugel [a 19th century Roman Catholic philosopher] that no Sermon on the Mount, even when guided as it was by the most sublime instruction on earth, could ever have redeemed men. When God himself wanted to redeem man, he could not do it by any other means than by dying. For God himself there could be no arranging a cheaper form of convincing man that he cared supremely.

Throughout the experience of listening, this evangelical witness is confirmed again. The speaker’s silent demand that the adequate listener be tested by sharing some comparable experience to his own is not left without a witness: “tempted in all things as we”, “conceived”, “born”, “suffered”, “dead and buried”. How materialistically literal are the words of the incarnation. Yet, without this testing, could the listener have opened the hearts of all conditions of men throughout all the ages and released them to pour out of their inmost depths to him in order that under his compassionate listening they might come to themselves as the sons of God?

The speaker’s need to be accepted as an original, as having a worth of his own, as one who is above classification and who requires that routine judgment be suspended, withheld, is met beyond measure in the Listener. “Our good Lord showed me”, Mother Julian of Norwich relates, “that it is his full pleasure that a silly soul come to him naked, plain and homely.

Where is the evidence for unqualified acceptance more complete and convincing than in the figure who moved easily and without self-consciousness among publicans, tax-gatherers, prostitutes, people who were national and racial outcasts of his own fiercely zealous national community and who in his death between two thieves accepted and welcomed the one who came “naked, plain, and homely” bidding him to be with him in paradise?

This sense of expectancy that we found furnishing such an important part of the favourable climate which the listener supplies to the speaker has never been more conspicuously evident than in the figure of Jesus. His easy unselfconscious acceptance of men and women seemed always to be linked to this power of divination into what they might become.

I: 

Is it possible to exaggerate what this expectancy of the Listener did to the impetuous vacillating Peter, to MaryMagdalene, to the despised Quisling-like tax contractor Zaccheus, to those who had despaired of ever again having either their sight or sanity or bodily wholeness? He stubbornly rejected their surface appearances. Heignored the nicely calculated probabilities of society’s judgment of what one might expect of them. Hepenetrated even the heavy wrappings of what they had themselves settled for in their lives and pierced throughto what in their deepest yearnings they still longed to become. He drew this out, confirmed it, and those we havenamed, acknowledged it and accepted it. He answered expectantly to that of God in each of them and they feltand responded to the quickening.

The constancy of this figure needs little more than mention in passing, it is so transparently evident. The human listener at his superb best aspires to this costly patience, this durable steadiness in his faith andexpectancy toward the speaker, but he lapses so lamentably and so often. Even in the greatest of saints, our mirrors of the active love of God in each generation, how often are they clouded. Even in Francis of Assisi or Theresa of Avila, how given to bursts of despair or exasperation at the conduct of those who go on in their wayward speaking while they must continue listening.

In contrast even to these chosen ones, what constancy is found in the One who revealed the nature of the Listener himself. The disciples go out to preach and heal and return to confess their impotency. The populace, like water, rises and falls in its favor toward him. The last night with his own disciples, they are quarreling over issues of precedence in the kingdom. One of them betrays him. He leaves this little band fearful, scattered, fleeing and in utter dismay, yet these are all that there are to carry on the work he has begun. His constancy, like a regnant acid, dissolves away film after film of their disbelief until it breaks in upon them that they are the children of God and are called to live joyously together in his kingdom and to share it with all the world.

Beneath all that has been said of the living Listener, as of human listening, there is no concealing the fact that what in the listener acts most deeply upon the speaker either to release or to bind him is not only the costly things that the listener does, nor is it exclusively what in his depths the listener is. What really matters is rather what the listener is in what he does. This cleanses the situation from the outset by distinguishing it from any pseudo-listening which is reducible to some readily transmissible technique that makes no appreciable demand on what the listener is. It also throws light on a strange occurrence in the ordinary listening that men do for each other as well as in the spiritual situation in which each man is open before the living Listener. For while the least semblance of an act of self-conscious judgment on the part of the listener destroys and renders sterile the relation to the speaker, yet there is no denying that there is a kind of judgment going on continually between listener and speaker.

The inner encounter with the eternal energy

The speaker in the presence of a human listener is never unaware of the judgment of what the listener isupon his own life, and in turn, the listener’s own life cannot resist the judging effect of what the speaker is upon his own life. Here are fields of radiation that interpenetrate each other and that leave neither party unprobed. Nietzsche in his Thus Spake Zarathustra declares incisively that “In one’s friend, one shall have one’s best enemy”, an enemy that rebukes and judges that which is unauthentic or merely imitative in the friend.

In the listener, then, if he be a true friend, a true listener, there is inevitably an enemy to much that is in the speaker. But this “enemy” in the listener is not the re-introduction of any level of conscious judgment, any weakening of the listener’s complete acceptance of the speaker. This enemy is an effortless, unconscious influence which rises up out of what the listener is in what he does. It may be all very well to say as Nietzsche does that “many a one cannot loosen his own fetters, but is nevertheless his friend’s emancipator.” But the odds are heavily against any such miracle. For it is only the listener whose own fetters, if not shattered have at least been loosened, who seems able effortlessly to irradiate the level of existence of the speaker in such a way as to move him toward release. Any minimizing of the maturity required of the listener may lead to the most tragic consequences. Furthermore, it is only the mature listener who without disturbing the listening situation can submit both humbly and fearlessly to the counter radiations of the speaker to which he is continuously subjected.

Yet even this does not seem to get to the bottom of the matter. It penetrates to a genuine inner encounter between two friends who speak and who listen to each other, and it rightly draws attention to the searching unconscious interplay which takes place between the deep life of each as they listen to each other. But where it fumbles and becomes confused and unsure of itself is that it leaves out of all account the living Listener who “stands behind our lattices and waits”. It ignores the· hidden presence, the patient, all-penetrating Listener, the third member of every conversation whose very existence, if it is not ignored, rebukes and damps low the evil and calls out and underlines the good, drawing from the visible participants, things they did not know they possessed. It does this not in a conspicuous fashion, as an orchestra leader tones down the brass with a menacing downstroke of his baton or calls forth the strings with a beckoning, pleading upward gesture, but does it more like the quietly permeating influence of a person of patent purity sitting silently in a conversation, saying almost nothing, but whose presence there changes all. The New Testament gives a vivid picture of this in describing the scene that changed all and left the travelers’ heats glowing as it withdrew.

Rarely does this business get itself adequately articulated. Common as the experience is, it seems to take a Bernard of Clairvaux to lift it up above the threshold of consciousness and to write of it, “He is living and full of energy . . . He has quickened my sleeping soul, has aroused and softened and goaded my heart which was in a state of torpor and hard as a stone. He has begun to pluck up and destroy, to plant and to build, to waterthe dry places, to illuminate the gloomy spots, to throw open those that were cold as also to straighten its crooked paths and make its rough places smooth.”

The living Listener who is “living and full of energy” seems able to take fearlessly the speakers’ own diseased irradiations, lethal though they may be, to absorb them, and to transform them. Here is a kind ofalchemy by which base metals are transformed into gold by a reagent whose power is as lavishly and recklesslypoured out upon men as it is fathomless. Jesus’s acts of healing, as in the case of the woman with the issue of blood or the many cases of demented spirits, seemed to involve just such a fearless interchange of radiations and the healing power he revealed moves in our world today to those who are wakened to it.

The more we come to realize the extent of the penetrating influence which our own hidden life and the hidden life of our friend exert upon each other, the more acutely do we come to appreciate how inadequately prepared we are to listen, no matter how mature we may be. The deeper this sense of humbling inadequacysoaks into our minds, the more open we are to realize the wisdom of seasoned spiritual guides like Francois de Sales or George Fox who both insisted that the task of all spiritual guidance is to take men to Christ, to bring them to the living Listener, and to leave them there. With this realization, too, the well­ known remark of Max Chaplin’s comes freshly to life when he reflected that all the deepest friendships ultimately bear within themselves the seeds of tragedy unless both persons have their lives open to a power that is infinitely greater and purer than themselves.

The more conscious a listener becomes of the influence of the living Listener in searching both speaker and listener and in drawing out both to confirm in the other what is high and to reject in the other what is low, the more certain he is that only the cleansing radiations of an utterly loving and charitable one will do. Human listening then becomes what it is: a preciously thin point in the membrane where the human and divine action can be felt to mingle with the least opaque cloud of concealment. The human action can begin at any point, the conversation can start where it will, but if it goes on, the living Listener’s presence may almost imperceptibly rise into awareness and with that awareness the total situation is altered.

The Living Listener in Prayer and Worship

How true this experience is of prayer. Prayer may begin as a soliloquy in which a stream of petitions is poured out. “I cannot bear the loneliness of my station. I live alone. I have been cut off by distance or death or estrangement from all persons who care for me. I cannot hear the company of my odious self day after day. Why has such a sad lot come to me of all people? It is wrong and the wrong should be corrected.” Until now, this has been the outpouring of a person