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St. Benedict understood the gift of listening

By Paul Paproski, OSB


MUENSTER, Sask. — The ability to listen to one another has failed so miserably today that society has become divisive and polarized, Abbot Elias Lorenzo, OSB, of St. Mary’s Abbey, New Jersey, told the annual retreat at St. Peter’s Abbey. The gift of listening was understood by St. Benedict, who founded the Order of St. Benedict more than 1,500 years ago, as building community life.

St. Benedict expressed his knowledge of community life in an administrative and spiritual guide known as the Rule of Benedict. The Rule illustrates both St. Benedict’s knowledge of Scripture and his profound love for the Word of God that shaped his way of thinking and living. The Rule begins with the word “listen.” The first sentence reads: “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

Abbot Elias Lorenzo, OSB

It is no coincidence that St. Benedict chose the word “listen” to begin the Rule, the abbot said. The word “listen” appears 23 times in the Rule, urging the monk to make listening the foundation of his monastic vocation. A monk, St. Benedict insisted, is a person who listens to the Word of God, to God, to the abbot and his brothers.

References to the word “listen” are found throughout the Gospels, Lorenzo said. The Gospel of Mark begins with John the Baptist exhorting everyone to prepare for the one who will be coming soon. The word “listen” is emphasized in the story of the transfiguration: “This is my beloved son . . . listen to him” (Mt 17:5; Lk 9:35; Mk 9:7).

Mary, in the story of the wedding feast of Cana, tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). The Gospels emphasize that listening is not a passive thing. Listening is about both hearing and acting. Listening and doing are one and the same, Lorenzo said.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-12), Jesus brings the ideas of listening and acting together. He affirms this notion of action throughout his parables. In the parable of the Two Foundations, Jesus speaks of a person who builds his house on a solid foundation as being someone who both listens and acts on his words. The person who does not act on his words is like someone who builds his house on a weak foundation that is easily destroyed when a storm comes (Lk 6:46-49).

The notion of listening and acting is expressed in prophetic literature where the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel eat God’s words. Jeremiah eats God’s words and they became the source of his joy (Jer 15:16). Ezekiel eats a scroll with writing on both sides. The scroll tastes like honey and it fills his stomach (Ez 3:1-11). The prophet hears what the Lord tells him and expresses the word through the heart, Lorenzo commented.

“Filling the stomach with the word really means filling the heart with the word. In both texts we have the idea of hearing and receiving. Especially in the Old Testament, the heart is the centre of the human person. It is the seat of every emotion, thought and deed. These words come out as actions.”

Jesus says it is from the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. Filling the heart with the word of God places all the emotions, thoughts and actions under the influence of the word of God. Jesus expressed the mandate to hear and act through his obedience to God the Father. Obedience to the Father was food for Jesus. The obedience of Jesus nourished him and gave him the strength and energy to live, act and speak for the Father. The prophets, likewise, used the word of God for nourishment. The prophet draws energy from the Word of God.

“The prophet speaks, eats and fills his heart, is transformed and is taken hold of by God’s word. The prophet is under the influence and control of the word of God,” Lorenzo said. When Jesus was tempted in the desert, he said, “One does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).

Mary was an example of someone who filled her heart with the Word of God. The Gospel of Luke speaks of Mary as one who “pondered” after being greeted with an incredible task (Lk 1:29). She kept these inconceivable things she heard in her heart and pondered them.

Like Mary, there are many things in life we do not understand, but we cannot forget. Instead, we should treasure them in our hearts, marvel at them and ponder them again and again. This disposition centred in trust will help us to appreciate the mystery of human life and the mystery of monastic life, for many things are beyond human comprehension and the acceptance of this is great wisdom, Lorenzo commented.

The gift of listening was expressed by Mary, the sister of Martha. While Martha was distracted by household tasks, her sister sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him (Lk 10:38-42). John the Baptist was a prophet who listened to Jesus and stood with him. Sitting or standing does not matter. What matters is closeness, for the mark of discipleship is being with Jesus. Nearness to the Son of God enables one to listen. One who is away from Jesus is not in a position to listen to him. Both John the Baptist and Mary listened to Jesus because they were close to him.

“All of this is true of the monk. The monk hears the word, receives it in his heart and fills his heart with it. We should allow ourselves to be shaped and transformed by this word. The word is the source of all strength and energy. We are guided by the Word of God and experience great joy because our hearts are filled with the Word of God,” Lorenzo said.

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