What does it mean to acquire a heart for someone or something? I often pray, Lord give me a heart for the city of Denver? Or Give me a heart for those I’ll interact with today?
I sort of know what that means. I know it has something to do with the desire for sincere empathy and care, to be a conduit of God's reconciliation and peace.
But how to practically go about acquiring a heart for people or places has remained in some ways elusive and vague.
Last week, I participated in a reflective gathering at the spot of a recent violent death on the northeast side. These small gatherings are called Moment's of Blessing and there’s a few of us in Denver that join a handful of others in places like Nairobi, Camden NJ, Guatemala City, and Tacoma Washington who are members of the Street Psalms community and participate in these gatherings in our respective cities. We read through a short 20-minute liturgy and share some brief moments to openly express our emotive response to the tragedy with one another.
I realized last week that these awkward little gatherings which occur whenever we get word of a local homicide (far too often) have actually helped me develop a heart for the city in a very tangible way.
Sometimes the victims of the violence have been young men or women stuck in the middle of gang life and culture. Sometimes the victims have been homeless criminals with very little indication that anyone had mourned their passing.
When we circle around these locations where the violence occurred we take notice and we take a few moments to simply listen to the information about the individual that had been given to us by people in the neighborhood or whatever the media provided.
It occurred to me that this idea of acquiring a heart for someone or for a city has much to do with the lost art of listening. I listen to a lot of noises throughout the course of a day… dogs barking, sirens and babies crying, angry yelling, coffee makers percolating, bass bumping out of speakers, etc. But the question must be asked, “Beyond all the daily static what is it that we’re actually hearing?”
In his book, Anam Cara, John O’Donohue writes,
“There is a very important distinction to be made between listening and hearing. Sometimes we listen to things, but we never hear them. (Seems like I’ve heard this from my wife before) True listening brings us in touch even with that which is unsaid and unsayable. Sometimes the most important thresholds of mystery are places of silence.” (p71)
When myself and others stand at the site of recent violence we recite some meaningful liturgy and the ensuing response is… silence. And it doesn’t feel very productive and we're reminded of all the work that needs to be done that day. Important and pressing work actually. This idea of listening comes off as a very passive activity. It often feels like I’m not helping anyone or changing anything.
I notice that when I’m deeply listening like this I feel like I have no control over the person or the place I’m listening to. If I can carefully consider sitting aside my reactionary judgments and knee-jerk criticisms to truly listen... I become vulnerable. And vulnerability is awkward and consequently avoided. This is why we seldom openly receive the other with real compassion. We despise the vulnerability it requires of us.
True listening is really hard and so my typical reaction is to simply talk louder and more desperately.
Amidst the mind numbing frenzy of daily words exchanged (and social media doesn't do us any favors here!) and the other surrounding annoying noises I do share a suspicion with others. The suspicion is that if we can filter through all the static we'll discover something Holy. Phillip Newell in his book, One foot in Eden, explains this well,
“To discern the holy in all that has been born may at times seem impossible, and especially in those whom we do not like or in those who have committed terrible crimes or in ourselves when we have been untrue. But central to the gospel is the conviction that the goodness of God is there at the heart of each life yearning to be set free, to be born again. The mystery of which we are a part, says St. Paul, is that the whole of creation is groaning in labour for the fullness of what God is desiring to give birth to in our lives and in all life." (p20)
When we do something as intense as gathering at the site of a crime or in the simplicity of sitting across the table with a friend the temptation I feel is that God isn’t there to begin with and that the ground we’re standing on and the space between us isn't all that sacred. And this hints toward the significant importance of deep listening.
As followers of Jesus we have the task of listening from a different authority. This might sound extreme, but as people of the Incarnation as God’s co-creators we can actually listen people into existence helping them discover talents, beauty, and value they didn’t know they possessed. In this light, true, deep, authoritative listening becomes a big deal. And ultimately, I'm beginning to believe it’s how we acquire a heart for something.
(Notice both authors referenced are authorities on Celtic spirituality. They seem to know a little something about listening...)