“Making Friends with the Habit of Listening”

I’ve never been a morning person. My body just does not like to wake up and get out of bed. I’m crabby and no fun to be around. It’s worse in the dark fall and winter seasons. A few months ago, though, I began a new morning habit. I creep downstairs and tend to a series of tasks: feeding the cat, putting away the clean dishes, getting Alice a bowl of cereal, fixing breakfasts, making coffee, and sipping that first blessed cup. Then I sit and I listen, letting go of my thoughts, welcoming God’s presence. Some mornings, I’m sleepy, while at other times, my brain is already spinning anxiously with the tasks and emotions. Whatever my own state of mind, I just try to gently return my focus to God, without judging myself or the experience. It’s still a struggle for me to get out of bed promptly. But I do it because I so look forward to this time of listening.

The story of the call of Samuel is all about listening. It’s not Samuel, however, but Eli, who interests me today. Eli was seemingly a slow processor, prone to misunderstanding the facts of a situation, and hesitant to act even when the need was clear. When Hannah prayed fervently and tearfully at the temple, Eli assumed at first that she was intoxicated. “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” he demanded to know. She set him straight, “I am a woman deeply troubled. . . . I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” (I Samuel 1: 12-18) Then, in Chapter 2 of I Samuel, we hear that Eli’s sons were “scoundrels.” They were abusing their position of power as priests, stealing from the offerings that the people brought, and assaulting the women who came to pray at the temple. Eli knew this, and let it go on for too long. Eventually he confronted his sons, but they did not listen to him.

As Eli grappled with this heartache, Samuel heard God calling in the night. I Samuel Chapter 3 begins this way:

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out.

 

Eli’s waning vision is a metaphor for the moral and spiritual incapacity of the temple institution and the corruption of the nation as a whole. The word of the Lord was rare. Perhaps the problem was not that God was silent, but that the people no longer knew how to listen. Even so, the lamp of God had not yet gone out. God was still present, doing God’s thing—radiating light and warmth, communicating insight and guidance. It seems to me that as 21st-century Christians, we live with a similar kind of spiritual disconnect. Consider how our ancestors in faith used our tradition to colonize this land. The attempt to wipe out indigenous peoples on this continent was a deeply “religious” project. Our ancestors labeled native people “savages” and made the practice of their religions illegal. Indigenous faiths, they believed, were irrational and unscientific. They were at best superstition and at worst, devil worship. Our government kidnapped children from their families and imprisoned them in boarding schools, punishing them severely if they continued to speak their own languages or to perform the ceremonies that gave meaning to their lives. This spiritual violence and trauma is still very much alive in us. It has of course done tremendous harm to native people. It has also harmed those of us who are Christian. The misuse of our faith tradition has interrupted our ability to draw strength and wisdom from our roots. It has meant that the church, as a whole, has not made a habit of listening to God, and has not passed along this spiritual capacity from one generation to the next.

I’ve been reading about the spiritual practices of the Celtic Christian church. Celtic Christianity developed in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, between the fifth and eleventh centuries, far from the influence of the Roman Empire. This form of Christianity is considered more “indigenous” than any other, because it blended respectfully and organically with pre-Christian traditions. In Ever Ancient, Ever New: Celtic Spirituality in the 21st Century, Dolores Whelan writes:

“The imaginal world is the region between the physical or material world and the spiritual world or ultimate mystery and source. This is the Celtic otherworld. . . . This otherworld is not an archetype produced by the unconscious mind, nor is it a product of fictional imagination. It is a dimension of reality that exists within the world and within the psyche or soul, the inner dimension of self. “(p. 24)

Reading these words, I had an “aha!” moment. I recognized that the healing of our spirits will come as we repair our connection to this “imaginal” world, as we learn, again, how to listen to this dimension of reality where the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine meet.

I’ve been listening intently this week to many voices. I listened to the strong, quiet voice of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I listened to the grief and fury of women all over this country who have endured sexual assault. I listened to the grating tones of incredibly powerful and privileged white men who believe they deserve the authority to decide whose voices count, whose stories matter, and whose suffering is real. I don’t think very many people disbelieve Dr. Ford. I think some people simply have decided that what Judge Kavanaugh did to her is a normal and acceptable part of masculinity. Traditional understandings of gender are not rooted in what’s good or healthy for anyone of any gender. These ideas exist to sustain a hierarchy of power: male over female, white over brown, straight over queer, Christian over non-Christian. I felt very angry this week, and as I listened to my own anger, I realized it was tangled up in a sense of powerlessness. I know that in this moment, it’s likely that certain powerful men will once again get away with discounting the very humanity of women. As I listen, though, I am hearing something else, too, something that sounds to me like the voice of God. In patriarchy’s intense indignation, I hear its waning influence. I hear the fearful cries of a system that cannot last much longer. I hear the distress that inevitably comes with a monumental shift of power, the discomfort that accompanies liberation.

For Eli, it took three tries to discern, given the dimness of his perception, that God was calling Samuel. The crucial moment came when Eli not only realized that God was speaking but also when he decided to help Samuel tune his ears to the divine voice. This moment, too, marked a profound shift of power. It was end of Eli’s authority and the beginning of Samuel’s. Now Samuel was the prophet, delivering God’s “ear-tingling” message to Eli—that the old priest and his sons will face a bitter end. I imagine Eli might have been tempted to lead Samuel astray. But the lamp of God had not yet gone out. Despite Eli’s flaws and hesitations, he was a man of insight and integrity. Samuel was afraid to tell Eli what he had heard, but Eli insisted. Eli replied, “It is God; let God do what seems good to God.” Eli had made a habit of listening to God. He understood that he was part of something larger than himself. He knew that, through Samuel, God was bringing moral and spiritual renewal to the temple and the nation. And he was willing to let go of his personal grasp on power so that something new could be born.

In the book of Ephesians, Paul says, “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” The church is a body called speak to each other and the world about what is loving and what is truthful. However, we can only speak with authority, with wisdom, with spiritual power when we are in the habit of listening. We must cultivate the discipline of prayerful communal discernment, opening ourselves to what is best for the whole of the community, the whole of creation. In her book, The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred, Christine Valters Paintner puts it this way:

“As spiritual seekers, we are called to live with one foot in the world of earthly and everyday experience. The other foot is in the transcendent realm where the divine breaks through our ordinary consciousness. To hold this kind of imaginal awareness is to recognize heaven on earth and the kingdom breaking through in each moment.” (p. 3-4)

Amen.