Listening with the heart

Discover the art of of Holy Listening, A new way to intentionally meet people where their spirit is.
Discover the art of of Holy Listening, A new way to intentionally meet people where their spirit is.

How is it with your soul? It’s an ancient question the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was known to ask when connecting with followers of the early Methodist movement. A query that got right to point - no fluff, no chit chat, no stalling - just a direct inspection of your current status as a follower of Christ; a spiritual checkup.

It’s a question I regularly ask of my fellow clergy friends, nowadays more often than ever. We’ve been surrounded by what feels like the lite version of the end of the world. For the past six months we’ve learned many new things about our way of being, as well as pulled back the curtain on the vulnerabilities we never had the time to address. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question, it’s just yours.

What is a Holy Listener?

A person who sits with, prays with and supports their friends, family, neighbors and pretty much anyone when they share the struggles in their life. Someone who listens the other into clarity. Holy listening is the practice of emptying ourselves, becoming nothing and recognizing that we know nothing.

When words fail

Over the summer, I drove across the country to join my extended family in celebrating the gift of both my grandparents - aged 89 and 90 - beating COVID-19. While back, I had the opportunity to meet up with some friends I hadn’t seen for months not just because of social isolation, but also because I moved from the southwest in 2018. 

One friend in particular randomly texted me out of the blue when he saw my snap story announcing my arrival into Phoenix, he said he really wanted to get a coffee and catch up. We agreed to meet up in an east valley cafe. This was someone I hadn’t really had the chance to speak in person with for at least two years, so we had a lot to talk about.

A while into our conversation he asked me out of the blue, “Do you believe in God letting bad things happen to good people?” I stared blankly back at him. ‘This isn’t a religious person I’m talking with here, so how do I answer that question carefully?’ I thought.

I responded, “Sometimes things happen to people we love and admire beyond our control. I don’t believe God plots our demise.” He asked “Then why did God create this virus? What good has it brought in anyone’s life?”

Without a second thought I replied “My grandparents beat this virus, all the statistics were against them but they did! The good it brought me is another opportunity to spend time with all of my family and it’s the only reason I’m here talking with you! God doesn’t create nature to annihilate us, we are God’s creation. It’s our fault as humans for not preventing and treating this pandemic with greater care.”

His eyes were teared up and his face wiped with an expression of disbelief. “Why did God let my grandpa die from COVID alone then?”

My heart sank. No grace. No compassion. My words were meaningless because I spoke without understanding. Nothing about my response was gentle. I tried defending a God who doesn’t need defending. In seeking to console, I judged without knowing where his heart was.

I apologized for my ignorance. After that we went our separate ways and we haven’t spoken since. On the long drive back to the south I wrestled with this interaction I blew. Mile after mile of open skies I wondered ‘What could I have said instead?’ 

Our hearts speak

Months later, I came across a spiritual practice recommended by friends who are faith based therapists. A resource by Margaret Guenther titled “Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction”. In it, Margaret guides therapists and counselors with gentle yet firm ways to sit with a hurting soul, meeting them where they are, and moving forward together.

That was my flaw. I’d been asking the wrong question about my failed consolation for months. Instead of asking “What should I have said?” I should have asked “How should I have listened?” 

Holy listening isn’t some super power that can only be taught to those who attended seminary, in fact, it’s to society’s benefit that we all learn to listen with our hearts before we hear with our ears.

So what can we do with this? First, we can recognize that by humbling ourselves to openly listen and engage with those who long to be heard is the invitation to a spiritual relationship deeper than just hearing and conversation.