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Listening

"Listen next time. Listen when someone speaks to you." - David Malter to his son, Reuven; The Chosen

Do you ever have those seasons when you keep hearing the same message from God over and over again? You know: when you keep hearing a similar message spoken to you, coming to you in a conversation with this friend and then another friend?

I have been going through one of those times recently. In the last few weeks, I keep getting these little nudges from God to "listen." It began a week and a half ago when I was down in St. Meinrad, Indiana at a beautiful monastery built by German Catholics, a place dedicated to the practice of listening to God.

Nudge #2 came as I reread Henri Nouwen's little gem of wisdom titled The Way of the Heart. He talks about how true prayer (true listening) comes from quieting our minds and hearts, especially through silence.

And, again God was calling me to open up my ears and heart this past Sunday. The nudge came as we explored and discussed and prayed Psalm 131, which includes the wonderful image of a weaned child who has learned to calm and quiet her soul.

But, really, the nudge that sent me over the edge - into a refreshing pool of grace - came as I neared the end of a book I've been reading lately titled The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. In order to help you understand how this book truly opened me up to God's voice I will have to give you a bit of the background.

The Chosen is the fictional story of two Jewish boys growing up in New York - one of them the son of a Hasidic rabbi and the other the son of a Jewish scholar and professor. However, of the two boys it is Danny, the son of the rabbi, who stands above his friend and counterpart.

Danny, we discover, has been given a mind on par with the wisest of men - including that ancient ruler, Solomon. To say that Danny has a photographic memory is not enough. Sure, he can quickly scan and consume whole books, but his gift goes beyond mere memorization. Danny's mind dissects and sees, references and pieces together thoughts. It is much like a machine, which to many appears as a great gift.

But, Danny's father, a respected rabbi named Reb Saunders, knows that this great gift is also a potential curse. Danny, his son, has been given a tool that can mine the something potent and volatile, something that can lead Danny directly away from God: knowledge.

Reb Saunders knows his son will require special care and direction. His desire, as a father, is to nurture and cultivate the boy's soul, not just his mind, which he explains in a dramatic moment:

"A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul; the rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into a flame. It must learn to seek out other sparks, it must dominate the shell. Anything can be a shell. Anything. Indifference, laziness, brutality, and genius. Yes, even a great mind can be a shell and choke the spark."

He goes on to lament how difficult it can be to fan the flame of a boy's soul when that boy is so knowledgeable and so curious. It is agonizing because Reb Saunders desires one thing in his boy: a compassionate heart:

"... [God] blessed me with a brilliant son. And he cursed me with all the problems of raising him ... Ah, what a curse it is, what an anguish it is to have a Daniel, whose mind is like a pearl, like a sun ... A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!"

So, Reb Saunders, is left to ponder in his own mind how he will indeed cultivate his boy's soul and not just his mind. His conclusion is one that bewilders many. Reb Saunders decides that his son will only learn to hear his soul if he knows suffering. And that is why he does the unthinkable: for the duration of the boy's childhood all the way through his adolescence until the day he graduates from college Reb Saunders does not speak to his son. He, instead, covers Danny with silence.

That is the torment Danny must encounter. He must suffer a painful silence in order to learn the cry of the heart, the voice of the soul. "In the silence between us," Reb Saunders says, "[Danny] began to hear the world crying." And more than that, Danny began to hear the voice of God in his heart.

That is the irony of silence: it allows us to hear again. In the absence of many voices, we become aware of all voices.

Cultivating silence in our lives is a critical practice for us as disciples of Jesus Christ. It is also one of those practices that can seem frightening the first few times we try it. Naturally so. When we first try to sit silently we are amazed at how "noisy" and "crowded" our minds can be. Violent, harsh voices can come to the surface; confusion and chaos can seem to dominate our mind. But, we shouldn't be deterred by how busy or convoluted our minds are.

Little by little we can learn to calm and quiet our minds, to learn to listen to God.

That is why I imagine I've been getting these nudges from God time and again. God, like Reb Saunders, is trying to get me to listen to the pain and hope of his people and even to my own hopes and fears. God - like a patient Rabbi - longs to develop within me a soul ... a soul that can love God and others.

~Wes

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