40 Days of Listening

While Easter’s celebratory garments drape uncomfortably over my skepticism and reserve, the discipline and severity of Lent can fasten all too well. A season of self-examination suits not only my desire for a considered life, but also my habit of ending each day in guilt and a shower of should haves. I appreciate the Lenten rituals of fasting amid the inertia of indulgence, but find the northern winter over-generous in restricting my experiences of joy.

And yet, if the seasons of the church have any meaning, it’s likely in their ability to shape my life rather than in my creativity appropriating them. One of the powers of ritual is the fact of it—that however I feel, it is Christmas. However I act, resurrection has come. However I judge, love has been given. Something of the stability of my faith depends on its ability to proceed without my permission.

I’ve practiced Lent through cultivating the hope of resurrection: planting and tending seedlings in loamy pots on the back of the piano. I’ve honored Christ’s embodiment by nurturing mine: picking up energy with weekly runs and pushing out stress with regular yoga. These practices have offered their gifts and exercised the muscles of discipline, but they’ve missed something of solidarity with the tomb. Something of dark, granite silence, even loneliness and the edges of panic, are necessary to this season.

I didn’t create the tomb. I wasn’t created for any tomb. But in the age of chipper self-help projects, one more activity is no way to honor the solemn season of my faith. Part of Mary Oliver’s “Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” speaks to my ambivalence at the season.

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

 so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?

I do need a prod. And a little darkness is one of the few things that can get me going on something deeper than the to-do list. This is the season in which I’m most envious of Buddhist vocabulary of balance and mindfulness. I wish my tradition had rituals for engaging suffering and sacrifice that didn’t so easily become acts of violence in my own life. I wish for a Lenten practice with unity of activity and contemplation—a way to reflect while in motion, and move in reflection. I want something more than weed whipping. I want a cultivar of wisdom and peace.

As I cast about for practices, I listened to an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh on mindfulness and engaged Buddhism. I heard him say “the root of ‘communication’ is the basic word for peace” and thought: Yes. But only if the root of communication is listening. Turns out I heard him wrong (which is predictable for a Dane and a dharma talk), but the cultural plinko landed a jackpot.

When we suffer, we listen. But listening is also the root of peace.

Jesus’ moments of deepest suffering come through the gospels as times of listening. The forty days of testing in the desert didn’t produce forty sermons or even forty proverbs. Gethsemane is a nighttime venture, and the last moments on the cross are those of deafening silence. The quietest, deepest span of Jesus’ work comes to us as a sealed tomb. When Jesus suffered, he wasn’t talking.

But Jesus’ listening is also a seed of peace. His willingness to live, and die, from a commitment to listening birthed lasting, transcendent, accessible peace.

If ever a season was built for cultivating listening, Lent is it. I need to listen more. I need it for my relationships and I need it for the good of my soul. But, also, listening is fit for tombs; tombs are built to carry and contain even the smallest whisper. The tomb may, in fact, be the best way God has found of getting us to listen at all.

So I begin this Lenten journey set on listening. Maybe darkness can be the prod that blesses the feet that take me to and fro. Maybe a passion of listening can tune me to the people whom I’m supposed to be loving with my life and to hearing the Spirit trying to love mine.

Listening: Act I

My first practice reveals how far I am from the deep river of attentiveness I want to have for others. The goal is embarrassingly small.

My devotion this week will be to pause before I ask for anything, watching for at least three seconds before I voice a request.

Can I learn to see my daughter’s experience of any moment is as full as mine? How will I change when I see my son encounters my pursuits as interruptions to his own?  Will considering my husband’s posture change my tone of voice?

If you’d like to join me in this practice of listening, please do. Over the next forty days, I’ll post the devotion I’ll be practicing each week. If I encounter other things that help me hear (or understand what it means to listen) I’ll post those too, but without commentary or anticipation of comment—simply as offerings on what may be a shared journey.

If you want to join in but are restricting media for your own Lenten journey, you can click “Follow this blog via email” in the sidebar and new posts will come your inbox.

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