Jesus says in our gospel text: “My sheep hear my voice.” They hear my voice. They are listening to me. The greatest prayer in Judaism begins: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” This prayer is called the shema, from the first word “hear” or “listen.” This is the central prayer repeated over and over through life and the first one children are taught. When people asked Jesus what is the most important commandment, he quoted the shema: “Hear, O Israel” That’s number one, the most important thing to do: listen.
God continually invites people to listen through the Bible. The prophets call: “Listen to me, my people” (Isaiah 51). The psalmist cries, “Hear, O my people … oh, that you would listen to me.” (Psalm 81) Trouble comes when people do not listen to God. Blessing and healing occurs when they do listen, for listening is the beginning of conversion.
The Rule of St. Benedict opens with the words, “Listen, my son.” Listening is at the core of the Christian life, in whatever form of Christian community. Being God’s people, being Jesus’ sheep, being a Christian is essentially about listening, listening to one’s own soul, to one’s community, and most importantly to Jesus, the good shepherd.
How do we listen? “Be still and know that I am God,” says the Psalmist. Becoming still, coming to a stop. In our ever fast-paced culture, stopping is more difficult and more important. It’s so easy to be caught up in noise around and within, preoccupied with plans and intentions, good deeds and constant questions. Caught by our concerns and anxiously stroking them.
“Be still and know that I am God.” People often come on retreat to the monastery seeking stillness coming from lives and with hearts that are anything but still. It takes time and practice and persistence to become still. Not like simply flipping a switch.
It takes time to become still like the water in this vase, so still that the water is clear, and we can see through it. Much of our life is more like this as I mix it up and dark things go swirling, such that we can’t see through the water. My mind and life can get like this, turbulent, hazy, unclear, difficult to see and understand. It takes a while once choosing to stop, to let the swirl subside and the sediment settle, to the let the water clear such that one can see, one can hear.
We brothers find cultivating silence helpful for stillness and making space to listen. Choosing times not to speak, and choosing times to let go of and diminish the inner voices. Silence is important not because there aren’t good things to be said but rather there are good things to hear which we otherwise might miss without silence.
Silence offers the soul what punctuation offers language, a way to stop, demarcate, and define. Without punctuation, words pile up one after another unending, becoming meaningless. Punctuation creates limits, necessary space to separate and define coherent thoughts. They define clauses and sentences so one can make meaning of the words. Similarly, silence helps us stop, gives necessary space to separate and see our lives. Silence helps punctuate our lives so that we can stand back and make meaning of so much action, input and emotion.
As we say in our Rule of Life: “Powerful forces are bent on separating us from God, our own souls, and one another through the din of noise and the whirl of preoccupation. Technology has intensified our risk of becoming saturated with stimuli.” We have to struggle against the all-too-easy and encouraged mode of being always available, perpetually plugged-in.
We have to struggle amid the many good things to be doing: loving family and neighbors, serving others, doing ministry, being church. Jesus reminds us, calls us again today to the most important thing, indeed a mark of being a Christian: “My sheep hear my voice.” They are listening.
How are you listening to Jesus? What is the punctuation in your life? Where is silence amid the many good things to be doing? When do you let the sediment of your life settle, let the water still so it’s clear, so you can hear?
“Be still and know that I am God.” Listen to me, Jesus says. Listen with still posture and eyes closed. Listen while walking or letting yourself dance. Listen looking up gazing at bright green-leafed trees. Listen kneeling in soil to tend plants springing to life. Stop to smell the flowers and listen. Jesus the good shepherd has so many good things to say to you. Be still and listen.
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