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The Monastic Way

If there were ever going to be a patron saint of listeners, surely it should be Mary's cousin Elizabeth, the wisdom figure to whom she went when she realized that she was pregnant with Jesus. If there were ever a moment in history—in life—that needs understanding, needs acceptance, needs personal support, this private moment, this surprising moment, is one of the great ones.

Not to forget that Elizabeth was also pregnant. She had her own reasons to ignore Mary's need. After all.... But the patron saint of listeners knows that listening to someone—really listening to them: the look on their faces, the rate of their speech, the unique sound of their voice, the heaviness of their breath, the slow, slow, slowness of their telling of the story—means being asked to move a boulder off their heart.

To miss all those other signs of tension, of fear, of shame, of sadness, of pain because we're flipping through the pages of a magazine as the person tries to talk to us, is to miss the whole message.

It is to make inhuman the human dimension of the world. When we consider chat to be conversation and conversation as nothing important, we reduce our own humanity metric. How tone deaf can a real human being be?

Who hasn't had a secret, a burden, that they could not share with everyone they knew but had to share with someone or collapse from the weight of it? And found no one who would listen. All of them, too busy. Too irritated. Too disinterested. Too into looking at their watch or checking their phones.

Who hasn't tried to talk to someone but couldn't get a word in edgewise as they simply disregarded what you said? And that made you feel what?

Who hasn't wanted to share their pain with someone and only had it denied—as in "Oh, that's not so bad; wait till you hear my story!"

Who hasn't planned for hours how to say a thing to someone and one sentence into the little speech we’re told to "just forget it." And did you? Ever?

Who hasn't wanted some advice but never got to explain the situation and so never got any?

Then, ignored so often, so completely, how long was it before you tried again? With anyone? What did you do with the frustration that comes from being rendered invisible over and over again?

Oh, yes, we're great talkers these days. We "message" and "text," we send long emails and videos. We crow about what it means for "the whole world to be connected." And then we listen to no one but ourselves.

Conversation, ironically, has become a lost art in this wired world, this communication bonanza we're in. Now it's simply a matter of learning to interrupt our way around the world, or of shouting over the tops of everyone else's comments to be the center of attention, the control chief of the conversation. Or better yet, when we get caught in that kind of a pseudo-conversation, we can just forget it, buy a good book, and quit trying.

The one nice thing about quitting is that, after all, there's absolutely nothing to lose. No friendship—since there obviously isn't one; no conversation because conversation requires a person on each end talking about the same thing; no confidant with whom to share something—because a real confidant wants to share it, not dismiss it.

So, what to do? Find a pet, a companion bird…? Or maybe we might all pray more intensely and intentionally to St. Elizabeth, the patron saint of listeners.

—from the August 2020 edition of The Monastic Way