Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word
and believes in the one who sent me
has eternal life and will not come to condemnation,
but has passed from death to life. (Jn. 5:24)
This passage from the Gospel at Mass today reveals the importance of listening. To pass to eternal life we must hear and believe in the word of Christ. Doing this, though, requires that we listen to Him. Listening is an underdeveloped talent among many, quite possibly most, people today. Our ordinary relationships with family, friends, and coworkers, for example, often suffer from our poor listening. It can be even more difficult to listen to Christ, considering the manner in which His word comes to us. He speaks to us in the Scriptures, in the Mass, in silent prayer. But to be able to listen to Him in these forms we need interior calm and quiet.
Listening is a skill best developed – as many skills are – when young. With more difficulty it can be developed later in life. Educators John Senior, Dennis Quinn, and Franklyn Nelick emphasized listening in their Pearson Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. They forbade note taking because they wanted their students to listen to their conversations in class. Through listening, the students were drawn into these conversations and imbibed the enthusiasm of the professors for what the professors called the poetic mode of knowledge. Poetic knowledge is the fundamental way in which we know the world. It comes through the development and training of the senses and emotions by contact with the concrete objects around us. The images and intuitions that constitute this way of knowing serve as the basis for higher reasoning.
In some recorded talks, Senior and Quinn discuss listening at some length. They note that in modern industrialized society we are not often taught to “listen” to nature. This listening is key, however, to the development of poetic knowledge. By “listening” Senior and Quinn mean not just using our ears, but rather a sharpened attentiveness to nature that engages all our senses. Through the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches that our exterior senses drink in, our memory, imagination, and other interior senses are developed. Thus we come to know the physical reality around us. From the habit of listening to nature, natural piety develops. In other words, the intimate experience of natural things engenders in us a sort of reverence, deep wonder, and appreciation for them. By this, Senior and Quinn don’t mean an idealization of nature, but rather a closeness to it that leads us to respect its ways and marvel at its beauty and order. This, in turn leads us to God.
Natural piety, according to the two professors, is necessary for supernatural piety. For, without natural piety, supernatural piety loses an important support and can descend into pietism – an artificial or affected devotion. Such pietism tends toward pure sentimentality. Grace perfects and elevates nature. Grace supernaturalizes natural responses such that a created goal can be obtained more perfectly. It also creates the capacity to achieve the infinitely higher good of God, a supernatural capacity that mirrors our natural capacity. An example is provided by the human affection that exists in good familial relationships. The natural response of a child to his father is love. When we think of God as Father, our natural filial love for a father is inadequate, and God moves us to a higher, supernatural form of love. If our natural responses, that is, our passions and emotions, are shallow and poorly developed, then it is possible that our supernatural responses will also be shallow. For the natural, then, would not be at the service of the supernatural. St. John says it well: “Whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn. 4:20).
Love follows knowledge. You cannot love what you don’t know. To get to know your brother, listen to him. To get to know Christ, listen to Him too.
Image: Camille Corot, Goatherd Charming His Goat With a Flute