Listening for God with the Ear of the Heart

Jeremiah R. Grosse
Reproduced with Permission

In the opening sentences of the Prologue to his Holy Rule, St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) offers the following piece of advice to anyone wishing to enter his community:

Listen, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.1

While it is true that the Rule of St. Benedict was written in the sixth century, the fact is that, even today, this rule is still being followed by monks, nuns, and oblates all over the world. The wisdom of this Rule is available to all and the hope is that as many as possible will benefit from it. It is my intention to examine the idea of listening “with the ear of the heart” so that others may glean some new insight regarding the importance of listening.

When St. Benedict urges one to listen, he is not simply speaking about listening as we traditionally perceive it. He is not speaking about listening in the way that we might listen to a song or a joke, instead, he invites us in this phrase from the Book of Proverbs and Psalm 43 to “incline the ear of our heart” We must have a receptive understanding, a trustful attitude towards the truth that is proposed to us.2

A distinction must be made between hearing and listening. One can hear the words of the Rule without ever applying them to one’s own life. St. Benedict is not speaking of passive listening, but of an active engagement with the Rule.

One of the major obstacles to such listening is either the conscious or unconscious aversion that many people have to silence. We live in an age where we are bombarded by constant noise. This noise can take many forms: car radio, iPOD, television, or continuous idle chatter. This aversion to silence has even found its way into our public worship, in terms of the fact that almost every second of the Eucharistic liturgy has to be filled with some noise, including a mini organ recital after reception of Holy Communion. Silence seems to scare us; however, there is a long tradition among monastic writers which emphasizes the importance of silence in order to be present to God so that one can hear with the ear of the heart. Silence is born of an attentiveness to God’s presence in our lives and puts us at the disposal of the word which will be spoken to our heart.3

In his Conferences, John Cassian speaks of two types of “compunction” of the heart.

The first is a sense of “joy” which wells up in the human heart and helps one to become aware of the presence of God. The second is different from the first in that it arises from and remains in profound silence. Cassian uses the Latin phrase taciturnitas (from which the word “taciturnity” is derived) to describe this first type of compunction which he refers to as “the amazement of sudden illumination”.4

The question is whether there is any connection between these two types of compunction. Diadocus offers a connection between the two, by stating:

When [the soul] is energized by the Holy Spirit, it sings and prays with all relaxation and sweetness in the solitude of the heart… This [disposition is accomplished by] spiritual tears and, after them, a kind of strong desire that loves silence, for the memory remains fervent because of the restraint of the voice, and prepares the heart to bear only ideas that are entirely tearful and soothing. Thus one sees the seeds of prayer sown in the earth of the heart with tears, in hope of the joy of the harvest.5

Diadocus’ comment also links the phrases to hear (audire) and to obey (obaudire) together. To hear does not simply mean to listen to words, but to actually put them into practice through obedience. This connection cannot be overemphasized since it is possible for one to hear the word of God and reject it. The offering of obedience to the Rule and the abbot does not involve merely offering lip service, but actually giving one’s heart and will to the community so that the person is transformed as result of this obedience.

Therefore there seems to be a connection between silence, listening, and obedience. Is this connection a contrivance of my own making or does such a connection truly exist? In the Seventh chapter of the Holy Rule, St. Benedict uses the world taciturnitas; however, the word appears to have a different meaning than the one given to it by John Cassian. In the ninth step of humility, St. Benedict states that the motivation for silence should be the avoidance of sinning with one’s tongue. This is a much different use of the word from the translation given by John Cassian. John Cassian speaks of the fact that restraint of speech enables one to bear ideas which are tearful and soothing.6 There is no mention of the possibility of sinning with one’s tongue. While John Cassian would have possibly agreed with St. Benedict’s use of the word taciturnitas, the fact is that they have two very different emphases.

What is the reason for the listening, silence, and obedience? Are we doing these things for their own sake? “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent” (RB 49:1).

The Holy Season of Lent is a time of conversion and transformation when Christians enter, more fully, into the mystery of Jesus’ suffering and death in order to experience His resurrection more fully in their own lives at Easter.

The Holy Rule gives the reader a clear indication of St. Benedict’s personal spirituality and devotion to Sacred Scripture. In Chapter Forty-nine, St. Benedict states that the reason for Lenten abstinence is to help the monk to offer to God something of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit. (1 Thess 1:6) The idea of conversion has its roots in the Hebrew word “shub” which means a turning. Penance in the Hebrew Scriptures is a religious and personal act which involves the whole person and its goal is love and surrender to God. This turning involves more than merely an outward observance of the Law, but a conversion of heart and mind. A merely dutiful observance of the Law, in terms of wearing sackcloth, placing ashes on one’s head, and fasting are wholly insufficient.7 The Prophet Joel makes the point quite clearly when he states:

Rend your hearts, not your garments and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is He, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. (Joel 2:13)

This call to conversion is always a gift from God; it never comes about simply through human efforts (see Jer 31:18)8

In the New Testament two Greek words are employed to describe conversion: metanoein and epistephin. These two words are virtually synonymous. Metanoein stresses a change of heart, while epistephein tends to emphasize practical conduct. In place of “conversion”, which does not appear at all in the Gospel according to John, we find pairs of antithetical terms: light and darkness, truth and lies, love and hate, life and death, God and world. Hearing Jesus’ word, believing the Good News, involves a turning from one of the other.9

This notion of conversion is not simply a one-time only experience which takes place at baptism and requires no further work. It involves taking up one’s cross daily and experiencing the death and resurrection of Jesus in one’s own life. The idea of shubbing (turning) away from the world and toward God can only take place, as stated earlier through the grace of God. In order to be open to the grace of God it is essential, according to St. Benedict, that one be open to His word in Scripture through communal prayer, personal prayer, and sacred reading or lectio divina. Prayer and sacred reading open one’s heart to the Divine Word and enable one to take the necessary steps to help bring about a personal conversion. The monastic vow of conversatio morum (fidelity to the monastic life) involves a daily conversion on the part of the monk.

I began this paper by discussing the idea of listening to the master’s instruction with the ear of the heart and raised the question, “why the ear of the heart?” A careful examination of the Rule of St. Benedict and the Scriptural tradition from which he borrows, indicates that the heart and the will are united. St. Benedict is very careful not to speak of a merely intellectual conversion, where one simply knows what ought to be done. Instead, he speaks of a conversion of both heart and mind. The danger of a merely intellectual conversion is that one can become convinced that by simply following the law, he or she will be converted. This notion contradicts the spirit of the law present in the Hebrew Scriptures and is directly challenged by Jesus in the New Testament. As the Prophet Joel stated, we are to “rend your heart” which involves turning one’s passions and will away from sin and death, while, at the same time, turning toward the Lord Jesus.

The idea of listening with the ear of the heart is not simply a nice idea or a pleasant thought, but goes to the core of the Christian message. Conversion is a daily experience and one needs to continuously be turning toward God while listening for God ‘s word with the ear of the heart.

End Notes

1. Fry, Timothy RB1980 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1980), p. 157   [Back]

2. Delatte, Paul Commentary on the Holy Rule of St. Benedict (London: Burns and Oates, 1959), p. 2  [Back]

3. Cummings, Charles Monastic Practices (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1986) p. 96   [Back]

4. Stewart, Columba Cassian the Monk (NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 127  [Back]

5. Stewart, p. 127  [Back]

6. Stewart, p. 127  [Back]

7. Bohr, David Catholic Moral Tradition [Second Edition] (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1999) p. 93  [Back]

8.Bohr, p. 93  [Back]

9. Bohr, p. 94  [Back]