During Lent we generally become more intentional in our spiritual lives, often referring to this process as surrendering our will and attempting to do better at conforming to what God desires for us. However, surrender is not a word that people in our culture find palatable because we think of it as a sort of ‘raising the white flag’ of defeat. In spiritual terms, surrender is not about defeat at all, but rather it is about victory. In an act of immense love Jesus surrendered to the will of the Father in Gethsemane, an act which led to His victory over sin and death. For us, surrender means we come to know more clearly that we need God who is ever the victorious one. Surrender also means that we are focused on the other (in this case, God) rather than on ourselves. Truly, surrender is not a giving away of power, but is a change of attentiveness, a choice to focus away from self to the other, and especially to God. Thus, spiritual surrender is not something we should fear, but rather it is something to which we aspire. It is a gift we give which helps our growth in holiness. Surrender begins, therefore, with a simple act: the act of listening with undivided attention. This listening means I have let go of self, that I refocus my attention, and that I am meeting you where you are, not where I want you to be. Listening is an act of love because I freely choose to be totally with you.
To surrender to God is part of the Lenten journey, and it requires that we trust God to have our best interests in mind even if we do not understand the process. This means that what we are attempting to achieve in our spiritual growth is to step aside and let God guide the way, something which He does not force upon us, but offers in love. It is the ultimate act of our love for Him that we affirmatively respond. To do this, we must listen to find out what it is that God is asking or telling us; if we do not learn to listen to Him we will have all sorts of false ideas about what we fear He might ask, instead of considering that He desires what will help us grow closer to Him. In short, He wants to love us into Paradise, that we would be with Him for eternity.
In an article in the February edition of Magnificat Jem Sullivan wrote an article about a painting which depicts a famous scene between St. Benedict and his twin sister St. Scholastica.* In recounting the story behind the painting, Sullivan reminded the reader that the Rule of St. Benedict begins with the word: “Listen!” When we listen to one another, we truly connect, and of course this includes connection with God. Listening is the most important part of discerning the will of God. If we only talk but never become quiet, if we do not focus on what He might be calling us to do, then there is no real discernment going on and there is less of a connection between our heart and His. As Sullivan concludes, “...listening is born of love.” The more we listen to God, the more we recognize the love He has for us which enables us in turn to share the Good News of that love with others. Love moves us outward in service to others, enabling us listen to their hearts, too.
To be clear, listening to God does not mean we are going to hear words spoken. While that is possible, it is exceedingly rare. What it does mean is that we are opening our hearts to God. Listening means attuning our senses to beauty, compassion, what comes to us as inspiration or alights in our imagination; it means being sensitive to words and deeds of goodness, and especially the presence of others; it means attentiveness to things happening around and within us, movements of gratitude, mercy, love, and action which arise in our hearts; in other words, anything which leads us closer to God is His voice. Therefore, listening entails a change from habitually focusing on ourselves, to surrendering self-centeredness in order to turn our focus to God.
The gospels for the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays in Lent are all about listening. (These are read at Masses when people who are coming into the Church at Easter are present). On the third Sunday, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. He is a Jew traveling through her country, yet He addresses her, something which shocks her completely. Only because He is truly listening does she continue to respond to Him. In fact, He listens so deeply that He is able to ascertain her truest desires which are for love, acceptance, healing from her sins, and ultimately to have eternal life. She is not a bad person although she is shunned for living with a man not her husband; rather, she is a woman who surrenders her defenses (shifts her focus) so that she might listen and then respond in honesty. It is her willingness to listen which enables her to hear what Jesus is offering. Her sincere response of joy and gratitude is so powerful that the entire town hears her and responds also.
On the fifth Sunday of Lent, Jesus restores Lazarus back to life. In this passage the two sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, separately approach Jesus and have encounters which are almost identical. Both women have learned how to listen deep within their hearts and therefore they trust Him. But we also see the great listening ability of Jesus: He not only hears their words, but also their pain at losing their beloved brother. He hears so acutely that He enters into their suffering and thus, He weeps. Most stunning is that Jesus speaks but three words, “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead man hears and obeys! Such is the power of listening and hearing: to those who listen it brings wholeness, healing, and new life even in the midst of death, and therefore they truly hear the word spoken by Jesus.
During these next weeks of Lent we are encouraged to listen even more attentively for the Word of God in our works of abstinence, service, and generosity as well as in our prayer. We need to continue working at shifting our focus from ourselves to the other. We are called to meet Jesus in each person, whether it is the person we are serving in a soup kitchen, the checkout person as we buy our groceries, a family member, or friend. We are called to listen with all of our senses, allowing our eyes to meet, acknowledging that we are aware of the presence of the other, giving them the dignity of a sincere connection. A smile with our acknowledgement might even change the course of someone’s day. Let’s go further: when we see someone, let us greet them as if it was Jesus. We can truly be with those whose presence we are in, giving our undivided attention to the one who speaks as an act of surrender in refocusing our attention from ourselves to them. And if someone asks what is going on within us, we will be ever more grateful when we recognize the gift they are offering.
One of the best gifts God offers is that He listens to us. He never stops listening, and in His wisdom He directs us to that which we really need. If we want to grow in holiness and also in love of God, surrendering as an act of refocusing will create the proper disposition needed. Only when we listen, will we hear Jesus tell us of His love. With continued effort, we can enter even more deeply into Lent to discover the graces we seek and to give Jesus the gift of love He longs for. If we listen, we will discover the path is already before us and that it is not always difficult to find. And it is wide enough to invite all those who are lost to come along as well, so they can learn to listen with the heart, too.
May we have the courage to ask the Lord to help us learn to listen more attentively! May we desire to refocus our attention away from ourselves and turn it toward others! May we learn how to greet Jesus in the people we encounter! May we learn how to discern that which leads us closer to God by listening to the movements within our own heart as well as that which is around us! May we spend time letting the Gospels speak to our heart! And may we be moved outward toward our brothers and sisters, ministering through the sincere listening that comes with love and mercy! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* The quote is found in the February, 2018 issue of Magnificat and it is from Jem Sullivan, a writer on art, catechesis, and the New Evangelization. Note that the painting depicted here is not the same as the one in Magnificat.
Note: Next post March 26.
1. This is a photo which I took of Lyttleton Harbour just outside of Christchurch, New Zealand. There was a regatta of some sort going on, and in this photo you can see the boats just after the start of the race. I chose to use it here because the racers must focus on conditions and the positions of the markers, the other boaters, etc. They cannot afford to focus on themselves.
2. The second image is a painting of St. Scholastica and her twin brother, St. Benedict. It seemed perfect because she is clearly listening as he is speaking. (I suppose one could look at this as a bit of irony, too: he who wrote about listening could appear to be talking too much.)
3. This is a painting by Gustave Baumann called Point Lobos. (1946) I chose to use it here because it appears to be a place of solitude and beauty in which one could truly listen.
4. This is a work by the great painter of Scriptural scenes, Duccio Di Buoninsegna. It is The Woman at the Well. (1308-11) I chose to use it because I simply love his work. I especially love that he painted the well to look like a baptismal font rather than like a traditional well. "The water I shall give will become...a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:14)
5. This is one of my photos, taken in the gardens at Larnach Castle in Dunedin, New Zealand. I chose to use it here because it exemplifies clarity: the blind man now sees spiritually with a depth he did not have before. He could now recognize Jesus as the Son of God. Just as one has to look more closely to see the bee in this flower, we have to have a measure of courage to see and acknowledge to others what we have seen and heard.
6. This is The Raising of Lazarus by Giotto. (1306) I love this painting because there are so many witnesses to the miracle. Everyone is listening, and those who truly are aware of the presence of God within Jesus are kneeling in gratitude and humility.
7. This is called The Road Menders by Vincent van Gogh. (1889) I thought it worked well here because of the workers on the right side of the frame who must truly be aware of one another to repair the road correctly, but also I liked the woman on the left who seems to be paying close attention to them. Perhaps she is seeing Jesus among them?
8. This image was painted by Fr. William Hart McNichols and it is called Jesus Listen and Pray. I chose to use it here because it seemed to sum up what my post is about: during His life Jesus prayed and discerned the will of His Father, but He continually listens to us as well. You can find this image (and can order a copy in one of many mediums if you like) at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/jesus-listen-and-pray-251-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Heart Speaks to Heart