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Between Speaking and Listening

By the Rev’d Phil Wales

The ability to read and write is a fundamental skill which we typically learn very early on in life. For many of us the process of doing so is unlikely to be without its difficulties at some stage. Thankfully, our understanding of how we learn, both as children and adults (our neurodiversity if you will), has become much more sophisticated in recent years. As a result, there are now a variety of different approaches to help overcome what were once looked upon as insurmountable obstacles.

Once we have developed any skill, even one which has been hard won, we can reach a plateau in using it. We may become stuck in a groove and therefore overlook opportunities to put such gifts to work in new ways. Three seemingly unrelated events which occurred in relatively quick succession over the last week or so jolted me out of this ‘taken for granted’ mindset and invited me to engage more deeply in the world around me. Each in their own way helped me see afresh God’s unfolding act of creation taking place, even in the smallest of day-to-day interactions.

The first was a re-watching of To Sir with Love. I have seen the film several times but there always seems to be something new to glean from this classic film based on the autobiographical novel by E.R. Braithwaite. This time around, among other things, I was taken aback by the huge variation in the reading ability of Mr Thackeray’s class of 15-year-olds. On the first morning with his new class Mr Thackeray asked several of them to read aloud. The variation in ability was striking; from the extremely hesitant and underconfident to the mellifluous and accomplished.

The next insight came in the form of an almost throwaway remark made by a hiking friend which gave me pause for thought. Over the course of their career, they had read countless reports, briefings and other work-related documents but, in recent years, post work, their skill had found a new outlet. They had begun to make time to read aloud, for everyone’s pleasure, to a group of people who were no longer able to do so for themselves.

The third moment of revelation came soon afterwards. Along with many others, I was fortunate to be read to by an ensemble who enacted a dramatised reading of the whole of Mark’s Gospel. I’ve no doubt that this unique form of telling the Good News will be spoken and written about by others for some time to come. For me, it was a very moving and inspiring occasion and one, I hope, will be repeated.

But it is less the action of the readers in each of these scenarios that I have found myself musing on, than noticing the experience of being read to. Reading quietly to oneself is what we are encouraged to do almost as soon as we have acquired the skill. And now that audio books are so popular the pleasure of being read to has taken another turn. We have entered a world of private listenership where other people’s voices stream into our heads through wireless earbuds rather than reading being the collective, shared experience it has been for thousands of years.

There is, I now see, something profound, mysterious, when reading aloud, in the relationship between reader and listener. In between the words uttered and heard we can glimpse, and may feel, something of God’s ongoing act of creation and interaction with the world and the people he has made.