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Reflections: Listening

By Canon Theologian Morwenna Ludlow

I’ve spent a lot of time on trains over the past few weeks. And since I don’t like listening to music or podcasts while I travel, I’ve spent a lot of time listening. Listening, for example, to the sounds of different trains with distinctive sounds on different kinds of track. Listening to the same train speed through a flat plain then gradually slow as we crossed the mountains. Listening to the hubbub of a packed coach: excited children, stressed parents, anxious travellers asking questions, announcements from the guard. Overheard conversations (trying to identify the rock band travelling to a festival on an early morning train and worrying whether they’d get to the sound check on time). Listening to the quieter sounds of a carriage of passengers settled into a long journey: the rustle of food packets; a water bottle chinking; the occasional hurrumph from a dog I hadn’t realised was tucked under a seat.

It is very clear from this that listening is by no means the same as silence. It’s a kind of disposition towards our surroundings – a willingness to pay attention; being ready to be in a receptive frame of mind. It’s often easier if the world around us is not too noisy. It’s also easier if we ourselves are quiet. But my quiet receptivity is not the same as silence.

One of my tasks this summer has been to write a conference paper about what is often described as the first Christian experience of an extended period of silence. In 382 Gregory, Bishop of Nazianzus, imposed on himself a strict discipline: he would not talk for the entire length of Lent. The previous year Gregory had been deeply involved in the Council of Constantinople. The argumentative proceedings infuriated him – not least because he had been forced to resign. His fellow bishops, he said later, were like a bunch of rowdy teenage boys or a flock of cackling magpies. He describes his self-imposed silence as a means of curbing his temper after this unhappy episode. He clearly felt that he was in danger of letting his tongue run away with him.

But Gregory’s decision not to talk was not the same as submitting himself to silence. It is very likely that he continued to participate in communal worship by listening in. Friends came to visit him, and he listened to them but without replying. They clearly found this very odd, so he followed the visits up with letters explaining his eccentric behaviour. As this shows, Gregory did not cease to write. But he tells us that by not speaking he had to write more slowly, no longer dictating letters or sermons to a scribe, as would be normal for a bishop or politician or man of business, but forced to pick up the pen himself. In the poetry written during this time he writes frequently of his body, as if being in receptive mode made him more attentive not just to others but also to himself. And he writes too in these poems about the necessity for the theologian to listen to God.

This “slow writing” was for Gregory a way of regaining a more measured way of life, of regaining a balance he felt he had lost. But it seems that he did this by giving himself not complete silence, but rather the opportunity to listen: to listen to his friends, to himself and to God.