Thursday, April 19, 2012

Listening at it’s best

Lately I’ve been thinking more about how tough it is to really listen. Maybe you can relate to this too. What got me started was an article I read in the Feb 13, 2012 issue of the America magazine entitled, “Vatican II at 50” by Richard Gaillardetz. Gaillardetz focused on Conversation starters: Dialog and Deliberation during Vatican II. He remarked that one of the dynamic characteristics of Vatican II dialogs was humble learning.

According to Gaillardetz, Vatican II reminded us that all disciples of Jesus are lifelong learners. And that this is as true for the pope as it is for children preparing for first Communion. And research has shown us that the greatest barrier to listening is, “having your mind so steadfastly made up that there is no room for dialog, no room for 'being a student' ” in the presence of someone who thinks differently than I. Christ was only impatient toward those who were arrogant in their certitude.

I cringe when I think of how often I have my response ready for anyone who disagrees with me on a given topic, even before they have had a chance to tell me why they value certain aspects of their lived-truths on this same topic. I can hardly ever stop my chain-of-thoughts unless I figure out a way to really be quiet long enough to take in what they are trying to tell me.

So far, the only ear-opening behavior I have found to learn from others, is to “Sit still, be quiet, and then ask them to give me an example of what leads them to value their opinion on the topic at hand." Often their example provides ample room for dialog that is both humbling and open.

I’m here to confess that I fail at this oftener than I succeed. That doesn’t keep me from continuing to try to hang out with others who think differently than I, so that my life-long-learning-lens can include an expanded view of unfolding lived-truths. I certainly know the safety I feel when I have been with someone who respectfully provided me the time and space to be- honest-out-loud in their presence.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Jeremy was born with a twisted body and a slow mind. At the age of 12 he was still in second grade, seemingly unable to learn. His teacher, Doris Miller, often became exasperated with him. He would squirm in his seat, drool, and make grunting noises. At other times, he spoke clearly and distinctly, as if a spot of light had penetrated the darkness of his brain. Most of the time, however, Jeremy just irritated his teacher.

One day she called his parents and asked them to come in for a consultation. As the Forresters entered the empty classroom, Doris said to them, "Jeremy really belongs in a special school. It isn't fair to him to be with younger children who don't have learning problems. Why, there’s a five-year age gap between him and the other students."

Mrs. Forrester cried softly into a tissue while her husband spoke. "Miss Miller," he said, "there is no school of that kind nearby. It would be a terrible shock for Jeremy if we had to take him out of this school. We know he really likes it here."

Doris sat for a long time after they had left, staring at the snow outside the window. Its coldness seemed to seep into her soul. She wanted to sympathize with the Forresters. After all, their only child had a terminal illness. But it wasn't fair to keep him in her class. She had 18 other youngsters to teach, and Jeremy was a distraction. Furthermore, he would never learn to read and write. Why waste any more time trying?

As she pondered the situation, guilt washed over her. Here I am complaining when my problems are nothing compared to that poor family, she thought. Lord, please help me to be more patient with Jeremy.

From that day on, she tried hard to ignore Jeremy's noises and his blank stares. Then one day, he limped to her desk, dragging his bad leg behind him. “I love you, Miss Miller," he exclaimed, loudly enough for the whole class to hear.

The other students snickered, and Doris's face turned red. She stammered, "Wh-why, that's very nice, Jeremy. N-now please take your seat."

Spring came, and the children talked excitedly about the coming of Easter. Doris told them the story of Jesus and then, to emphasize the idea of new life springing forth, she gave each of the children a large plastic egg. "Now," she said to them, "I want you to take this home and bring it back tomorrow with something inside that shows new life. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Miss Miller," the children responded enthusiastically--all except for Jeremy. He listened intently, his eyes never leaving her face. He did not even make his usual noises. Had he under-stood what she had said about Jesus' death and resurrection? Did he understand the assignment? Perhaps she should call his parents and explain the project to them.

That evening, Doris' kitchen sink stopped up. She called the landlord and waited an hour for him to come by and unclog it. After that, she still had to shop for groceries, iron a blouse, and prepare a vocabulary test for the next day. She completely forgot about phoning Jeremy's parents.

The next morning, 19 children came to school, laughing and talking as they placed their eggs in the large wicker basket on Miss Miller's desk. After they completed their math lesson, it was time to open the eggs.

In the first egg, Doris found a flower. "Oh yes, a flower is certainly a sign of new life," she said. "When plants peek through the ground, we know that spring is here."

A small girl in the first row waved her arm. "That's my egg, Miss Miller," she called out.

The next egg contained a plastic butterfly, which looked very real. Doris held it up. "We all know that a caterpillar changes and grows into a beautiful butterfly. Yes, that's new life, too."

Little Judy smiled proudly and said, "Miss Miller, that one is mine."

Next, Doris found a rock with moss on it. She explained that moss, too, showed life. Billy spoke up from the back of the classroom. "My daddy helped me," he beamed.

Then Doris opened the fourth egg. She gasped. The egg was empty. Surely it must be Jeremy's she thought, and of course, he did not understand her instructions. If only she had not forgotten to phone his parents. Because she did not want to embarrass him, she quietly set the egg aside and reached for another. Suddenly, Jeremy spoke up. "Miss Miller, aren't you going to talk about my egg?"

Flustered, Doris replied, "But Jeremy, your egg is empty." Jeremy looked into her eyes and said softly, "Yes, but Jesus' tomb was empty, too."

Time stopped. When she could speak again, Doris asked him, "Do you know why the tomb was empty?"
"Oh, yes," Jeremy said, "Jesus was killed and put in there. Then His Father raised Him up."

The recess bell rang. While the children excitedly ran out to the school yard, Doris cried. The cold inside her melted completely away. Three months later, Jeremy died. Those who paid their respects at the mortuary were surprised to see 19 eggs on top of his casket, all of them empty.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Instant They Surrender

I have been enamored lately with spring: trees bearing green buds, crocuses announcing the beginning of a new season, tulips springing up, and bright yellow daffodils greeting me on my walks. Every year the wonder of spring amazes me. As I prepare for Holy Week at the monastery, I am aware of how nature parallels the Easter season and the Paschal mystery. Life comes from death. Death cannot overpower life and resurrection. Amazingly, our spirit witnesses that same process in conversion and the journey of our lives.

In a reflection titled, “The Courage of the Seed,” Mark Nepo writes:

All the buried seeds
crack open in the dark
the instant they surrender
to a process they can’t see.
                                                  -- The Book of Awakening

Spring discloses a powerful lesson. All around us, everything small and buried surrenders to a process that none of buried parts can see. And this innate surrender allows everything edible and fragrant to break out of the dark and damp ground into a life we call spring.

Quietly, nature offers us countless models of how to give ourselves over to what appears dark and hopeless, but is really an awakening beyond imagining. Moving through the dark into more abundant life is the Easter of our soul. Like a seed “cracking open” in the process of becoming, may Holy Week open us to the mystery of God’s love blossoming into divine beauty.