Listening

Image result for walking to listen

I’m reading a lovely book at the moment. I picked it up by chance and joined the library just to take it out. It has not disappointed.

It is more than the title says; far beyond a travelogue it is a deep soulful search into what it is to be human alongside the description of walking 4000 miles across America.

I’m currently about a fifth of a way through it and reading the story of someone whom he found hard to listen to: an evangelist:-

‘ I receive you’ the true listener says with her eyes, ‘I see you, no matter what you say, and I accept you, just as you are’. There’s a deeper kind of listening that is mutually exclusive with judgement and the desire to control or convert. Oddly enough, this kind of listening is the most subversively transformative; as soon as you don’t need someone to change their mind, they’re much more inclined to do so, because its not a fight. There’s no need to defend, and so it’s safe to explore something new. But that kind of listening isn’t easy, especially when what’s being heard  is abhorrent to you, when you know it’s causing harm. I didn’t want to receive the evangelist, or see him, or accept him. I tried to shut down, but he wouldn’t shut up’ (p77-78).

I sat with someone last week who began, in halting tones, to form what they believed. They talked about questions and struggles; things didn’t connect, but they were starting to.

And then someone preached. Well not preach exactly, but ‘correct’ what they said- tell them what the ‘right’ answers were. I could feel the harm and see the person begin to close down. I tried to stop them by opening up the space again, but it was too late.

I wonder what the person who had ‘preached’ would say: ‘I shared the gospel’? ‘I gave them the truth?’ ‘I lifted them from error’?

There has been some press in the last week or so about the Metropolitan Police arresting a street preacher; often in the type of Christian circles that are quick to scream ‘we are being persecuted’. I’ve watched the video: the police seem to be wrong in what they did, there is the issue of Freedom of Speech, but what struck me most was the ‘violence’ of the preacher- there seemed to be no listening to the culture, respect for the passers by or indeed respect- just a concern to get a point of view across without much regard for the other.

Maybe it is unfair of me to say this; I am a chaplain- I am not an evangelist (at least not in the sense in which it is often employed), but there does seem to be something deeply holy about listening for listening’s sake and not just to get enough ammunition to prove your truth. Maybe the more ‘sure’ you are means the more likely you are to listen.

Anyway; back to the book…

A last word…

I’ve dwelt on only a few pages of this book: it is very rich.

If you are going to grow and change and face up to this ‘second half’ of life, you need guides and a community- most change is hard, almost difficult, without this.

‘There are few in our religious culture who understand the necessity of mature internalized conscience, so wise guides are hard to find. You will have many more Aarons building you golden calves than Moseses leading you on any exodus.’ (48)

‘mature internalized conscience’ sounds so deadening- he means something like an internal world that knows it is not validated by external fluff and status (why do so many ministers who feel they have a ‘preaching ministry’ (?) feel they have to have a profile of themselves up front preaching…why is that status so important to you?). I like the Moses/Aaron bit – many will suggest another golden calf for you to build when you realise things are changing….security, status and ‘look at me’ is so important….the challenge of journey into possible exodus is hard; but from experience is much more satisafying.

Listening

I have tired- many years ago- of Christian books/trends promising that if we just do one more think we will have ‘breakthrough’. They tend to induce a feverish sense of heightened anxiety, followed by crashing despair: ‘I am just not holy/righteous/prayerful enough’. They are also like Chinese meals: you eat them and remain ultimately satisfied, yet crave more of them.

That’s why I like this book: it is slower, more meditative and truer to life. It has helped me gear up for this second half of life which-it seems to me- is more about acceptance and honesty than doing more.

Much as I loathe the word ‘must’, this quote spoke to me:-

‘There is a deeper voice of God, which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul of ‘common sense’, of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of your deepest self… The true faith journey only begins at this point. Up to now everything is mere preparation’

Where I have grown/changed in the last couple of years, it has been through that and through certain friends who have held out that vista and walked with me.

These battles we fight

Over time I have become more disillusioned about battles that have been fought within the party I generally support (The Labour Party): the current fights are especially depressing- a vision of a fairer society has degenerated into squabbles.

And as for the church: ‘I believe in the Kingdom come; where all the colours will bleed into one’ (it has been ages since I quoted U2), which has a none too proud record of squabbles (and at the moment, I’m thinking about the fights/splits about sexuality and ‘truth’ that make me weep)…..

When I say ‘over time’, that makes me sound mature: I’m not-far from it.

Rohr talks of many things, but he refers to a ‘bogus conscience’ which is ‘a terrible substitute for authentic morality’ and

its substituting of small, low cost moral issues for the real ones that ask us to change, instead of trying to change other people’ (p48)

That, I think, is the real work of faith- Jesus called it ‘dying to your self’- and not the shrill and judgemental screaming at others for perceived faults in their behaviour or beliefs.

As I have got older, I think that mostly makes us feel good and just pisses off those who are different to us. We want them to see the light- they are less likely to do so because of us.

The trouble when you are into a book…

….is explaining it to others.

Something has moved you and it has been an intense journey, but each book is like a person: they have their own nuances and ways of being- taken out of context they are hard to explain.

And so it is with this book and the way it describes the changes that can occur- if you let them- in the second half of life. An example:-

The first battles solidify the ego and create a stalwart loyal soldier; the second battles defeat the ego because God always wins’ (p47)

This isn’t Christian triumphalism- I have had too many experiences of that and they leave you cold because life ain’t like that, so you pretend or leave. He is talking about that second half when it begins to dawn on you that you are not in control and you cannot run your life as ‘Me, me- notice me, please!’ Some people stay stuck in that zone- I’ve met people relatively old both within and without the church like that: their ego drains the life out of a room- they have never been able to be vulnerable and admit that they do not know.

‘No wonder so few want to let go of their loyal soldier; no wonder so few have the faith to grow up. The ego hates losing, even to God’.

Ouch again.

The second half of life…

 

I have returned to this book. I keep returning to this book.

This time it was driven through working with someone who is at a comparable life stage to me. I began to read it for them, but I gradually noticed I was reading it for me.

I have got to the stage where I am underlining almost every phrase, so redolent with meaning is it for this 50 something who is asking ‘what’s next?’ , ‘What am I now then?’ etc.

This book is about the ‘2nd stage’ in life- it can be at any age, although I began to read it as I felt, with 50 beckoning (and now gone), I had faced a few life changes: changing job/vocation, children moving to a different stage of education, losing and moving house, dying and death of a father in law and I wanted to think about where I was and what I was doing.

The writer talks about a ‘loyal soldier’ that helps us through the first half of life and helps us form our dignity, identity, direction, significance and boundaries: ‘it is far easier to begin life with a conservative worldview and respect for traditions’. I think you can see this on social media : many of our posts subtly or unsubtly boast of our significance/place or status.

Then he comes up with a killer quote that bought me up short- it refers to this ‘first place’ that saw us through the first half of life:-

Many just fall in love with their first place and position, as an extension of themselves, and spend their whole life building a picket fence around it’ (p46)

I wanted to say ‘Amen’, but also I wanted to say ‘ouch!’.

We interrupt this soul searching to bring you….

Of course I ‘should’ read more weighty tomes. Particularly at this time of year when I look at not only the week coming but the next week and think ‘how on earth am I going to manage anything more?’

Of course, it would be better to do so. But I have a lusting for simplicity, for sword fighting, viscous murder, quests and improbable story lines.

And just at the moment, this fits the bill.

So when you see me, brow furrowed, looking hassled or barely awake; inside I am a pagan warrior, laying waste to all in front of me.

Men eh? They may be physically 48, but they are emotionally aged 10.

An occasional Lent series:8

I got the above book, 2nd hand from the local library for 20p. Elsewhere on my desk are 6 more books I bought last week remaindered from major stores and 2nd hand book shops. I did pay £8 for those though.

There are also various library books on my desk. I live in a country where you can still get books out of libraries for free (apart from when I get fined, which is frequently). This house has ‘too many’ books: and the comment in italics is because I believe ‘too many books’ is an oxymoron- it is just not possible.

Most of these books are not pulp or bonkbusters: they are well written. In many cases they are books that I have seen when new and waited. Most of that is due to ethics: buying too many new,shiny things is not good for the soul & it feeds into a tendency to be acquisitive with its concomitant aggressiveness. Some of it is due to having to chose to spend money wisely.

On this Maundy Thursday I would like to say that the money I save is given away to the poor, but I am not that pure. Maybe I could do: I am grateful for cheap, quality books and for being able to loan ones for free…

A new book

I bought a book this week.

Actually I bought several. A good second hand bookshop at a National Trust property (mainlining my inner mid 60s, large pension & property owning self, which bears little relation to my outer self) and an enviable bargain bin at WH Smith’s (each time I find a W.H.Smith’s I am mildly suprised that a shop with no apparent USP still exists) meant that I gave in to temptation and wantonly splashed out £8 on 6 good books.

I meant to save them for holiday, but I started the above book straight away. I had been tracking this book for ages, but seeing it at £1 sealed the deal. I am trying to read it slowly but it is so hard as it is so good; slow, tautly written & by turns funny, thoughtful and poignant.

I was struck by this quote, about the central character; a 60 something unfit man beginning the unlikely pilgrimage of the title:-

‘On he went, one foot in front of another. Now that he accepted the slowness of himself, he took pleasure in the distance he covered’.

That is about the best two sentences I have read this week. Culture seems to give us so much of ‘buy this, improve this, boast about this, complete this project and you will be happy’.

Maybe Harold Fry found a better way to be truly happy.

An occasional Lent series:4

Back in late ’84, in my first term as a student, my dad sent me £10. That was quite a sum then (I am sounding like ‘Grandpa Joe’). I wanted to spend it on something: not just add it to general ‘spends’. Actually, as a student I was frugal and probably spent more on tea than booze.

So I thought and thought and then realised that what I really wanted was a copy of ‘Lord of the Rings’. Someone at VIth form used to affectionately call me ‘Gollum’ and I used to like ProgRock: which would be nowhere without mythical beasts, LOTR references and absence of real, human emotions. So, I was curious.

The thing is, I did not just want any old copy, but three books; in a slipcase. This was ‘living’ to me: I could be a proper adult. I have read these three books in their entirety several times since then, the last time only a few weeks ago. Although I care for books (don’t get me started on people who break book spines straight away), after 30 years they are battered. More so, since my 10 year old son in a bid to feed his ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Hobbit’ obsession, borrowed one. He does not care for keeping books in pristine condition.

When I got married, it was almost the only ‘serious’ novel I had ever read, apart from those school had compelled me to read. Even now, I open the books from time to time and smell them (this is strange: I am not sure that anyone else does this...) and am still reminded ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’ (possibly the first Proust reference I have used in mixed company) of what that time felt like.

The thing is, I could easily replace them, lulled into a false sense of consumer need by advertising. Maybe I could get a Folio copy or something more pristine with quality, matt white pages? I could display them on a coffee table to display my good taste and innate, understated, quality.

Lent is a time to resist lies like that: display your battered, uncoordinated books and use them for what they are meant for- reading, not aspirational lifestyle accessories.