In the late 1980s, in a small group gathering, Dallas Willard said: “Listening is an act of love.” I had chills as I recognized the truth of his statement and I quickly wrote it down. I’ve been ruminating on this phrase for thirty years now. And I try to listen lovingly as a spouse, a family member, a friend, a spiritual director, and a church member. When I listen with love or am listened to with love, the competing, clamoring internal voices are quieted down and God’s own voice can be heard.
During the recent Christmas holiday my husband, Kevin, and I traveled to Southern California to be with my family. We live in Michigan and don’t often see my family but connect via phone and/or social media and had not visited my family for a few years. I was anxious because I’m not always certain how we will be received—will we be in the way of everyone else’s plans? Will people make time for us? Will people be interested in our lives? Will they listen to us and our stories?
My anxiety is grounded in my (unhealthy) desire to not be a bother to people. I don’t want to make presumptions on others because what if I am rejected? I am not certain that people are interested in me and my life so I fret before a visit home.
I did make plans to for us to visit Dennis, Susan, and their sons on Susan’s birthday. I’ve been friends with them for forty years while their friendship with Kevin is briefer and as my spouse. I wondered: will they be interested in Kevin? Will my friends talk with Kevin or only to me? Will they ask him questions about his experiences, observations, the state of his soul?
As our time together progressed, Susan began asking Kevin about his work. As she talked with him, she leaned toward the dining table and rested her elbow on it with her chin cupped in her hand. She was listening intently to his story of vocational discernment. And the more she listened the more Kevin shared. As she asked follow-up questions about his discerning process he moved into deeper descriptions of his conversation with his spiritual director. Susan listened carefully with a caring heart and his story unfolded. He was feeling heard by Susan. He was feeling loved.
When I lovingly listen to another I am giving of myself to that person. I am giving of my time, my mental, emotional, and my spiritual energy as I clear away my own concerns in order to give full attention to the other person.
As Jan Stairs wrote in Listening for the Soul, “Listening happens best when we pause and take time to hear more deeply and reflect upon the depths we hear. Our souls simply cannot thrive in a fast-paced life without claiming some time to take things in, uncover what lies deeply within, and mull things over … listening for the soul requires ongoing attention and sustained habits of reflection,” (p. 21).
In the conversation between Susan and Kevin, they both paused at moments to reflect—either in response to a question or in the answer itself. Both of them were reflecting on the unfurling of love within the conversation.
I have learned that I am able to listen to others because I have been lovingly listened to: by my husband, family members, my former therapist, different spiritual directors, and friends like Susan. Because I have been “heard into speech” (as Nelle Morton described loving listening), and have been accepted as I am, I can, hopefully, lovingly hear others into speech. I can lean in toward the person with open-hearted freedom and hear their hearts just as Susan leaned toward Kevin across the dining table.
Several hours later, after we hugged Dennis and Susan goodbye, we left our time with them feeling loved. We described it as “our hearts were warmed” by the attentive, compassionate, open-hearted listening we received.