The immortal opening words of the Rule of St. Benedict are the most commonly commented upon. They set the tone of the Rule, which is mostly a pastiche of Scriptural citations heavily dependent on the wisdom books.
Obsculta, o fili, præcepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui et admonitionem pii patris libenter excipe et efficaciter conple, ut ad eum per oboedientiæ laborem redeas, a quo per inoboedientiæ desidiam recesseras.
Listen, O son, to the master’s precepts; incline the ear of your heart; accept freely the admonition of a loving father; complete it effectively, that you may return through the labor of obedience to Him from whom you have fallen away through the sloth of disobedience.
The central theme of the Rule is obedience. All commentaries begin their explication of obedience with this opening word, “Listen,”since the root of obedience is audio. To listen, to incline the ear of the heart, is the beginning of obedience.
A few years ago I heard a talk on the Rule that took listening as its main theme, as shown negatively through three vignettes. That talk did not go off quite as the speaker intended, to such dramatic effect that I doubt any of us in attendance shall ever forget it. But as he spoke, I thought I could see what he was trying to do with his talk and I’ve abashedly defended his idea, if not his words, to my colleagues a few times. Herein let me set forth the talk I think he was trying to give.
“Incline the ear of your heart” is a powerful phrase that goes far beyond mere hearing. It is an active investment in the other that goes to the core of our affection and volition. It is a hearing that seeks, that reaches out, that probes and analyzes and accepts. It is a kind of listening that not everyone does, because it goes beyond the merely biological. It must be learned. At a Benedictine school our success is to teach it.
Hardness of heart is the primary defect of this listening. When the plea of justice or mercy is heard with the ear and not the heart we say it falls on deaf ears. The problem is that it falls on a deaf heart. We see disturbing examples of people who refuse to engage with reality beyond their own advantage and rightly condemn it; how often are we the same? It is not just the powerful of the world who are hard of heart, and not only in dramatic ways.
Consider a different, perhaps more common, case. We have all had the frustrating experience of being in a conversation with someone who speaks but never listens, who is so fired up or so certain they are right that they just cannot hear you, or who “agrees” with what you are saying but enthusiastically misconstrues it. Even grabbing them and shaking them won’t help; they are listening to a conversation taking place entirely inside themselves. To listen is to go outside of self and be with others. It is a willingness to be changed, at least in some small way by addition.
Finally consider the frightening possibility that forces beyond our control shape and perhaps even destroy this ear of the heart. We have to learn to listen this way; it does not come easily, at least not for most. What happens when we are raised in a family that does not value it? What happens to the abused, the bereft by war, the simply, sadly unloved? We know that our life experiences shape us and they can shape us badly; it is no different here. Suddenly the works of mercy take on a new urgency, and here I will risk self-aggrandizement by mentioning the power of education.
Let me draw three mini-conclusions and be done. Some day I’ll have to transform this into a properly-structured talk:
If we in our vice or the world in its cruelty can destroy our power to listen, nevertheless God is ultimately the one who gives and restores it. He softens the heart with oil; He creates in me a clean heart; He makes the soul fruitful with the Holy Spirit. God calls us to obedience–to Himself and to each other–and does not leave us with no remedy. But knowing ourselves and the world, we must pray. It must be a part of our perpetual prayer that God enlarge the ear of our heart, and in prayer we will find a good use for that ear indeed.
This is why silence plays an important role in the Rule and monastic life. Whether or not one is disposed by personality to enjoy silence, it is an essential tool in learning to listen. We live in a world of agitation that cultivates a promiscuity of the senses; silence is the abstinence in which we can begin to hear. The more intentionally we enter into silence the more intentionally we can can listen.
It even comes back around to the theme of this blog. Have you ever had a teacher not understand your question and answer a very different one instead? Maybe you were the one who was confused, but maybe not; this power of listening with full engagement is one of the key attributes of a teacher. It is the ability to see the problem from the student’s side, to see where the student is failing to understand so as to bring the best remedy. All who have this teach; not all employed by a school have it.