Words of Spirituality
by ENZO BIANCHI
We need to distinguish between words and the Word, give the Word precedence over the countless human words
"Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening" (1 Samuel 3:9): these words tell us that listening, according to Judeo-Christian revelation, is the fundamental attitude called for in prayer. They also contest a tendency we often have, despite our genuine desire to pray, to fill our prayer with such a flood of words that we effectively reduce God to silence. Christian prayer is essentially an act of listening: it is not the expression of a human desire for self-transcendence as much as the welcoming of a presence and a relationship with an Other who precedes us and in whom we find our origin. In the Bible God is not defined in abstract terms as 'essence,' but in terms of relationship and dialogue: he is first and foremost the One who speaks, and his initiative in speaking makes the believer one who is called to listen. The story of Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1ff) is emblematic. Moses draws near to look at the remarkable sight of the bush that burns without being consumed, but God sees him coming to look and calls out to him from the bush, stopping him from drawing nearer. Vision is the domain of human initiative, in which we seek to reduce the distance between ourselves and God. It is the domain in which we make ourselves the protagonists and attempt to climb towards God. But the God who reveals himself introduces Moses into the domain of listening and maintains a distance between himself and Moses that cannot be crossed, because it is the distance that makes a relationship possible: "Come no nearer!" (Exodus 3:5). What was a remarkable sight then becomes, for Moses, a familiar presence: "I am the God of your father" (Exodus 3:6). Unlike Prometheus, who climbs Mount Olympus to steal fire, Moses stops in front of the divine fire and listens to the Word.
From that initial and initiating moment of listening onward, Moses' life and prayer become two inseparable aspects of his single responsibility to put the word he has heard into practice. As we listen, God reveals to us that he is present before we make our first effort to understand and perceive his presence. This tells us that the one who truly prays is the one who listens. "Listening is better than sacrifice" (1 Samuel 15:22) - better, in other words, than a relationship between God and a human being built on the fragile foundation of human initiative. If prayer is a dialogue that expresses our relationship with God, it is by listening that we are introduced into this relationship, this covenant and this mutual belonging: "Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people" (Jeremiah 7:23). We can see why the command to listen echoes throughout Scripture: it is by listening that we enter into the life of God, or better, that we allow God to enter our life. The great commandment Shema' Israel (Deuteronomy 6:4ff.), confirmed by Jesus as central in Scripture (Mark 12:28-30), reveals that by listening ("Hear, O Israel!") we come to know God ("The Lord is one"), and from knowing God comes love ("you shall love the Lord").Listening, then, generates us as believers: it is the origin of prayer and of a life lived in relationship with the Lord. It is the dawning moment of faith (fides ex auditu: faith comes from what is heard, Romans 10:17), and therefore of hope and love. Through listening we come into being.
We become children of the Father, and it is not by chance that the New Testament points to Jesus, the Son, the Word made flesh, as the one who should be listened to: "Listen to him!" says the voice from the cloud on the mountain of the Transfiguration, indicating Jesus (Mark 9:7). Listening to the Son, we enter into a relationship with God, and in faith we can call him "Abba" (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6) and "our Father" (Matthew 6:9) - listening generates us as children. As we listen, the efficacious Word and the re-creating Spirit of God penetrate us and become the principle of our transfiguration, our re-creation in the image of Christ. This is why we need "a listening heart" (1 Kings 3:9) - as we listen with our ears, it is our heart that listens! In the Bible the ear, which is not simply the organ of hearing but the seat of knowledge and the intellect, is directly related to the heart, the unifying center that embraces the emotional, rational and volitional faculties of the person. As we listen, we acquire a heart that is "wise and understanding" (1 Kings 3:12), and we grow in discernment ("Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches," Revelation 2:7).
If listening is truly this central in the life of faith, it requires vigilance - in other words, watchfulness with regard to what we listen to (Mark 4:24), who we listen to (Jeremiah 23:16; Matthew 24:4-6, 23; 2 Timothy 4:3-4), and how we listen (Luke 8:18). In particular, we need to distinguish between words and the Word, give the Word precedence over the countless human words we hear, and listen with "a generous and good heart" (Luke 8:15). What else does listening to the Word require? We find an answer in the explanation of the parable of the sower (Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15). We need to know how to interiorize the Word, or it will remain ineffective and fail to produce the fruit of faith (Mark 4:15, Luke 8:12); we need to take time to listen and persevere in our listening, or the Word will not bear the fruit of stability, firmness and depth of faith (Mark 4:16-17, Luke 8:13); we need to resist temptation by refusing the seduction of other worldly 'messages' and 'words,' or the Word will be stifled, remain sterile and fail to produce the fruit of maturity of faith (Mark 4:18-19; Luke 8:14). If we do not listen, we will find prayer impossible!