“A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?”
(Discussion with children)
The origins of this nursery rhyme are obscure. It was clearly written to encourage young people not merely to hear but actively to listen and to gain wisdom with the wise old owl. It seems that active transformative listening, as both a skill and a commitment, is increasingly rare these days. The jibe: “poor little talkative Christianity”, coined by EM Forster in his “Passage to India” has a ring of truth about it. We feel more assured when talking to others about something that really interests us rather than making the effort actively to listen to others about their concerns. This spills over into our relationship with God. We are apt to talk to God, and that is good, but we also often struggle to sit, to be still and to listen to that “still small voice” in the cave of our hearts. This kind of listening to God, active transformative listening, is what changes us by the Holy Spirit and makes us more fruitful in our Christian lives.
Today’s Gospel of the Parable of the Sower is very well known to most of us and here is the irony. We have heard it so often; we think we know it. Our listening to Christ’s teaching can be merely hearing something familiar and apparently understood rather than a fresh encounter with hidden depths and broader meanings that challenge and deepen our existing understanding. So perhaps we need to learn how to listen to God and most importantly actually to do it on the basis that He does indeed want to speak to us. There is all the difference in the world then between passive hearing and active listening, between mere words and the life changing word of God.
In the parable Christ gives different examples of the obstacles that can block active transformative listening. Let’s go through them now and see what we can learn.
The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved.
The point about the path of course is that it has no soil. We cannot truly listen to God’s voice if his words simply fall on deaf ears and, therefore, does not come to life as a seed when it germinates. We might think that this does not apply to us; after all we are Christians and we are supposed to listen to God and that we surely do; but do we? A quick diagnostic test may help. Ask yourself, is this word from God addressed to me personally? Start from the assumption that it is, or that it always is and then you will let His life changing seed begin to take root in your life through your active listening to what He is saying to you. Apply the word deeply and faithfully and to yourself, taking care of course to share this with your confessor or soul friend who will help you listen to God’s true voice.
And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.
Active transformative listening lets the word of God go deeper, deeper and deeper. As it descends into the heart and from thence into greater depths, measuring indeed its own depth in God and from God, it becomes truly rooted and fertile. Having these deep roots, the plant cannot easily be ripped from the ground. At deeper levels it will also have access to life-giving water when the ground above is dry and unyielding. Active transformative listening can only come from a heart that is both willing and able to withstand temptations, distractions and deceptions, all of which come from the father of lies, Beelzebub, the enemy of our souls. In order for our listening roots to go deeper we must have stability, a deep dependence upon God, anchored upon Him, and drawing nourishment from Him.
And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life and their fruit does not mature.
This saying is a further examination of the teaching of the previous verse but it concentrates on the final product of the plant, the fruit. It explains why often in the lives of believers, there is a commitment to God but the lack of true depth rarely brings forth lasting spiritual fruit. Like fruit trees in a cold climate, the produce is often small, bitter and deformed, just like the cursed fig tree in the Gospels. If we can take time, however, truly to listen to God and most importantly to apply his words under the powerful influence of the Holy Spirit within us then this will be a good soil for us and indeed for others when we truly listen to them as well. This is how our Lord Jesus Christ describes such a happy state:
And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.
Finally, what about the practicalities? What can we do to make some good and sustainable changes in our Christian lives to acquire the gift of active transformative listening to God?
Well first and foremost we need to make ourselves available to the Lord. We need to set aside time, just to be with Him. I am not talking about reciting prayers at great length or studying huge chunks of Scripture or reading the Fathers long into the night. As good as these undoubtedly are, and we should do them; if they are not accompanied by sustained, calm, peaceful and attentive listening to the voice of the Lord, we are indeed falling into the trap of “poor little talkative Christianity.”
Next, we need patience. Notice how Jesus concludes his parable on this note: bringing forth fruit “with patience.” Just as any living plant needs the patient and active care of a gardener, so it is with our souls. There are no quick fixes. We need to trust God and give our listening relationship with Him time to mature so that we become attuned to His voice and like the young prophet Samuel in the night cry out: “speak for your servant is listening.” God will then give us a word or words which will utterly revolutionise our lives and, through us, the lives of others. But you have to do the work to become receptive to that word, to let it take deep roots in your heart, to let it bring forth good fruit.
Switching the metaphor back to our original nursery rhyme: if we do these things, the more we shall see, the deeper we shall understand and the wiser we shall be. We shall be like owls in the wisdom of God rather than Satan’s noisy magpies moving from one shiny trinket to the next. Perhaps we can improve things right now. We used to spend two minutes or so in silence after the end of each sermon. I don’t know how that stopped but let us return to that Godly practice now or rather after the formal concluding prayer. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”