Don't Neglect the Cabbage Patch
01 October 2002

The Rev Ray Simpson is Guardian of the Community of Aidan and Hilda on Lindisfarne.

Listening is almost a lost art in the western world. I have long sought to rediscover this art, but it is not as easy as I once thought. Some people try to reduce it to a mechanism, but then the art is lost.

Aboriginal people seem to be more in touch with some aspects of listening. An Australian told me: "When European and Aboriginal Australians meet there is sometimes a silence.

The Aboriginal enters into it, the European fills it and destroys it."

Silence is a vital precondition for listening. "Great things are wrought in silence," wrote Thomas Carlysle. Yet silence itself can be a skin deep ritual. The spirit and intuition of a person need to flow into it.

This requires deep inner attentiveness. A desert father said: "Just as it is impossible for a person to see their face in troubled water, so too the soul, unless it be cleansed of alien thoughts, cannot pray to God."

Alien thoughts can consist of blueprints, data overload, or the drive to produce. An American church leader gave me his opinion that even the biggest churches and religious movements are dominated by the drive to produce. Because they make no time for solitude and deep listening, they cannot pattern a life-changing alternative to the acquisitive society.

I deliberately chose to cut with a life based on "producing". However, I hit another obstacle to listening - my own prejudiced mindset. Others saw this more clearly than I. One of them sent me this piece:

"The man whispered, "God speak to me" and a meadowlark sang. But the man did not hear. So the man yelled, "God speak to me" and the thunder rolled across the sky. But the man did not listen. The man looked around and said, "God show me a miracle!" and new life was born. But the man did not know. So the man cried out in despair, "Touch me God and let me know you are here!" whereupon God reached down and touched the man. But the man brushed the butterfly away and walked on."

The friend who sent me this concluded: "Don"t miss out on a blessing because it isn"t packaged the way that you expect."

Someone once pointed out to me that if I sought God"s guidance for my cabbage patch, he would give it; and if I sought his guidance for a calling as big as a continent, he would give guidance for that. If we only seek God's guidance for either a cabbage patch or a continent we are falling short. A person who thinks big might be in denial about "little" things in his personal relationships.

A key to the art of listening is to listen to the things about which we are in denial, to listen to the shadow side of our lives. That may mean the decision to listen to the person who irritates us, but who may be a mirror of our shadow.

God wants to speak into our pleasures, too, and not only our relationships and duties. While I was writing my recent book, Before we say goodbye: preparing for a good death (HarperCollins), I realized I did not practise what I preached. When I had thought I was shortly to die, I had heard God say it would be a crime to have lived on planet Earth without having tasted Venice, that jewel of civilization. But I forgot about Venice when I found out that I was not about to die. The work on the book pricked my conscience. I went. Venice was wonderful.

Listening to God is like that.
Ray Simpson

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