Magazine article The Christian Century

The Listening Place

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Listening Place

Article excerpt

AN 18TH-CENTURY painting of a Quaker meeting hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It shows a figure, perhaps George Fox himself, standing and speaking with such passion that his hand is clutching his breast. Around him are gathered the Society of Friends. A woman sits with her chin in her hand. A man's finger is laid alongside his cheek. Another man's hands are atop his cane with his chin resting on them. These people are listening with all their hearts, souls and minds. Even their bodies are bent to the task of listening. The painting captures something wonderful that I have found at Quaker meetings.

These people know how to listen.

Last summer my wife, Jeanene, and I attended our first Quaker meeting. The worship was 60 minutes of thoughtful silence. A young woman broke the silence and spoke briefly. There was a gentle shift of attention to her and away from individual thoughts and prayers. People shifted in their seats and assumed various listening postures. One man intertwined his hands, leaving his index fingers erect like a church steeple. He tapped them thoughtfully against his lips. An elderly man inclined his good ear toward the speaker. Across the room a woman was knitting. Now and then she would halt her work and turn her face to the woman speaking. Then she would nod carefully and turn back to her knitting. I recognized in the Quakers the unmistakable signs of practiced, active listening.

When the woman was finished with what she had to say, she sat down. There was a moment or two in which I felt her words were still alive in the room, still being considered. And then the Friends shifted back to their individual thoughts, prayers and meditations.

It was a fascinating and wonderful thing to experience. What impressed me most was the peaceful nature of it. There was a complete absence of anxiety in the room. In my own experience of the rare opportunities that laypeople have to speak in worship, there seems to be an unspoken concern that the person is somehow speaking for the community. If the person speaking says something that is theologically suspect or in any way threatens the existing traditions of the church, some in the congregation become defensive and angry. Anxiety levels rise. After the service people will talk about the rightness or wrongness of what was said. The person who was speaking may have no power to effect change in the community, but somehow the congregation still feels threatened and is upset.

When the woman at the Quaker meeting first began to speak, I was aware that I became tense. I disengaged somewhat and looked to see how others were reacting to her words. My life as a minister has programmed me to do this. But I saw no fears or concerns on the faces of the Friends. An elderly man next to me, a leader in this particular Quaker meeting, stared peacefully ahead as the woman spoke. He nodded occasionally, indicating that he understood her. He seemed at peace with her words. More than that, he seemed at peace with her perspective on life and faith as a young woman.

That's when I realized that I was experiencing pure, well-differentiated listening. When someone speaks at a Quaker meeting, that person has no power to change the meeting or the rules or the nature of the community. …

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