Speaking, Listening and Prayer

This contribution is from Ruth Alkema who contributes articles regularly both at Holy Trinity and Jeruzalemkerk in Utrecht.

A long time ago, I worked for Rijkswaterstaat, on a project for measuring the depths of rivers. For that, I was on a little ship where they ruth1had this old fashioned type of phone where only one person can speak at a time. So you had to speak your message or question as complete and clear as possible, then say: ‘over’, and then keep really quiet in order to hear the answer. And I would suggest that this is actually rather a good way of communicating: speak clearly, listen attentively.

Speaking might seem the easiest part. I do not think that we are often told that we should speak more. And yet right now this is what I want to suggest. Speak more, but.. speak clearly. That is: try and stick to the truth you want to share and remove the frustration, or self-inflation or self-defence or business that’s all unnecessary. For example, it is really nice when someone shares the joys and good things that he saw or experienced, so that others know that joy too. But it is also important to share the pain, hurt or confusion when we experience that and this is very difficult. You need to be able to trust that the other won’t make it worse by not listening.

When this trust is missing, we will mostly send very unclear messages when we are hurt, mixed with lots of self defence and aggression towards people we perceive as judgemental. This suspicion may or may not be true, but it certainly doesn’t help, only justifies the other into thinking we are the cause of our own problems. As a counterpart to this I would like to suggest that ruth2whenever you see someone aggressive, just think that he is probably very much hurt and be gentle please. Kindness might just be what is needed for healing.

One thing that helps me in practising clear speaking, is that I write down my prayers. This gets me past a feeling of general despair into more structured thinking about what it is that bothers me, or what I think that needs to be done. Often I find myself praying to the Holy Spirit what it is that I should write. It lifts me out of an impasse and gives me confidence that I can expect answers to these prayers.

Listening is more difficult than speaking, but here also prayer is a really good exercise. One of the first things I heard about contemplative prayer is that it will make you more open and loving towards other people. This is rather paradoxical: you spend more time alone, and as a result your relationships with other people get better. When we decide to open our hearts to God, his presence will heal us. This makes everything easier. But also we practice attitudes that are helpful in communication. For example we practice being open and listening to God, and to receive what he gives, while being passive ourselves. Also, we practice the attitude of daring to give ourselves to someone else, and to let someone come close, even into our heart. These attitudes will gradually grow in our nature and then it will become our natural reaction to other people as well, and give us real, fruitful and healing contact.

Now we might think that these are three easy steps to better communication. And certainly there is nothing complicated about this, but we must be prepared for the hard part. Truly sharing what is in our hearts implies that we are also prepared to give up what cannot stand the light.

And truly listening implies that we will feel the pain of the other and of our own inability to help. We will not be able to do this if we are not prepared. We need to be aware of our natural inclination to shield ourselves, and make a decision to be open to the true life.

The Bible book of Job is, among other things, also a great story about speaking, listening and prayer. Job suddenly loses everything, including his children and his health, for reasons known only to God, the devil, and us, the readers. Then his friends come to comfort him. According to Saint Gregory(1), they start out great, when they come and sit in silence, sharing Jobs grief. But then they speak, and their words betray that they do not at all regard the person to whom they are talking, but speak general truths, really deep and true in themselves, but not to the point, whilst ignoring the pain right in front of them. Then comes Elihu, he speaks words of which God later says that they were right(2). Still, the fact that he is right doesn’t help Job much, perhaps because, as Saint Gregory says, Elihu is too high minded and I think that Job is so much hurt that no human voice can reach him anymore, but when God speaks, his heart opens and he listens.

  1. In the book ‘Morals on the book of Job’, available online here: GregoryMoraliaIndex.html
  2. Although I personally found it very hard to spot the difference, I have been reading the text over and over again to see it, and finally started searching internet for an explanation, where I found that Elihu basically says that not just Job is a sinner, but we are all sinners, and we need a redeemer. For me it was very special to realize that Jesus is always praying for us.