The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction
Reviewed by William Shetter
For McHugh the act of listening, in its broadest sense of full awareness, lies at the heart of our spirituality, justifying his boldly inclusive title. He claims, in fact, that “listening is foundational to what it means to be human.” The fact that his viewpoint is that of a member of the Presbyterian clergy will cause Friends little trouble in agreeing that acts of listening are indeed indispensable to our faith.
The book’s inclusiveness is broad. Following some introductory exploration of how much of life true listening includes, McHugh reviews the strong consciousness—especially in the Bible—of the extent and reliability of God’s listening. The reciprocal of this comes in the next chapter, “Listening to God.” Then we contemplate listening to scripture, to creation, to others, to people in pain, to your own life. The final chapter is called “The Society of Reverse Listening,” by which he means learning to listen to those who are customarily in the listening role but seldom listened to, such as followers being led, children, the poor, minorities, and any outsiders. His vision of the church “listening posts” seems at times to be similar to our familiar clearness committees.
At this point it should be said that reading this book may itself be experienced as an exercise in listening. Friends will need to summon up the skills developed in hearing a variety of vocal ministry and listening for the core message underneath. McHugh is a preacher, so it is not surprising that he constantly falls into a sermonizing tone that to us will dilute his message. He is not unaware of this: “Those of us who come from an Evangelical tradition have grown accustomed to a certain glibness in speaking about God,” which he has nicely illustrated a few pages previously in referring to “God’s volume knob.”
But my advice to Friends is to not be distracted by the preaching or lecturing tone, and to hear the valuable wisdom scattered throughout the book. “Listening to Creation” hears clearly the bold ways Psalm 19 (“The heavens declare the glory of God . . .”) and others express the wonders of creation, words from which we learn that the study and enjoyment of nature is “an act of sacred listening,” impelling us to “stand guard over the environment.” But not all is magnificence; we must listen not only to creation’s song but to its groan.
There are also some passages that Friends may choose to bypass in “Listening to Your Life,” such as the many bullet points advising beginners on how to proceed inward. But once more, let’s not be deterred: he quotes and focuses on Parker Palmer’s wise words, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” The foundation of this quest for self-knowledge is discernment—paying attention to all that is happening deep within us, a testing of individual experiences. For McHugh, this process can only emerge from outer and inner quieting. The still, small voice within that “Quakers call the inner teacher.”
To this reader, the chapter “Listening to Others” is the heart of the book, the fundamental act from which in a real sense all else flows. Doesn’t true listening to another first teach us how to listen to ourselves? “The practice of a conversation is a sacred act,” he says, and he invokes the idea of conversatio divina, understanding genuine listening conversation as nothing less than prayer. Going back to the idea of “reverse listening,” the deepest listening occurs as part of a listening community, because “listening is a communal exercise.”
A “listening life” then is nothing less than commitment to a perpetual listening stance in all these senses, not neglecting his reverse listening, and in stillness: “A hyperactive life is the antithesis of the listening life.” It is heartening to hear a preacher in the Evangelical tradition say, “Giving the Bible an esteemed place cannot mean muzzling God’s personal word that he continues to speak to the church,” where Friends will immediately hear “continuing revelation” while quietly bypassing the church’s role.