I have been drawn from my bed yet again. Perhaps it is the full moon – one month to Easter – and the long shadows it casts past the window. Perhaps it is the owl that has boo booked its way through the last hour from its perch in the Sturt Gorge. Perhaps it’s the man I saw today at the hospital who, 22 years after the train he was driving ran into a car and killed two people, says he hasn’t had any counselling. “It took me half a mile to stop!” he says. In his mind he still hasn’t stopped.
I realise that the owl and the patient have something in common – they keep on going – perhaps because they haven’t been heard. Hearts cannot be still until they are heard. They just grow louder. I remember meeting a minister in the corridor after he had paid a pastoral visit to a friend who had been diagnosed with a fatal illness. Reflecting on a conversation with his friend’s intellectual and questioning offspring, he was ruminating on why we need to pray and that our prayers would make no difference to the outcome. I could not engage in a theological debate. “How can we not pray?” was all I could offer. We need to be heard.
The working day of a chaplain is all about listening – but more than that – hearing. Hearing all the anxieties and sorrows, the hopes and the regrets, the pain and the
mixed–in joy, takes chunks out of us. Scott Peck in “The Road Less Travelled” explains it as a process whereby we let down our own ego boundary (that well-constructed yet fragile sense of self) in order to allow the “self” of another person into our space, our consciousness, our emotions, our world. The work of listening and hearing knocks us out of shape! It is the gift of love. Too much of it knocks us far out of shape.
I have learned the importance of healing time for my fragile sense of self and the soul that feeds it. I cannot return for more rounds in the inevitable wrestle with suffering without it. In the walks on the beach, in the quiet moments spent with pen and paper, the company of friends, the support of family, laughter, an episode of the West Wing, or yes, shopping, I am restored. We’d better not forget chocolate, and cooking, and … the list goes on. But the most important factor for me is that I am reminded that all of us and all our experiences, all our humanity, all our cries, are heard by the One in whom we live and move and have our being. I know that even my confusion and inadequacy has a place in God’s ecology of heart and mind and spirit. It makes my spirit sing. I pray because I can do no other. And I am heard.
The owl is persisting. If I knew more about owls I could tell what it was all about – but I don’t. I just know who it is that has something to say. .
Bruce Cockburn sings:
I have sat on the street corner
And watched the boot-heels shine
And cried out glad and cried out sad
With every voice but mine. (One day I walk)
Oh, my! How many prayers have I uttered “with every voice but mine.” Those endless lines of read prayers Sunday after Sunday, somehow teaching me that that was how prayer should be, drained my spirituality of any authenticity. Learning to pray has been integral to knowing who I am, and whilst I have never believed that the words that frame a prayer are important, the voice with which they are uttered is somehow defining. Just like the owl. And the one who knows the voice knows the message, and responds.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” says Jesus. The sheep follow because they know the voice of the shepherd.
One Sunday morning a young ex-patriot woman phoned Macca on the Australia All Over radio program from Europe. She said she just had to hear an Aussie voice, and confessed that she often talked to herself aloud so that she did not forget what she sounded like. Our voice is integral to who we are.
Mind you, having a voice and using it may turn out to be dangerous. Maya Angelou, African American leader and poet of note, tells how she was raped as a child. She told, as she should. Her attacker was released from jail after only a few hours, and such was the community backlash that he was bashed to death. Justice was seen to be done, but Maya the child did not speak a word for six years. She had discovered the power of a voice, and it was terrifying. But she has cherished that voice in adulthood, and it has nourished millions.
I am beginning to wonder if my boo book friend knows how many of us he’s keeping awake. Our voice may alarm and even surprise us. Our friend Matt was engaged in military training – a huge challenge. He had to jump off a bridge fully geared up. Terrified, he stepped out. As he rushed towards the water he could hear someone screaming. Not until the splash did he realise that the scream was coming from his own mouth. Sometimes after a crisis has passed, I begin to realise I have been praying – even screaming – all the way. It has taken me long time to hear and to trust my own voice, especially in the midst of life full-on.
Ian had experienced many many losses in his immediate family. Recognising the pain was one thing, dealing with it, another. One day at a retreat, his spiritual director suggested he venture out into the swirling wind and shout out all his anger at God. Shaking off his self-consciousness, he cried out with a gut-wrenching voice. The wind by now had become a gale, and the words were plucked from his breath and flung far behind him. He barely heard them. Like scraps of paper they flew far away. His lungs and his throat hurt, but it was as though God had carried the fury and the sorrow to the corners of the universe. He felt heard and healed – and surprised at the existential reality of it all.
So, when the Psalmist lifts his voice, with all its anger and lament, praise and prejudice, trial and trouble, we hear and know his anguish. Typically, as the psalm draws to a close, we witness a change in reasonability and humility. His voice has been heard, red raw, and then he can begin to listen – listen to the spirit within, the wisdom and reassurance of the heart of the Creator. There is a turning, a shaping, a new orientation. He is made new. We are made new.
A couple of years ago I attended a memorable meeting. It was full of leaders – heavyweights in Churchworld – and was convened at a time of great conflict in the church. We began with worship and the chosen hymn was not well-known. No doubt it was selected because of its sentiments of unity and harmony. To my utter surprise, the gathering launched into it with great gusto. They sang really enthusiastically, though few knew the tune. It was a cacophony so loud that we could not hear the melody amid the wall of hearty noise. And no one seemed to notice. I knew the meeting was doomed. No listening here and no transformation either.
Listening has become my greatest solace. God stalks me best in silence or in the stolen moments when I pause for reflection between clients. Mystery and paradox, healing and wisdom, are rarely apprehended by force. They flutter with wet wings from the ordinary events of life and the earthy toil of living. They leave behind the shell of what has been. If I am too noisy, too distracted with my own narcissistic story, I miss their brilliance.
But it really is time for sleep. The owl has packed it in and the street light is the only presence in the neighbourhood.
I am told that Buddhists somewhere fill a bowl right to the brim with clean water from a tap in the morning, leaving it to stand through the busy day. When it is time to sleep at night, they slowly and ceremonially pour it out again. It stays empty until the new morning when it is filled once more.
The life for today has been lived. It has been rich and blessed and tough. It is more than enough. Tomorrow will be another day of listening, hearing, and being heard. Maybe even transformation.
© Sharonne Price