By Art McDonald
I received a call from National Grid a few weeks back that they had to come to our Condo and check the 6 gas meters for possible leaks. I agreed to meet with the technician and escort him to our basement where the meters are. He was friendly and talkative and must have sensed I was a friendly enough fellow as well, as he pre-ceded to rant about the state of the world and, especially, politics, his politics, for the full 20 minutes or so we were together. I think he could have performed the task in about 5, but he had a lot to say and, I suspect, would have gone on longer, if I hadn’t started to head for the basement door, subtly suggesting to him through body language, that I had to move on. By the way one of his rants wants anti-union, acknowledging the unions once played an important role in protecting workers, but now were just greedy. He went on to admit he was one of the few non-union workers, private contractor, in this job with Grid. I was tempted to ask him if a unionized worker might have performed the task with more alacrity, and with less ranting, but I let the opportunity slide by.
Among other things, he expressed dislike for Trump but downright hate for Clinton, frustration that Curt Schilling was being criticized simply for expressing his opinion, distaste and disagreement for allowing trans-gendered people to choose the bathroom of their gender identity, imagining a 6’4” born male with a beard entering a women’s bathroom, astonishment that the janitors at Harvard would be making $22 an hour for pushing a broom, and accusations that President Obama has made race relations worse during his time in office, especially when he said Trayvon Martin, the young African-American shot by George Zimmerman, could have been his son.
In our 20 minutes together I kept thinking maybe he’ll take a breath and I’ll respond, ever so briefly, of course. The breath never happened; he ranted non-stop until we shook hands and said goodbye. And, to my surprise, as he was walking away he thanked me, expressed enjoyment at meeting me, and said I was a great therapist and if I wanted to send him a bill, he’d write a check. Despite feeling a little battered by his onslaught of strong opinions, there was a certain satisfaction that he was so self-aware and even grateful that a stranger could actually listen. If he only knew what I was thinking!
We are living through a very difficult time as a nation. Election time often brings out our differences as United Statesers, but this year has seemed particularly contentious and ugly, even vicious I would say. The National Grid fellow seemed reflective of this contentious climate.
Globe columnist Thomas Farragher, a practicing Catholic, wrote a piece this week suggesting that a Catholic Bishop’s letter, reprinted in the local Catholic paper and, evidently, reprinted in some parish bulletins, basically supported the candidacy of Donald Trump by stating that no Catholic could vote for a pro-choice candidate, i.e., Hillary Clinton, was inappropriate, a clear sign of partisan politics that all religious leaders should avoid. He went on to suggest Trump had many other positions that were also opposed to Catholic Church teaching. Speak on the issues but encourage the faithful to follow their own consciences, that’s the role of the religious leader, suggests Farragher.
Yesterday he printed a sample of the many vitriolic responses to his column; a sample: “You jerk. Who is paying you for this garbage? You are so biased and crooked; shame on you.”
I’ve thought a lot about my encounter with the National Grid technician and a lot about the deep divisions currently going on in our country, so apparent as we get ready to go to the polls. And it made me think of a book I read many years ago by a somewhat conservative religious novelist, Taylor Caldwell. It is entitled THE LISTENER and was written in 1960. It seems that a wealthy person left money in his will to build a mansion for people to come solely for the purpose of telling their story to a listener, hidden behind a curtain, who never responded, just listened. The listener was never identified either, though many concluded Caldwell meant it to be Jesus, as she was a serious Christian. All sorts of people came to be listened to – in quiet, with no response and no identity. I actually read this as I was considering entering the ministry.
As a born Roman Catholic, it seemed to me something akin to the sacrament of Penance, the ritual of confessing one’s sins to the priest, and receiving absolution’ a practice frightening to some, yet therapeutic and liberating for others. And, much like the listener in Caldwell’s novel, there was a curtain between the confessor and the priest, thus protecting privacy, and, more importantly, embarrassment. As kids we were sure the priest would recognize our voice and would seek out a priest who we thought might have hearing difficulties or, if one were available, the kindest priest of the lot. Once I went to old Monsignor Dolan, never imagining his hearing was good enough to recognize my voice. “How are things at the market and how are dad and mother, Artie,” asked Monsignor Dolan one day after I shared my faults? When I was leaving he said: “when you are putting eggs in the cartons, Artie, make sure you don’t put any in that are cracked!” Yikes, I was mortiphied.
Then, after ordination, I was on the other side of the curtain and mostly just listened. Even when I recognized the person confessing, I never let on. It actually got humorous at times when I heard some confessions in Spanish while in the Bronx, since my Spanish was never great. The more complex the confession got, the more clueless I was at what had actually happened. So who knows what I actually forgave? Glad there was never a tape recorder in the confessional. And I’m glad the church never approved of e-mail or texting confessions in modern times. Imagine the implications of that.
But I must say, though I was never totally comfortable in the confession role, nevertheless, I had this most wonderful confessional experience while helping out one day in a Catholic high school hearing the students confessions. By then one had the option of confessing behind a curtain, or doing it face to face. One student not only opted for face to face, but asked me if she could bring her friends, so they could confess together. I was a bit stunned, never having been prepared for such in the seminary, but my pastoral instincts immediately kicked in and 5 female students approached and, face to face, acknowledged their transgressions. It was amazing, humbling, liberating for them and me. I simply listened, and, of course, forgave.
I’ve heard some confessions here (and a few rants!); we just don’t call it that. It’s pastoral counseling or spiritual listening, if you will.
I know of no tradition that takes listening more seriously than the Quaker, the Society of Friends. Quakers realize the necessity of silence for spiritual growth; silence to listen to the true self within and silence to listen to the movements of the Spirit from their fellow religious seekers. A contemporary Quaker theologian and spiritual guide, Parker Palmer, writes eloquently about a Quaker-inspired practice or ritual he calls: “circles of trust,” communities of people that help support each other’s “quest for integrity,” based on a belief that we all have an inner teacher whom we have to learn to listen to, and this can be aided by other people who can help us discern our own inner teacher’s voice. I consider what I am doing when I am asked to listen to someone’s story, a small circle of trust. It’s one of the greatest gifts of ministry, and we often give it to one another. It happens a lot here, I know.
Palmer believes that one of the major obstacles to developing this particular spiritual path “…is our disbelief in the reality and power of the inner teacher.” Interestingly, Palmer believes that we often create problems when we set out to “help” others and when we “…feel obliged to tell others what we think they need to know and how we think they ought to live. Countless disasters originate here – between parents and children, teachers and students, supervisors and employees – originate, that is, in presumptuous advice-giving that leaves the other feeling diminished and disrespected. In a “circle of trust,” the only agenda is “to help people listen to their own souls and discern their own truth. That is, to let a person alone but not abandoning her; “being alone together,” if you will, in which we need both “solitude” and “community” at the same time.
That to me is church community at its best: supportive, safe, respectful, yet nudging us all along to deepen our own inner light led spiritual path. In a “circle of trust,” writes Palmer, “how we listen is as important as how we speak.” He suggests what he calls “receptive listening,” allowing some amount of “reflective silence” to occur after someone has spoken, “rather than rushing to respond.” Some silence is a way of honoring what has been shared and allowing time for it to sink in. then, rather than offering a counter point or even commentary, maybe ask a question, to clarify better or better understand what has been shared, also giving the speaker time to hear herself.
Silence is such a key part of listening. It’s a supreme gift the Quakers have given us all. “The soul loves silence,” writes Palmer, “because it is shy.” For some of us here, our silent meditation is the highlight of our Sunday service. Can’t it be longer, I’ve been asked by some? Others may be uneasy with it, especially if it goes on? For palmer “ (silence) evokes the mystery of where we came from and where we are headed. At birth, we emerged from Great Silence into a world that constrains the soul; at death, we return to the Great Silence where the soul is once again free.”
Do we live in a society that “…worships nonstop noise” instead? In an election time where there is nonstop reporting, especially of the most volatile and aggressive talk?
If you’ve ever sat with a dying person or someone very ill, you may know what silence can be like. There often isn’t a lot to say – there’s no fixing the problem or suggesting strategies to avoid what is coming; sometimes it just means getting good at just hanging out and doing nothing. When I was with my father not long before he died, there were long periods of silence, even though he was conscious. I would attempt to break it with a question: How you doing , pop? Ok, he would reply. Are you worried or afraid, I asked? No, just a little sad, he replied. Me, too, I responded. I didn’t have to ask why. Then, more silence.
It seems to me that more silence and “receptive listening” is a spiritual practice deeply needed now in a very contentious time in our country, a time to cross some boundaries of race/ethnicity, class, gender and gender identity differences, and, yes, even political differences. A friend wrote an e-mail recently and invited many to a post-election party if a certain person wins. If not, she wrote, there will be no party, you’re on your own to deal with the aftermath. But, I replied, if the other person wins that’s even more reason to gather, share tears, hugs and map out ways of going forward. No thanks, she replied, though she admitted, interestingly, that the only three people who responded in this way happen to be ministers.
In the end, I was glad I simply listened to the National Grid worker, rather than respond too quickly, too thoughtlessly, maybe too angrily, to his rants. I was even gladder (more glad) that he had the self-awareness to acknowledge what had happened and his appreciation that I simply listened. And since I’m not a therapist, despite his compliment, but a minister, I decided not to take him up on the offer of sending a bill. And, by the way, in case you’re wondering, he’s not voting for either candidate, but writing in his own favorite candidate from those who participated in the primaries; his form of protest and, I suppose, carrying on the rant.