Contemplative Listening

By Elizabeth Eilers Sullivan, Vis Alumna 93

A colleague and myself developed a five week discernment series when we worked together at Santa Clara University. Over the next few weeks I will share portions of this work for your own vocational discernment, this is part two of five.

Mantra to pray: We find our place and come to appreciate others’ places in the garden.

The Sisters joyfully completed a retreat at Ascension the weekend of May 21, 2010. It is an annual event hosted for neighbor

Women's Retreat 2010

Women's Retreat 2010

ladies who want to pray and network with each other. Many of the women have moved from the neighborhood and no longer see each other as frequently. This retreat is a wonderful testimony to the community that the sisters help build and nurture. They were busting at the seams with those who had registered (with a total of 65!), and had a full wait list. This retreat is another way the sisters build women leadership, something the Visitation sisters are steeped in doing for the past 400 years through educating women. The women of the neighborhood not only attended the retreat, but helped to plan it.

“The leader, Aleka, is lead by the spirit; she weaves song into all she does. Tonight was filled with personal testimonies of how God came through for us all year-long, since last we were together. Tears and laughter filled the room as one by one people went up and shared very personal stuff. …The Spirit is alive and well. Beth, I can’t, try as I may, convey the intensity and love shared in that room tonight.  So I go to bed with it in my heart, but knowing you, you will feel some of it too.” -Sister Katherine

Class of 2010 work with the Sisters & Neighbors

Class of 2010 work with the Sisters & Neighbors

This week the sisters are gearing up to host the seniors from The Convent of the Visitation High School of Mendota Heights. These young women cap their education at Visitation by completing a two week Service Experience within the broader community. This experience integrates their book knowledge, with their heart and hands creating a wisdom that cannot be gained any other way. My class was the first class to complete this immersion and report back to their school community on what they learned from their time in the world at large. Sister Katherine shares with me this week,All the Sisters are busy with the Vis seniors who are here on the north side giving service-we will have our whole garden in when they leave in two weeks. They also help at local agencies, paint for us and have a guest speaker a day. Very full, very fun!”

As these seniors immerse themselves in the lives of the Sisters of North Minneapolis and their neighbors’ lives I would like to share a gift I gained that I now realize was rooted in this sacred experience of mine. It is the gift of contemplative listening.

Contemplative listening is different from active listening; it is learning to listen in a non-judgmental, compassionate, grace-filled

Class of 2010 work with the Sisters & Neighbors

Class of 2010 work with the Sisters & Neighbors

way. With both types of listening you let the person know you are paying attention, but in contemplative listening you are listening for what is not yet present, what is coming into being. In other words, paying attention to what God might be up to in the situation, or where a person’s energy is being drawn. It is all about receptivity to what God and another person and our deepest self are saying. One way to enter into this space is to pray for the person while listening to them, to set the intention of listening for their highest good. It is to listen to what grace is saying, and then following with open-ended questions that become prayerful responses to the grace in their life. Contemplative listening to another person is similar to learning to listen to God or our deepest selves.

Here is an exercise to do with another person. Sit down, and allow the person to talk about an experience of their choosing, in this case perhaps it is the immersion experience to date. The listener says nothing, but tunes into the talker by setting an intention, or saying a prayer to herself before beginning to listen for the grace emerging in the speakers story. It’s ok if there is silence, during this time; as the listener, resist the temptation to fill that quiet. The listener holds the timepiece so that at the end of the seven minutes she can gently tell the speaker the time is up, and ask the speaker some clarifying open-ended questions.

Open ended questions: Could you clarify/help me understand…? How did it happen that…? What might happen if you…?Is it possible that…? How do you feel when you say…? What did you experience when…? What questions do you have about…? Might there be a connection between…? What do you like most about…? What sccares you most about…? What is your greatest hope for…?

Women's Retreat 2010

Women's Retreat 2010

Then the two people switch roles. At the end of the exercise, have a discussion of what it was like to be listened to and what it was like to be the listener? It can be hard to listen this way—there are many obstacles to contemplative listening (distracted listening, hurried listening, evaluative listening, fact-centered listening, rehearsing, sympathetic listening, goal-oriented listening, interrupting, curiosity, or inappropriate self-disclosure). It is however worth doing this, even if it is hard to do because we need community to support our discernment. To listen to another person, we have to be grounded ourselves, (which happens when we listen to ourselves,) and we get better at doing this by listening to others and applying these skills to ourselves. Contemplative listening is a continuous process, learning to listen for what is not yet present or what is coming to be is a gift to give yourself and others.

“The church is a garden with a great variety of plants; each one has its value and charm. It is the combination of their colors and textures that make the garden a thing of beauty.” –St. Francis de Sales

Suggested texts for your prayer around contemplative listening:

  • Psalm 5:1-3 How do you want to be listened to?
  • John 4:4-29 Can you remember an encounter where you came to know another person? Can you remember an encounter where you felt fully known? What was holy about those experiences?

So seniors, as a fellow alumna I share the gift of contemplative listening. I recommit myself to this practice, especially when it comes to the hurried paces of parenthood. And my wish for you each is that through this gift may you come to know your own heart deeper, and may you create space to know others hearts. Blessings on your senior project, may it be one that is filled with relationships, contemplative listening, and the gifts of the people of North Minneapolis.

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Resource on contemplative listening, Parker Palmer’s Clearness Committee

One Response

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  1. Dear Beth,
    I have been wanting to write and thank you for this inspiring blog entry.
    Each time I read one of your reflections, I realize more clearly what a blessing it is for me/us to have you helping us! THANK YOU ! And now I will tell you that we are praying for the bumps you have received on the road to returning to MN. But they are only bumps –not barricades ! We’re praying you through!!
    love and confident prayer, S. Karen

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