Friday, March 18, 2016

The Apostolate of the Ear

Mostly people are looking for someone to listen to them.
Someone willing to grant them time, to listen to their dramas and difficulties.
This is what I call the "apostolate of the ear," and it is important.
Very important.
--Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy

A few Thursdays ago, I heard a homily on listening. Using the Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 7:23-28) and the Psalm (Psalm 95), the priest said that when we stop listening to God, we eventually become hard-hearted and stiff-necked, unable to turn to Him because we've cut off His voice. Turning to the Gospel (Luke 11:14-23) with Jesus's curing of the mute man by driving out a demon, the priest added that when we listen to people, we heal their "muteness." I had never thought of the act of listening as an act of healing before. It brought into sharp focus what Pope Francis calls "the apostolate of the ear" in his book, The Name of God is Mercy (New York: Random House, 2016).

Over seventeen years ago while my brother was working on his theology degree at Moody Bible Institute, he had to do a chaplaincy internship at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Because of that experience, he gave me this medal the following Christmas:

On the back of the medal is this:

"I am a Catholic. Please call a priest."

That's right! Even though we were Protestant, I was given a medal that declared that I was Catholic and to call a priest in an emergency. When my brother gave it to me he said, "The only chaplains who knew what they were doing at Cook County Hospital were the Catholic priests." They were the ones he met who consistently went to the patients with mercy and care. The priests did not try to convert anyone. Instead, they wanted to minister to everyone, especially through listening to those who were suffering. My brother (who at the time was a fan of Charles Spurgeon and R. C. Sproul) said that if ever I ended up in an emergency, he wanted to be sure someone called a Catholic priest for me. He also gave one to our mother for the same reasons.

My brother learned well from those Catholic priests at Cook County Hospital. During his internship, he encountered a man who hated Christians. Instead of leaving the room disgruntled, as many had before him, my brother stayed and asked, "Why?" And then he listened. He listened so well, that he was able to go back to see the man and minister to him until he left the hospital. My brother gave freely of his apostolate of the ear and was able to help someone that many considered beyond hope.

Later on, my brother made videos for Seattle's Union Gospel Mission in their marketing department. He interviewed people from all over the Mission and the city. He listened to the homeless tell their stories, he let the children at the shelter say whatever was on their minds, and he gave an ear to all the people who tirelessly made the Mission work. Because of his patience and compassion, he gave a voice to those the world sees as used up, bothersome, and inconvenient. He empowered the mute to speak.

Although weeks have passed since I heard the homily on listening to God and others, it has stayed with me. When one of my teenagers seems too quiet, I know it's time for me to put everything aside and listen to them. When one of my younger kids is too loud, I know it's because they don't feel they are being heard, and I need to listen better. Unfortunately, knowing something and putting it into practice are two different things. As much as I love my children, it often takes conscious effort to stop and give them my ear. For strangers, it takes even more effort.

The Chrism Mass for our diocese was last Tuesday. Sitting in a back pew with my toddler didn't last long, of course, so I took her out to the vestibule. She wasn't satisfied with that so we walked up and down the stairs outside while the bishop gave his homily. I was at the point of completely regretting my decision to go that night when out of the blue I looked up to see a man standing with his bicycle staring at the cathedral.

"What kind of church is that?" he asked me. I could barely hear him, so I walked closer. He was clean, though his clothes were ragged. In a basket on the back of his bike hung various bags, and he towed a small cart with a box that was carefully covered with a plastic sheet. I thought of my friend Annie and her book about the hobos (they prefer to be called "hobos" rather than "transients") in Austin, and I wasn't afraid. As I walked down another step, another man, probably a college student, came up behind me who was going to Mass late. "It's Catholic! You can come into the service!" he shouted down to the man with the bike, a hobo who couldn't stop looking at the Church. "Yes, you can come to the Mass. Come on in," I smiled as I said this to him, despite my toddler trying to struggle free from my grasp.

"No, no, I don't want to go in. But I had a friend in Portland who was Catholic. I really liked him. That's a beautiful, beautiful Church," he barely looked at us as he spoke, but his face softened and became lighter. He muttered a little as he gazed at the Church doors. I told him again that he was welcome to go into the Mass (that I was failing miserably at attending), but he shook his head. The young man and I listened a little longer, and then the hobo got back on his bike, going God knows where. With that, the moment was gone. I went back to herding a toddler to Mass, but this time feeling grateful that I had chosen to go instead of regretting it. Being there to listen to the man on the bike had blessed my heart. Perhaps listening to others is healing for the listener, too, not just for the one who needs to be heard.

(A video by my brother, Glenn Allyn, from 2011, nominated for a Northwest Emmy.)

©2016 Emily Woodham

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