Tag Archive: God

Listening v Hearing



Hearing (Photo credit: Keturah Stickann)

Nick Coleman is a Music Journalist/Critic, in love with many forms of music,  who writes passionately about musical taste, in short music has become his career and livelihood. One morning he woke up feeling dizzy, nauseous and soon had lost his hearing and was experiencing terrible tinnitus.  After battling with depression he has been able to teach himself to hear again.  He talked about his experience yesterday at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  A breakthrough moment for him was when he met the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, who said that to be able to hear again he had to start by remembering his favourite songs.  Through this he learnt that we hear with our brains much more  than our ears.  If you play someone some music and map their brain ‘waves’, then switch the music off  and wait for 15 minutes and ask them to remember the music, the pattern of brain waves is exactly the same.  Working on this Coleman has taught himself to hear again (in one ear) and been able to resume his career.

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Photo credit: raphaelstrada

Towards the end of the session he said, ‘Although I don’t hear like I used to, I listen more carefully, listening is hearing plus mind, I now appreciate music even more;’.  I have been mulling over this difference between hearing and listening.  In an age of an incredible amount of ‘noise’ it could be possible that we are losing our ability to listen because we hear so much.  The art of attentive listening is hugely important, it has a therapeutic value for the person being listened to, it counteracts the loneliness and isolation in modern life. Listening with the mind could also be a useful way to think about prayer or meditation.  When people talk to me about being frustrated with prayer,  getting distracted, I often suggest that some distractions may be worth paying attention to.  It could be that God, who calls us through our deepest desires can sometimes being trying to get through to us through what we classify as distractions.

Rediscovering the art of  attentive listening to each other and to God could be crucial.




Sometimes being snowed-in may save your life

 Today we remember St Jean Vianney – the famous ‘Cure of Ars’.  I was  researching a bit about him yesterday and found a fascinating story.  Born into revolutionary France, when the faith was outlawed, Vianney as a young boy would travel miles to mass with his family to remote farmhouses.  The windows would be covered in cloth, to hide the shine of candlelight. Impressed by the courage of the priests who were risking their lives and the guillotine to celebrate mass, the seeds of a vocation were planted.  Incredibly as a young man, Vianney was press-ganged into Napoleons army to fight the Spanish.  On a forced march to the Spanish border he managed to slip away and was stranded in the mountain village of Les Noes.  The deep snows of a winter stranded him and kept him safe from the zealous gendarmes who were searching for deserters.  During the the long winter he set up a rudimentary school for the children.  He was ordained and his holiness led to the radical spiritual transformation of the community of Ars and its surroundings.  His fame spread far and wide, and soon over 20,000 people a year would travel to Ars on a pilgrimage, and to make their confessions to him, and these was the days before Easy Jet!  In the summer he could spend up to 16hrs in the confessional.

No wonder he is the patron saint of Parish Priests.  What is striking about his story is  the growth of his vocation in the most hostile circumstances, with so many obstacles put up against him.  Echoed perfectly in today’s readings of the Prophet Jeremiah being delivered from execution, and the Gospel of John the Baptist beheading by King Herod. Kings, Emperors, Revolutions – no matter how powerful  they seem, Gods will, sometimes working imperceptibly, will always find a way.   The most powerful force in the world – even greater that the  Higgs Boson or the magnificent  Jessica Ennis.  With an open heart the will of God is irresistible. 


Is God Silent?


Wow – I have just finished reading Shusaku Endo‘s historical novel Silence.  I know that the story will stay with me for a long time. Powerful and haunting. I strongly recommend it as a good Lenten read.

Its main theme is the silence of God in the face of the terrible suffering of Japanese Christians in the face of a brutal persecution by their own government. However perhaps this is misleading. Without wishing to spoil the book,  if you read it carefully it seems that God is not silent – the main character having a few mystical experiences in which God’s presence, encouragement and love have a deep effect on him. So silent or not – maybe the question should be : Do we have the ears to be able to listen and recognise the divine – or are we’ God-deaf?’   In this way it reminds me of another excellent book I read a long time ago – Touching the Void by Joe Simpson.

Cover of "Touching the Void"

Cover of Touching the Void

Like Silence this is also a true story, about a famous British Mountain Climber. Climbing with a friend in a remote part of the Andes - Simpson broke his leg – a almost fatal development in such a remote and harsh place. Needing to descend quickly with bad weather closing in and daylight fading  Simpson’s friend inadvertently lowered him off a cliff.  He could not see or hear Simpson; he could only feel that Simpson had all his weight on the rope. Simpson could not climb up the rope, and his friend could not pull him back up. It looked like they would both die so his friend had an excruciating ethical dilemma –  in the end he has to cut the rope in order to save his own life whilst almost certainly sending his friend to his death.  Simpson plummeted down the cliff and into a deep crevasse but amazingly survived – and having been given up for dead – he crawled back to base camp to arrive just as his friend was burning his clothes and getting ready to depart.

What intrigued me most about this book was that first night that Simpson spent on the ledge in the crevasse.  Staring death in the face Simpson said he touched the void that night – God seemed silent or indifferent and this experience became the basis of his atheism. It might seem to be incredibly presumptuous to disagree with this interpretation. Of course – Only Simpson was there on that terrible night. But by writing a book about it I think he allows us to share his experience in an intense and intimate way.  In his absorbing account of the subsequent events, it is clear that there are two voices in his head.  One telling him to give up – lie down – and let exhaustion and sleep takeover. But there is another voice that keeps urging him on – telling him to get up. maybe that was the voice of God – whether acknowledged or not. Voices of consolation and desolation, voices of death and life.

Both books are rated as classics - Silence in Japanese literature, Touching the Void in Mountain Literature.  A word of caution for Martin Scorsese who is working on a film version of Silence.  I think the book Touching the Void  is much better that the subsequent film was.

…… Of course Scorsese reads this blog!!



Solitude (Photo credit: Lady-bug)

I put my mobile phone (cheap model)  in the washing machine yesterday!  My first reaction when I realized - was curiously one of slight relief. Hopefully it will dry out – but for a while I have an good excuse for not replying to texts!  It is something I am not great at the best of times – but whilst here it is not unusual to get more than 20 a day – which for me is a lot! Pinoys send 1.7bn texts a day – according to comscore – In Europe and the US email is still the primary mode of communication, wheras in the Pacific Rim it is Direct Messaging. Up till fairly recently - click here - more texts were sent in the Philippines than in the whole of Europe.

The Philippines claims to be the most socially connected country in the world with a staggering 94% facebook usage.  I think that figure must reflect multiple accounts rather than population penetration. When I remember my time in the Mountains or the ‘squatter areas’ of Manila all the youngsters wanted to ‘friend’ you on facebook – even in the places where the nearest internet facility was more than a days walk away (in the mountains).  For me there is something unsettling about this intensity.

People often ask me – being celibate – are you not lonely?  And I answer – sometimes – of course!  But the gift of faith is such that you never really feel alone.  As Jesuits we are often immersed in the world with others – sometimes I really look forward to and treasure time alone!  Why this cultural fear?  Maybe we mix up being alone with feeling lonely.  Loneliness (the worlds greatest disease according to Mother Teresa) is a sickness of the soul that we can often experience when we are not alone. Everyone has experienced feeling lonely in a crowd, sometimes sadly being lonely in a community or a marriage.  But I think we only really can listen to our deepest desires – and maybe encounter God if we are alone, still and silent, at least once in a while!

So thanks to the chaplain here at the Ateneo High School I discovered this beautiful video.  It is like a poem / meditation by the Canadian storyteller / singer / poet Tanya Davis. I think (most of it!) is very beautiful. The lyrics are below.

HOW TO BE ALONE by Tanya Davis

If you are at first lonely, be patient. If you’ve not been alone much, or if when you were, you weren’t okay with it, then just wait. You’ll find it’s fine to be alone once you’re embracing it.

We could start with the acceptable places, the bathroom, the coffee shop, the library. Where you can stall and read the paper, where you can get your caffeine fix and sit and stay there. Where you can browse the stacks and smell the books. You’re not supposed to talk much anyway so it’s safe there.

There’s also the gym. If you’re shy you could hang out with yourself in mirrors, you could put headphones in (guitar stroke).

And there’s public transportation, because we all gotta go places.

And there’s prayer and meditation. No one will think less if you’re hanging with your breath seeking peace and salvation.

Start simple. Things you may have previously (electric guitar plucking) based on your avoid being alone principals.

The lunch counter. Where you will be surrounded by chow-downers. Employees who only have an hour and their spouses work across town and so they — like you — will be alone.

Resist the urge to hang out with your cell phone.

When you are comfortable with eat lunch and run, take yourself out for dinner. A restaurant with linen and silverware. You’re no less intriguing a person when you’re eating solo dessert to cleaning the whipped cream from the dish with your finger. In fact some people at full tables will wish they were where you were.

Go to the movies. Where it is dark and soothing. Alone in your seat amidst a fleeting community.
And then, take yourself out dancing to a club where no one knows you. Stand on the outside of the floor till the lights convince you more and more and the music shows you. Dance like no one’s watching…because, they’re probably not. And, if they are, assume it is with best of human intentions. The way bodies move genuinely to beats is, after all, gorgeous and affecting. Dance until you’re sweating, and beads of perspiration remind you of life’s best things, down your back like a brook of blessings.

Go to the woods alone, and the trees and squirrels will watch for you.
Go to an unfamiliar city, roam the streets, there’re always statues to talk to and benches made for sitting give strangers a shared existence if only for a minute and these moments can be so uplifting and the conversations you get in by sitting alone on benches might’ve never happened had you not been there by yourself

Society is afraid of alonedom, like lonely hearts are wasting away in basements, like people must have problems if, after a while, nobody is dating them. but lonely is a freedom that breaths easy and weightless and lonely is healing if you make it.

You could stand, swathed by groups and mobs or hold hands with your partner, look both further and farther for the endless quest for company. But no one’s in your head and by the time you translate your thoughts, some essence of them may be lost or perhaps it is just kept.

Perhaps in the interest of loving oneself, perhaps all those sappy slogans from preschool over to high school’s groaning were tokens for holding the lonely at bay. Cuz if you’re happy in your head than solitude is blessed and alone is okay.

It’s okay if no one believes like you. All experience is unique, no one has the same synapses, can’t think like you, for this be releived, keeps things interesting lifes magic things in reach.

And it doesn’t mean you’re not connected, that communitie’s not present, just take the perspective you get from being one person in one head and feel the effects of it. take silence and respect it. if you have an art that needs a practice, stop neglecting it. if your family doesn’t get you, or religious sect is not meant for you, don’t obsess about it.

you could be in an instant surrounded if you needed it
If your heart is bleeding make the best of it
There is heat in freezing, be a testament.

Stefan with Pedro in Mindanao

Today’s post is from British Jesuit Stefan Garcia – who witnessed the destruction of the Tropical Storm first hand. His mother is English and his father is Filipino.  Before joining the British Province Stefan grew up in Cebu in the Philippines.  He studied zoology before joining the Jesuits – and has just flown to Guyana for Regency.

Home visits. For me they’re about 3 parts joy to 2 parts frustration. After ten years of “living abroad”, a trip back to the Philippines was needed to remind me of where I come from, what made me the person I am, and using a more zoological tone, what kind of environment has shaped me into the Jesuit I am. Coming home for me meant supping from love in abundance, with my family. Sadly, my body reacted not so well; immediately my childhood omnipresent dust allergies fired up.The doctor says I’ll always have this reaction to my homeland. Allergens are most violent when most familiar because your body has an overreaction to the things it has had to deal with. It’s a good metaphor for my emotional life as well. Seeing family and friends after such a long time is genuinely wonderful, but being in this country angers me quite often: the corruption, the greed, the disregard for human life. I guess that’s everywhere, but I never feel it as strongly as when it so close to my heart.

The recent floods in Mindanao were for me especially heart breaking, not only because I was actually there and saw all the devastation, but because I love so many people in those places that were worst hit. And to know that much of this damage could have been easily prevented had the cities placed effective city planning to get people out of living in the most dangerous flood areas makes my blood boil. Being back home, in the Philippines, makes me angry. But it is the right kind of anger, the kind that should propel one to action, the kind that made me say “enough is enough” and so I dedicated my life to try and help others the best way I knew how, by being a Jesuit. Seeing it on the ground in the Philippines, the work of our good Jesuit brothers has been deeply consoling. In particular, my time with Pedro Walpole SJ has shown me what can (and cannot) be done. Pedro is a pioneer in the Philippine province; he works tirelessly to improve both the education of young tribal people (and in turn providing a model that could be adopted by the Philippine education system), and he has developed our knowledge of environmental sciences in the Philippine context. For example, his organisation Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC) will soon be publishing a textbook on landslides. His marriage of both incisive science, involvement with the people most affected, and personal prayer and reflection has shown me a “way of proceeding” that should be emulated by all our sisters and brothers in our apostolates. His team of workers at the ESSC also made me deeply hopeful, to see a group  of young, intelligent, dedicated Filipinos actively working to make their country and the world a better place, especially for those most in need.

It is old timers like Pedro that feed us young ones with the expertise and experiences we need to grow into sincere apostles. For me, the work of the ESSC has given me both the technical knowledge I need and the desire to work skillfully and realistically in what can seem like the bleakest of endeavours. But God leads them through the mire of their difficulties, and like them, I hope to be lead by Him. Through such amazing people, God energises us to do better, not to settle for what clearly is not good enough. I pray that the Lord provides me with the strength and courage that I have experienced in others so abundantly in the Philippines.

All the best in Guyana Stefan.

The website of the Jesuits in Guyana is here – clicky clicky!


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