Now Hear This: The Healing Power of Compassionate Listening

February 24, 2008
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


            In this sermon series on healing, I have tried to present to you some ideas that I find very challenging to accept, but which, over my years in ministry, I have experienced as being true nonetheless. The first is that we are ultimately truly not in control, and that that isn't a tragedy but merely a fact of life. We can white-knuckle it through life knowing this, or we can open our hands and hold on by letting go.  The letting go, the opening of the hands, can be healing.  The second idea – presented in last week's sermon -- is that love is a divine gift and that we are each held and sustained by a spirit of love that, in some way beyond our human comprehension, desires our wholeness and healing. And now, the final idea that we'll explore together is that, contrary to what common sense may tell us, we often are more help to each other when we simply abide with each other in compassionate presence as listeners, than we are as givers-of-advice and "fixers."

What all of these ideas about healing have in common is that they are all somewhat counter-intuitive, or even irrational. We'll focus today on the simple art of listening – not so simple as all that after all.

When someone we care about, even a fairly casual acquaintance, is struggling in some way, our first instinct is often to offer advice, and why not? We want to be helpful, don't we? And sometimes advice is fine, especially if the struggle is of a practical nature. We have, for example, a Caregivers Group that meets here at church most months, a group of folks who support each other because they are all primary caregivers for parents or spouses or other loved ones.  In this group, there is a rich exchange of resources and ideas, e.g., "When my mother went into the nursing home, we did this-and-such first." Or, "I found when caring for my wife in the last stages of cancer that it was very important for me to get out of the house and have some time to regroup myself." And yet there is also listening, too, and I am sure that any of the participants in the Caregivers Group will tell you that it is in being listened to that they experience the most healing and sense of love.

Caring advice is an important way that we connect with each other as spiritual friends. But when we jump to offering advice as the first response to a person in emotional pain, we're doing two things: first, we may be functioning more as a social services agency or hotline than as a friend, and we may be trying to fix or cure a condition that really asks for healing. And there's a difference. A good doctor can cure, or fix.  But healing is something else altogether.

This is part of what it means to look at life from a spiritual perspective: to know that even where there cannot be a cure, there may yet be healing. And listening, deep listening, belongs to the way of healing. 

Matthew Sanford knows that difference listening can make. He knows the difference between curing, fixing, and healing.

When he was 13 years old, an automobile accident claimed the life of Matt Sanford's sister and his father, and left him paralyzed from the chest down. For the first many months after his accident, doctors had the nearly impossible task of putting his broken body together again. The treatment was violent and horribly painful – body casts, screws in his head, one memorable day when the doctors decided to break his wrist without anesthesia because of time constraints, and other unendurable agonies. His mother, suffering terrible trauma herself and trying to help, gave Matthew the advice to leave his body, to transcend it, get out of it, and escape out of the physical pain and into his mind.

I cannot imagine being a mother in that situation. She had lost her daughter and her husband, and was doing the best she could to manage her own grief while offering her son the best support she knew how to give: "Matt, focus on your mind. Leave your body."

And so for years, Matthew lived that way (his amazing story, if you care to read it, is contained in his memoir Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence).  Eventually, though, twenty-five years after his accident, Matthew learned that if we was going to be a whole person he would have to rebuild a relationship with his body,  to honor its traumatic memories, and to understand that while he would never be physically fixed or cured, he could and would earn a measure of healing that could only come from not trying to, in his words, "step around my body's experience" but to acknowledge what his body has to say. 

When he began to listen to his own body, Matthew learned that contrary to conventional wisdom that advised him to transcend his body – the truth was that his healing could only come through returning to his body, a body like all our bodies which, as he puts it, "will always move toward living for as long as they possibly can." This is what his body had to tell him: that it craved life, and wholeness, broken and traumatized as it had been.  In his words, "My paralyzed body had not fallen silent. It did not die. Rather, it changed its voice, speaking now on a subtler frequency but still offering keys to its inner experience."

Cured? No. Fixed? No.  Fixing Matthew's body was impossible. But healing did come, through an intense practice of yoga (yes, even while almost entirely paralyzed) and is coming still for this man, who is now a busy and popular yoga instructor, a husband, an author and the father of very active biological twin sons. 

Matthew Sanford's story is one that reminds me again and again that our bodies, minds and souls have their own truth to be felt and spoken, and that if the first words out of our mouths to a suffering person are words of advice, a quick interruption in order to sympathize (because we are so uncomfortable with the silence that comes with pain),  or cheerful bromides like "It will get better!" --  we may be committing some kind of unintentional end-run around some deeper wisdom that may be possible for them.  Human life needs the space of silence in order to be real, and to be deep, and to be meaningful. Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, "The strength of faith is silence, and in words that hibernate and wait." As we have discussed in the Pastoral Caregivers team, the fastest way to shut someone down who "needs a good listening to" is to mouth the well-intentioned but door-shutting words, "I know what you're going through." Words must "hibernate and wait" if they are to truly heal.

The fact is  also that we don't ever know just what anyone else is going through. If we do have a similar experience to share, that can come later. Ideally, quite a bit later.  Better to start with just listening. 

Listening is an act of love. 

If you are someone who practices attentive listening, you may know that listening itself can actually be draining.  That is because the one who truly listens is not passive, but receptive, and there's a world of difference between just hearing someone and truly listening to them. My favorite quote about listening says, "Listening does not mean waiting your turn to speak." Listening does not mean jumping ahead in our minds to plan how we might respond or anticipating strategies to "help," when listening is help enough in itself. Nor does listening  mean just keeping ourselves mentally occupied until someone finally shuts up, even if we've heard the story or the memory a thousand times. The essence of pastoral listening, which is the listening that people in spiritual relationship try to do for each other, is to witness to another's life, to hold it with them, to abide with them where they are so that they need not be alone with whatever they are carrying.

By listening, we become witnesses to truth, we hold each other's burdens, and we abide together so that no one need be alone in the wilderness of life.

Earlier, we introduced you to the new Pastoral Caregivers Team:  Jennifer, Melody, Jim, Judy, and Mary Lou. I have been meeting since September with Misty-Dawn to train them in some of the basics of pastoral care, and the theme we have returned to over and over again is the theme of compassionate presence and of active listening.  Other topics we have covered are confidentiality, self-revelation (which asks the question, "When I am acting as a pastoral caregiver for someone, how much of my own story or circumstance should I share?"), being supportive for people as they make their own important decisions (even if they ask for our advice), the ins-and-outs of hospital and home visits, setting good boundaries, life-crises, and end-of-life issues.

It has been a special delight to work with this wonderful team of people and to wade into the waters of spiritual caregiving with them, and to hear their questions as well as their own answers. Every time we meet we have a training focus, and then we "Walk the Parish" together – that is, we go through our roster of friends and members and ask how are people doing, who needs a call or a card, for whom should we be praying, who has a difficult anniversary coming up that we don't want to forget, things like that. Again and again we return to the power of listening, to the importance of just having someone check in on behalf of the church, to try to keep up with the list of concerns, knowing that we are undoubtedly missing some people; hoping we won't miss too many. 

All of the people on this team agreed to be on it because they are willing to be identified as those who provide care within the congregation, which is a tremendous gift to us, and we thank them. When I go on sabbatical in May and then for a longer time in 2009, they will be the team who, together, are especially charged to pastor within the congregation even as many of you will do so in a non-official mode. But now you know some of these new faces. Perhaps you do not know them personally yet. That's okay; you will. Perhaps you wonder if you can talk freely to them; please know that you can.  Your confidences are safe with them. They are covenanted to confidentiality in our meetings and in whatever discussions they have with you.

Perhaps you wonder if it would be a burden to call them for help of some kind; please know that it is not. Our Pastoral Caregivers are trained to listen, to support you, to help refer you to necessary resources, to arrange for meals to be brought to you, to visit you in the hospital or at home, and to be a special church friend to you when you need one.

It's exciting when a group of people comes forward and says "Yes" to a ministry within the church. It is especially touching, I think we all agree, when those who are fairly new among us come forward to share their gifts – whether as a maker of music or a teacher of children, volunteering to help with coffee hour, sitting on a committee, whatever it is.  It is deeply rewarding to observe how taking on a ministry within the congregation changes and deepens all of you, whether experienced or newcomers. I want to make an example here of Jim Bond, one of our PC's – (he has given me permission to do this)—Jim and his mother Judy have been members for just over a year and I was thrilled when both said they wanted to join the Pastoral Caregivers team.

When Jim first started on the committee, he was full of good questions about how to be a good PC. He has listened attentively at all the trainings and taken seriously all our conversations. He is obviously a caring person to begin with. But then, a few weekends ago when I was up preaching in Medford, Misty-Dawn told me that she had led the service here with a bad head cold and that she had gotten so sweaty up under this hot spotlight that apparently she looked as though she might be crying. She knew that because Jim Bond approached her in concern after the service and asked, "Is everything alright?" He wanted to be sure she wasn't weeping. Oh no, no, she reassured him, she was just getting sweaty from her congestion and the heavy preaching robe and the lights. 

What a happy story. Not happy because Misty-Dawn looked like she was crying and she really wasn't, but happy because how good it is to know that we have this team, our Pastoral Caregivers, who have taken upon themselves the sacred work of watching what's going on in the church with that kind of special attention, who will be walking the parish with me in spirit, and who will be listening with the ears of compassion and friendship. 

May their ministry be a blessing among us, and may those of you who feel so called to join this team and receive the training next year not hesitate to let one of us know. As St. Francis said, "It is in giving that we receive." Spirit of Healing, make us instruments of thy peace.  Amen.