Benedictine Life, Poetry

“Hearing” by W.S. Merwin and the Benedictine Practice of Listening

This is Part 2 of the series 8 Things Poets and Monastics Can Teach Us About Happiness; with 8 Poems to Make Life More Meaningful.

If you missed it, you can read Part 1 of this series here.

About the Benedictine Practice of Listening

The practice of listening is at the heart of Benedictine spirituality. When I was inquiring into becoming an oblate at Saint Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, MN, our Oblate Director taught me that I should listen “with the ear of the heart” not only for direction or wisdom, but also for the hints or signs of God’s love, which are all around us.

We might experience God’s love in a comforting word, in the smile of a friend or stranger, in the ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds, in the music of a brook thawing after a long winter, or in any of the countless manifestations of beauty, grace, and delight available for us to recognize every day. Signs of love are also present in times of pain, in sorrow, guilt, and in our hunger for justice–if we open the ear of our heart to listen.

Listening is relational when we train the ear of our heart to hear need, authenticity, and/or wisdom:  in scripture, poetry and other spiritual writings; in nature’s lessons; and in the stories of the people around us. We also need to learn to listen to our bodies and to the emotions of our own hearts. As Sister Joan Chittister writes in The Monastery of the Heart: An Invitation to a Meaningful Life, to listen is to accept a wisdom not of our ego. The ability to listen is a hallmark of spiritual maturity, in that it demonstrates mastery over our self-centered impulses by showing our obedience to the greater laws of love and reverence, including self-compassion.

What the poem “Hearing” by W.S. Merwin might have to say about the Benedictine Practice of Listening

W.S. Merwin’s poem “Hearing,” set in a tropical world, begins with the line “Back when it took all day to come up.” This alerts us to slow down. Hearing is going to require a chunk of time.

The poem takes us on a journey from “curving broad ponds on the plains” past mouths of gorges, villages, and “talkers eating fruit under trees,” past the foothills to the higher mountains in the cloud, with waterfalls “white and thundering and spray drift[ing].”

If you’ve ever stood near a thundering waterfall, you know how its sound surrounds and envelops. It requires no effort to hear obvious, inescapable noise.

But the thundering noise is only the starting point in this poem. In the forth stanza, the experience of hearing, or rather the experience of getting to the place where one can really hear, begins. We must take along a tin cup (with an intention to collect water and drink). We must climb up and into the waterfall; we must move closer. We will place our

left foot on a rock in the water
right foot on a rock in deeper water
at the edge of the fall

To hear, then, we move past the noise into the source, the heart. We get into it. We immerse ourselves; we get wet. We make ourselves vulnerable.

This poem feels like it is based on a real experience of a real place, and it probably is. And yet, by titling the poem “Hearing,” the poet indicates that there is more to the story than climbing a tropical mountain to get a drink of water from a tin cup. It’s about finding the memorable sound, the syllable, the word that makes us feel we have encountered something significant—the insight that changes our awareness.

I could feel it move
I could feel it ring in my foot in my skin

in my ears in my hair
I could feel it in my tongue and in the hand
holding the cup

This poem might be saying that when we are alert and “hearing,” when we are in a listening place and listening state of mind, a “voice like a small bell singing” may come to us, not with a sermon or even with a motto, but with “one clear treble syllable” of truth. This is the premise of Lectio Divina (spiritual reading) in which we listen for the word or small phrase that “sings” to us.

Go to the Poetry Foundation website to experience “Hearing” by W.S. Merwin.

Practicing to Become a Better Listener

Who of us really listens well all, or even most of, the time? I’ve been told I’m a good listener, but mostly I’m a good actor. Often I politely bide time until it’s my turn to say something. My rodent-like mind scampers after my own notions, gathers and squirrels away the thoughts I am barely waiting to express while I nod agreeably.

In order to become a better listener, I must practice, focus, try.

I need to shut off criticism and judgement but instead I indulge my pride. This person, this passage of spiritual writing, this poem, this sensation from my body is inappropriate, lazy, boring, inconsequential, less important, wrong, silly, annoying. 

Stop. Listen with the ear of the heart.

I need to recognize what the words, the body and the emotions are expressing but instead I run on the hamster wheel of my preoccupations. I forgot to write the dentist appointment in my calendar. Did L.H. get the text I sent this morning? Did she reply? Swing by the pharmacy on the way home to pick up his prescriptions…

Stop. Listen with the ear of the heart.

A good listener helps us overhear ourselves. —Yahia Labadibi

The longer we listen to one another — with real attention — the more commonality we will find in our lives, that is, if we are careful to exchange with one another life stories and not simply opinions. –Barbara Deming

Listening is like mastering an instrument. The more we practice, the better listeners we become. Listening is the ongoing work of a lifetime. But even while we practice imperfectly, whenever we are able for a moment or two to hear into the heart of things, we glean a bit of wisdom for living this day. We open our hearts to the presence of love. We stand on holy ground.

We don’t gain happiness by having the best, but rather, by being our best selves. To be our best we must first open our hearts to listen, to hear what is essential to know so that we may respond with love.