(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Listening, as Douglas V. Steere understood it, involves far more than hearing. It is nothing less than a disclosure of the inner person, “where words come from,” as the Indian chief Papunehang exclaimed of John Woolman’s prayer delivered in a language he could not understand. All of us have experienced both listening and not listening, being listened to and not being listened to, in this sense. Steere contends that true listening requires discernment not merely of the external sounds but of what the speaker is trying to communicate that is beyond words, what lies beneath the layer of words at the level of the heart. Every conversation involves more than a speaker and a hearer. It has to do also with what each person meant to say, with what each understood the other to say, and with many other levels of listening. More important still, it involves a spectator listener within each speaker who listens as that person speaks and grasps what is going on at all levels.

Yet deep and genuine listening is rare, Steere claims, for the kind of love that is required for it seldom is present. All listeners experience lapses as a consequence of bored inattention, adverse judgments on what is being revealed or on the person revealing it, and the imposition of one’s own subconscious interpretations because of unfaced fears, evaded decisions, repressed longings, or hidden aspirations. Here the inward spectator must never let up on vigilance toward the outward listener.

A good listener will be characterized by vulnerability, acceptance, expectancy, and constancy. The critical factor, Steere insists, is openness in the listener, which can create a climate for self-disclosure “where the deepest longings in the heart of the speaker feel safe to reveal themselves, . . . where nothing needs any longer to be concealed.” This degree of openness will make a listener vulnerable, for the speaker will know that person has been through some testing, too. Father Damien on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, for instance, put a new note of reality into his ministry to lepers there when, after years of service, he began his sermon one Sunday, “We lepers.”

The good listener will also accept the other person just as that person is, Steere suggests. Acceptance does not mean “toleration born of indifference” but “an interest so alive that judgment is withheld.” By expectancy the good listener “reaches through” to partially concealed capacities in the speaker “by something that is almost akin to divination.” Good listening depends too on a fourth quality, Steere writes, namely, constancy, “an infinite patience grounded in faith in what the person may become.” All other qualities, however, circle back to the first: caring enough to risk being involved.

Listening so as to lead another into a condition of disclosure and discovery goes beyond human listening. Over the shoulder of the human listener, as it were, Steere writes, is “the silent presence of the Eternal Listener, the Living God.” Steere asks, in penetrating to the depths of another, “do we not disclose the thinness of the filament that separates [persons] listening openly to one another, and that of God intently listening to each soul?” As Søren Kierkegaard points out in Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing (1847), the listener stands alone on the stage with God as the audience while the deliverer of the message prompts from offstage in the wings. Psalm 139 reminds us that we can conceal nothing from the Eternal Listener, and it is the presence of this Listener that clarifies and discloses. Such is the point Fyodor Dostoevski makes in the Grand Inquisitor scene of Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912) as Jesus stands silent before the accusations of the Inquisitor until his listening “penetrates to the core of the Cardinal and reduces him to silence.”

The Eternal Listener has exemplified the qualities of vulnerability, acceptance, expectancy, and constancy. He entered flesh and blood and went to the cross to demonstrate how much he cared. As Abbé Huvelin once told Friedrich von Hügel, no Sermon on the Mount could ever have secured our redemption; God had to arrange this by dying so as to convince us he cared supremely. Jesus modeled acceptance, expectancy, and constancy. Steere asks, Can one find any starker demonstration of unqualified acceptance than Jesus’ association with tax collectors, prostitutes, and outcasts of Jewish society? Or of expectancy in what his acceptance did to the impetuous, vacillating Peter, Mary Magdalene, or Zacchaeus? Or of constancy as he rallied the dismayed, fearful, scattered,...

(The entire section is 1922 words.)