Listening with the Heart: Conversation as Charity

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by Robert C. Morris


I beg you to lead a life worthy

of the calling to which you have been called,

with all humility and gentleness, with patience,

bearing with one another in love.

—Ephesians 4:1-2, NRSV


“You mean I’m supposed to take my brother-in-law seriously?” the smartly dressed minister from the big downtown church blurted out. The question poked its way into the discussion following my address to a mainstream clergy group on the subject of “The New God-fearers: Spiritual Pilgrims Beyond the Walls of the Church.” I had encouraged them to see some aspects of holistic health, environmental concerns, and New Age seeking as a real, if sometimes covert and confused, search for God.

“I mean,” the elegant cleric continued, “he's into some really weird stuff: power spots on the earth, drumming to open your consciousness to the higher realms, whatever they are. I’m supposed to take that stuff seriously?” There was more than a hint of contempt in her voice.

“How do you think Jesus would deal with your brother-in-law?” I asked. She couldn't imagine what Jesus would make of such silliness.

“What about listening to him?” I suggested. “Jesus seems interested in really knowing people. What about listening to him, to the passion that this ‘stuff’ stirs in his soul? What about asking him why it matters so much to him, and what he's looking for in it? Who knows what opportunity for sharing that might lead to? What unexpected common ground?”

Too often we're so busy being right we have no time to listen to each other's souls. Taught from early childhood to form and defend our own opinions, we step on the soapbox as soon as we meet something contrary to our own viewpoint. We want to debate or debunk, defend or deny rather than taking the time to listen beyond or behind the other person's words to the movements of the heart that give rise to those words. And so we become bogged down in what Deborah Tannen calls the argument culture,* recreating the mayhem of the radio talk shows in our denominational conventions, church meetings, family gatherings, and personal conversations. By now, it's a familiar and often tedious set of standoffs: pro-life vs. pro-choice, pro-gay vs. family values, New Age vs. “authentically” Christian. Everything gets to be pro and con, us and them. Then both sides wonder, “How can those people believe such stuff?” Impatient with “such nonsense,” we no longer take the time to look, to listen, and to learn. We no longer have the patience for “bearing with one another” (Eph. 4:2, NRSV).

We do not have to believe that truth is purely relative to practice a genuine respect for souls. The elegant minister was unwilling to tolerate her brother-in-law in the most basic sense of the word: “bear with.”* She couldn't stand to be in the presence of his opinions without breaking out into theological hives. This intolerant impatience, in turn, was creating a barrier in her mind to hearing the heartbeat of his soul.

What might she learn if she asked with gentleness, listened with humility, and bore with him patiently? She might actually remember that her own biblical tradition is alive with power spots where people like Jacob discovered that “the LORD is in this place, but I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16, KJV). She might be reminded that her own religion is based on revelations from a higher realm (e.g. Rev. 4:1). Most importantly, she might discover what happens in her brother-in-law's soul as he stands in one of his holy places. What is his sense of the sacred there? What does he think the nature of the higher reality is? How does it make his life different? Only when she has reached this deeper level of hearing the spiritual truth inside the unfamiliar packaging will she be able to dare some sort of discernment in the light of her Christian values: is this experience making her brother-in-law's soul more or less open to the kind of Spirit manifested in Christ? She might even have a chance to share with him her holy places, her experiences of the holy.


Learning the Art of Deep Tolerance

The notion of tolerance as an active, life-giving virtue came to prominence in the West only after a hundred years of brutal religious bloodshed following the division of Europe into warring Protestant and Catholic factions. It was a lesson hard learned, paid for by the death of many thousands. They decided, in Paul's words, to “bear with” their differences in a new civic gentleness, which became the basis for what we now consider “humane” behavior.

We now take tolerance so for granted that we often think it's a breezy, easy way to say that differences don't really matter. That's indifference, not tolerance. Tolerance only comes into play when differences do matter, when they rub you the wrong way, annoy and irritate you, and make you want to do something to set the other person straight. Tolerance means you inhibit your desire to belittle, demean, ridicule—anything to lessen the power of what bothers you; anything but let it be; anything but listen more deeply. Maybe we should call it "deep tolerance" to distinguish it from tolerance-as-indifference.

My most important lesson in such tolerance came, oddly enough, not in debate or discussion, but in relation to my own emotional life. Growing up in a household of high emotional reactivity, I had very little tolerance for my own feelings. At least that's the way my bioenergetic therapist put it when I described the ways I was often “attacked” by anger or fear, or “hijacked” by joy and love into overenthusiastic behavior and unrealistic expectations.

Bioenergetics is a way of accessing feelings through the body.* It observes that emotions don't just manifest subjectively in the mind, but are also energy happening in the body. The healing path toward self-awareness and self-control, as the bioenergetics language puts it, is to let both body and mind “tolerate” or “allow” the emotional energy to be there without having to act on it immediately. It's a contemplative approach to body and emotions. As I practiced the bioenergetic body postures designed to surface latent emotions, I became progressively more aware of how programmed I was to “discharge” feelings in knee-jerk reactions. “Let the energy be,” soothed the therapist. “Make a space to contain it. Let yourself know the feeling.” Slowly I learned to tolerate feelings, “holding” the energy in the body, letting the emotions reveal themselves, giving myself time to make a conscious decision about what sort of action might be appropriate.

For the first time in my highly thinking-dominated life, I began to be able to listen to my feelings and know them deeply, instead of just catching a glimpse of them as they raced by into some immediate action. More importantly, however, I found my relationship to other people changing. My ability to “bear with” others' behavior without flying off the handle increased significantly, because I was able to bear with my own inner reactions less reactively. I came to understand this process as a form of compassionate attentiveness to myself and to others. I experienced a lessening of the inner emotional pressure to correct a seemingly foolish opinion, to jump in with the right answer, or even to leap all over other people's sentences in enthusiastic agreement. In its place came the mental space to listen more calmly and considerately to the expressions of another's head and heart.

Since then I have observed again and again how conversation turns to argument, in part, because one party can't bear with the feelings the other arouses. In conversation with a liberal friend, I bring up a conservative manifesto in my own denomination. Though disagreeing with their position, I find their analysis of the breakdown of canon law in my church well put and challenging. At the first mention of this group ray my friend won't hear any more. He simply “cannot stand them” and “won't even honor them with consideration.” He has certainly declared himself clearly. In such a state, people won't tolerate their own fear, or uneasiness, or anger long enough to continue meeting the other as a mystery to be explored rather than a problem to solved. In such moments, intolerance acts as a block, not only to charity, but also to knowledge itself. My friend not only refused to know what the conservative faction was saying; he closed his ears to what was on my own heart as well, caring to hear only the din of his own opinions. He refused to know me.


The Ear of Those Who Are Taught

Morning by morning God wakens,

wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.

—Isaiah 50:4, NRSV

Many years ago, the Episcopal parish I served invited a team of lay people to come lead a spiritual renewal weekend. The deeper we got into the planning process, the more apparent it became that these folk were considerably more revivalist in their manner than we had anticipated. While much of what they proposed seemed helpful, our parish leadership balked at the idea of an altar call on Sunday morning. Having grown up familiar with highly dramatic altar calls, I felt that the power of group pressure and crowd emotion were not the best atmosphere in which to ask for deeper commitment to Christ. We decided instead to have a time of silent prayer in which people could make their own act of commitment.

As I stated our case to the visiting renewal leaders, one of them, whom I’ll call “Ted,” sat forward defensively and started to argue with me while the other, “George,” took a deep breath, settled back in his chair, and listened very quietly to what I was saying. Ted became quite argumentative, accusing us of trying to block the work of the Holy Spirit. I countered that the work of the Spirit didn't depend on this particular ritual. Ted turned to his co-leader for backup, but George softly urged him to back down. “The Lord's been teaching me,” he shared, “that when there's opposition to something I've planned, I need to listen more deeply.” What had George heard? “I've never considered looking at an altar call the way you describe it.”

Listening so as to learn requires some discipline. At the interfaith adult learning center I direct, we use a set of conversational norms for what we call “transformational learning.” The norms include practices widely used these days in group meetings such as letting everyone have a chance to speak, valuing differences, speaking personally and specifically rather than in generalities, and respecting the right of people to differ. All this helps conversation about difficult or intimate topics flow in a civil and often gracious manner. But the two most important norms take us beyond mere civility into the kind of patience that makes for real, heart-changing learning: 1) Listen actively, and let the other person finish; 2) Listen deeply for the passion behind the other's words. To have the “ear of those who are taught” requires both.*

First, the discipline of letting others have their full say without interrupting, debate-style, gives others respectful space to formulate thoughts and express convictions. Most of us can't say what we mean in one quick, clear statement; we need a bit of time to mutter our way to clarity. When the listener can maintain interior silence as well—not forming clever comments or winning arguments but keeping the mind open and receptive—we may hear even familiar opinions and sentiments in surprisingly new ways. By bearing with others through such simple conversational ritual we increase the possibility of knowing them more truthfully.

Second, once we've “set a guard” over our own lips (Ps. 141:3, NRSV) we are more able to listen deeply for the other person's passion, beyond the buzz words, phrases, or even ideas that set off our own disagreements and disagreeableness. Rather than taking to the barricades at the first sign of a contrary idea or unfamiliar experience, we may be able to explore respectfully what's behind the first rush of words. What in this opponent's life experience leads to these convictions? What values stand behind this stance? Once we move to the realm of experience and value, we may discover mutual concerns we never imagined. The pro-lifer and pro-choicer may realize that they both care passionately about quality of life for children. The family values defender and gay marriage proponent may both be passionate about the importance of commitment and consecrated sexuality. Biblical fundamentalist and modernist may both care deeply about hearing God speak through Scripture. Discovering such mutuality may not settle any arguments. How we feel about our opponents may, however, be changed immeasurably for the better. Thus the very nature of our discourse may be transformed from acrimony to real debate.

I know a man whose keen interest in creationism is enough to bring any liberal suburban dinner party to a screeching halt. The conversation either devolves into a contest of alleged facts between Mike and his opponents, or meanders awkwardly and quickly to another subject. Creationism is not only unfashionable in this crowd, it's embarrassing. Everybody knows evolution is true. End of discussion. One night, however, my friend Stefan took the conversation in a different direction simply by asking Mike why this mattered to him so much. Mike's answer was quick, clear, and sincere: “Evolution banishes God from the universe. Is this a creation or an accident?” Suddenly the door was open for everybody to enter the conversation because the real subject had been revealed. Now we were talking about how we see God in the creation. Could God create through evolution? Was random selection, as the strict Darwinian theory goes, the only factor at work? How did we see God in natural processes? The evening ended in continued but amiable disagreement over creationism, with some rich sharing about how different people perceived God in the wonder of nature, and a shared sense that the universe is no accident. Most importantly, Mike was now seen by this crowd as a man with a much more passionate concern for God than the defender of dubious science.


Conversation as Charity

Conversation is always an act of love, though we may not realize it; ordinary, down-to-earth, daily, taken-for granted charity. By our willingness to converse rather than fall to fighting at the first sign of conflict, we create what Rowan Williams calls the “social miracle” of conversation that sustains our civil life in families, schools, workplaces, and churches.* Every act of listening, inquiring, restating, courteous challenging, gracious backing down, asking again, and listening is an act of ordinary love that creates community where there might be chaos. Cutting off conversation is the first act of excommunication.

What's at risk in our impatient arguing with one another, especially in the church, is the sacred ground of each other's souls. Our strongest convictions are rooted in our life-experience and deepest values. When the soul-stuff out of which these convictions come is never shared, then our disagreements become “like sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1, KJV). Yes, there may be intellectual debate between differing opinions. At times, one side may be more right than the other. Indeed, a particular truth may win the day, at least from the perspective of the winning side, whether it be conservative or liberal (or whatever other inadequate label is affixed to the winning position). But I often wonder what other realities have been trampled in the triumph. If our calling in Christ is to “speak the truth in love” (see Eph. 4:15) we usually fail either truth or love in these great arguments. Maybe it is because we don't see love as a part of the path to truth.

Real conversation depends on a “bearing with” each other so normal and necessary we don't even think about it until the conversational going gets rough. That's when the real call to charity begins. To continue in conversation at that point is to recognize each other as fellow children of God worthy of respect, not just as rivals or opponents. It may take twenty minutes or twenty years to “hear what the other person is saying,” and we may disagree still. But if we have both listened with the compassionate attentiveness that can only grow in the soil of forbearance and patience, we will both have become somewhat more like the God who chooses to “bear us daily” (Ps. 68:19).



1 *Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words (New York: Ballantine, 1999). Tannen's thesis is that the media, especially, trains us to frame everything in either/or categories because there is more interest and energy in conflict.

2 *Tolerate is from toleratus, to endure, which is from the Latin root tollere, to bear, carry, or lift up; as in Agnus Dei, qui tollit peccala mundi, "Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world."

3 *Bioenergetics is a psychotherapeutic discipline based on the work of Freud's disciple Wilhelm Reich, as reformulated by Alexander Lowen. For more information, see Alexander Lowen, Bioenergetics (New York: Penguin, 1994).

4 *For a four-page pamphlet. Sharing in the Spirit, about creating discussion groups that practice respectful sharing, contact Interweave, P.O. Box 1516, Summit, NJ 07901/ [email protected].

5 *Rowan Williams, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, ch. 2, "Charity" (Harrisburg, Penn.: Morehouse Publishing, 2002), 54.

Excerpted from “Listening with the Heart: Conversation as Charity” by Robert C. Morris. Originally published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Nov./Dec. 2015/Jan. 2016), Vol. 31, No. 1. Copyright © 2016 The Upper Room.

Robert Corin Morris is the founder of Interweave, an ecumenical and interfaith learning center in Summit, NJ.  An Episcopal priest and trained spiritual director, he is the author of three books, including the Upper Room’s Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life. 


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