Spiritual Hospitality

Recently, a friend wrote an online piece about her personal decision to stop watching a popular television show. The response to her essay was swift and defensive: while a few folks actually engaged with her piece, most of them were so offended that they wrote derogatory responses in the comment section, telling her to "lighten up" and "suck it up, princess."

When a few of our friends talked with her about it afterwards, the discussion turned to listening. I made the remark that many of those commenters weren't actually hearing what she said but were reacting defensively, as if my friend had poked them and they were swatting her hand away.

Our wise theologian friend Kelley noted that part of mindfulness is learning the practice of waiting a few moments before we react to what someone has said. True listening means opening ourselves to others instead of biting back, hearing their stories instead of nurturing our own hurts and aches.

As I sat down to read Henri Nouwen's daily devotional book Bread for the Journey, I was delighted that his message flowed right into the midst of our conversation. I love it when that happens. Nouwen says that listening is so important that is it a Spiritual Hospitality.

"To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept."

I had to reread this passage to let it seep in. When we truly listen to others, we aren't eager to justify ourselves, our existence or our opinions. Instead, we are "free," yes, liberated to welcome what others have to say or express.

I don't know about you but that seems nearly impossible to do. Many times, when I react defensively to a comment or critique someone has made to me, it's because I have already felt the truth of it in my own heart. Hearing another express concerns, thoughts, and feelings, especially when they seem to contradict what I feel and believe is so difficult.

I didn't get the whole picture until I read the next day's passage in Nouwen's book. It turns out that this "interior stability" which we draw from is not our own inner strength. Instead, Nouwen says, it is not ourselves but the Spirit which "creates in us a sacred space where the other can be received and listened to."

When I read Nouwen's words, I don't solely think of this as a message for those negative commenters to hear. The truth is, this is a message for me, a daily, even hourly, reminder that all the people in my life need to be listened to.

Not long after my friend's piece went online, I decided to write a comment of my own. I wanted to defend her, to scream at those rude commenters and bite back. I wonder now if I shouldn't have said anything at all. Because the truth is, those commenters have stories too that need to be heard. I wonder that many of them are writing from a place of loneliness, searching for a connection, even if it is online. Many of them are reacting out of their own pain and grief. Is my small comment, meant to defend my friend, only another way to dismiss others as unheard?

As with many lessons, the learning starts in the smallest, most intimate ways. Many days, amidst the bustle of morning school routines, my children leave for the day, rushed and unheard.

As my son crawls into my lap while I type, I feel the urge to stop, to hold and rock him. I am starting at home, showing this kind of hearing hospitality to my children.