Here it is, the great calling bell of St Benedict, located at the very beginning of his Rule: ‘Listen, child of God’.
I am listening today. I am listening to P, a vulnerable adult who talks to me of being institutionally abused and hangs around after our weekly Roman Catholic Mass which she sometimes attends. I am not the designated Day Chaplain in the cathedral on this particular Friday, but I will walk down the nave with her, listening, and maybe we’ll find a corner and sit for a while in peace. There is no time limit to quality listening, in my book. P is locked into various official systems aligned with social services, the medical profession and safeguarding, but they all seem to be time poor – whereas I am determined to present myself as time rich, whatever else I might have on. The thing is, being heard is something P is not used to. But I think – I hope - she is able to become, for a short time, the stranger made welcome. If this is foolishness on my part then I think St Paul, as well as St Benedict, might empathise with this desire of mine to listen, in quietness, in this place of safety. She seems calmed by it, given some breathing space and a passing platform for her anxieties. I have noticed that people who are not listened to – really listened to – soon tend to show signs of losing their sense of self, let alone their dignity, as well as what is most fundamental in P’s case: the right to be unmolested.
The opportunity to listen in this special context is a gift for which I’m deeply grateful. It points me beyond the mere fact of offering an open ear, towards the abundance of Benedictine teaching on patience, hospitality, humility and much else.
I sense that sometimes I might brush fleetingly against what it might actually be that moves people who come to a cathedral and find themselves talking to a stranger wearing a black cassock (who isn’t a priest). It seems to come from a longing, too deep to be able to articulate for the most part – an instinctive search for something that doesn’t necessarily recognise itself as such. It prompts the most intimate disclosures, some of them hardly thought out. I think of the rough sleeper who uses the toilet for a wash down; the young man who is troubled by his bad feelings for a Muslim friend; the Ukrainian refugee feeling dazed; the confused schizophrenic who has stopped taking his meds; the tearful widower; the distraught teenager wondering how to pray. ‘Hi Mum,’ she eventually pins on the prayer board, ‘hope you are having a blast in heaven’ (well, it’s a start). Hope, is it? Comfort? Answers? Is this some of what they are looking for here, in this holy place? Maybe it begins with the sheer relief that someone else’s time is going to be given to them.
This is where the true Benedictine quality of listening comes in, I think, along with its ramifications, though I rarely hear of those. That doesn’t matter, as long as I remember these people in my prayers. ‘Attend to the message you hear,’ St Benedict continues ‘and make sure that it pierces to your heart, so that you may accept with willing freedom and fulfil by the way you live the directions that come from your loving father’ (my italics). The simple directness of these words describe the tender membrane on which any of those chaplaincy encounters may be gently allowed to play, in a major or minor key, as the spirit wills. By placing God as my teacher and monitor, I can make the unstated purpose of my listening a template for exploring the sanctity of everyday life. You are not alone, is what I am always saying (or not actually saying), above all. I hope.
So you see I’m not a healer in the counselling or psychiatric sense. I’m not a theologian or a missionary either, though the Dean of the cathedral once generously encouraged me about a difficult person we had both encountered at different times by saying: ‘Just remember, we’re in this together.’
Rather, I find myself to be something like a fellow traveller, a would-be good neighbour, a flawed but committed Christian, willing – to listen, unconditionally. I’m a listener, that’s pretty much it. And you know what? That suspension of my own sense of self during the act of listening turns out to be a kind of healing for me too.
Jane is a lay Benedictine, lives in Hertfordshire and has a doctorate in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has worked as a reporter and feature writer, mainly in the regional press. Print journalism remains an abiding passion for her, but she also writes fiction and has two published novels: The Spinning House Affair and Over Here. If you would like to find out more please take a look at Jane’s website: http://www.janetaylor5555.com/