Sunday, October 4, 2009

Gandhi, St Francis, and Listening from the Heart....

After attnding a Quaker meeting, Gandhi gave it his glowing endorsement: "I greatly admire the silent prayers. We must devote part of our time to such prayers. They afford peace of mind."

I'm going to discuss the relationship between social activism and silent worship in a talk I plan to give this morning at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. The title of this talk is: “Listening from the Heart,Speaking Out of the Silence."

I just realized today is also St Francis Day, so I will probably also recall the prayer attributed to him. The original version appeared in France in 1912 (I used to have a plaque with the French version in my office). It reads:

Seigneur, faites de moi un instrument de votre paix.
Là où il y a de la haine, que je mette l'amour.
Là où il y a l'offense, que je mette le pardon.
Là où il y a la discorde, que je mette l'union.
Là où il y a l'erreur, que je mette la vérité.
Là où il y a le doute, que je mette la foi.
Là où il y a le désespoir, que je mette l'espérance.
Là où il y a les ténèbres, que je mette votre lumière.
Là où il y a la tristesse, que je mette la joie.
Ô Maître, que je ne cherche pas tant à être consolé qu'à consoler,
à être compris qu'à comprendre, à
être aimé qu'à aimer,
car c'est en donnant qu'on reçoit,
c'est en s'oubliant qu'on trouve, c'est en pardonnant qu'on est pardonné,
c'est en mourant qu'on ressuscite à l'éternelle vie.

The prayer also fits nicely with the theme of my talk: "Listening from the heart..."

I always feel at home among Unitarians because like the Quakers, they do not ascribe to a creed or a set of dogmas, but have principles they try live by. They value the dignity and worth of every individual, theyencourage people to think for themselves, theyare open to fresh ideas about Truth, and they are concerned about social justice and peacemaking, just like the Quakers.
The main difference between Quakers and Unitarians is in the manner of worship. Unitarian worship tends to be carefully planned, just like most Protestant worship services. Quaker worship is spontaneous. We gather together without a pastor or pre-arranged plan of worship so we can be open to “the still, small voice” within us. As a Quaker named Marsha Halliday explained:

We meet in plain, unadorned rooms because we have found that, in such places,
we are less distracted from hearing that still small voice. There are no
pulpits in our meeting rooms because we minister to each other. Our benches
or chairs face each other because we are all equal before God. We have no
prearranged prayers, readings, sermons, hymns, or musical orchestrations
because we wait for God's leadings (guidance and direction) and power in our

“During worship, a message may come to us. Friends have found that messages may be for our personal reflection or for sharing on another occasion. Or they may be a leading to stand and speak. Friends value spoken messages that come from the heart and are prompted by the Spirit, and we also value the silence we share together. Following a spoken message, we return to the silence to examine ourselves in the Light of that message. Meeting for worship ends when one Friend, designated in advance, shakes hands with his or her neighbors. Then everyone shakes hands. No two meetings are ever the same.”

This mode of worship was one that Gandhi found very appealing. Back in the 1920s, when a British Cabinet Mission went out to India to try to settle the Indian question, they took part in several Quaker Meetings which were attended by prominent Indian leaders, both Muslim and Hindu. Mahatma Gandhi attended one of these meetings.

Afterwards Gandhi spoke highly of the calm atmosphere which prevailed at this Quaker meeting for worship. "I greatly admire the silent prayers," he said, "We must devote part of our time to such prayers. They afford peace of mind."

Gandhi also said: "In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness." He also saw a connection between prayer and activism: "Prayer is not ...idle amusement,” Gandhi said. “Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action."

Silent worship is what drew me to the Quakers back in 1984. At the time, I had completed my Ph.D. in British literature at Rutgers University and was finishing up a stint teaching at Carleton College in Minnesota, but my life was in crisis. I had just gone through a painful divorce and my widowed mother was dying of emphysema. I went back to Princeton—my hometown—to help my mother and my kid sister during this difficult time.

My family situation was so complicated, so fraught with emotional turmoil, I felt helpless, so I asked God for assistance. Not long afterwards, an old friend of mine from graduate school showed up at my house and seemed to radiate calmness. He had changed drastically from the hyper person I knew from grad school so I asked him what had caused this change in his life. He told me about Quakerism and how it had helped him to find inner peace. Since I needed some peacefulness in my life, I decided to give Quakers a try.

Princeton Quakers meet in an old 18th century meetinghouse located in a beautiful,
peaceful wooded area near Stony Brook where I used to go fishing as a kid. I entered this ancient meetinghouse and sat down on a bench in front of a stone fireplace with forty or so others. We soon settled into deep silence. It was the most profound spiritual experience I had ever had, and it was just what I needed. I realized I didn’t need a preacher, or music, or words of any kind to have a relationship with the Divine. It was enough to sit in silence and experience the calm, peaceful Presence that lies deep within us. Quakers call this by many names: the Inner Light, the Inward Christ, the Seed. But there is really no word that can begin to describe what this experience is like. Paul perhaps said it best when he called it “the peace that passeth understanding.”

This is where Quaker peacemaking begins, in our way of worship. From this method of worship springs our Quaker commitment to peace, justice, and equality.

Our Quaker way of worship has been called “listening spirituality.” We worship in silence so we can listen more deeply to the “still, small voice” within ourselves. To hear this deep wisdom, we must let go of all the superficial chatter in our heads—the voices of our parents, our teachers, and others telling us what to do or think, or reminding us of chores we need to get done.

When we learn to listen to the “still, small voice” within ourselves, we also can learn to listen more deeply to others.

One of my Quaker mentors was a woman named Gene Hoffman who developed a technique she called “Compassionate Listening.” This technique is also sometimes called “listening from the heart.”

Such listening is based on the idea that most of us carry within us deep hurts and these hurts make it hard for us to open up to others. We cover up these hurts with our ego defenses—verbal rationalizations for what we do or say or believe. Beneath these ego defenses and hurts are our core values—the deep wisdom and truth which is the real essence of our lives.

When we listen deeply, we can hear beyond the ego defenses, beyond the hurt feelings, to the core of another person. Listening at this deep level is a healing experience both for the listener and for the one listened to. We may not agree with another person’s viewpoint, but we understand and appreciate where that person is coming from. We feel empathy and respect.

I practiced “compassionate listening” when I went to Israel/Palestine a few years ago. For two weeks we listened to Jews, Palestinians, settlers, people in settlements, peace people, and most difficult of all ,to parents who had lost their children to the violence. We listened without judgment, which sometimes was very hard. But such compassionate listening opened us up to a deeper understanding of diverse people and their even more diverse viewpoints.

Compassionate listening also helped me in my personal life. It helped me to listen to my mother, to my wife, to young people I worked with, and to people in the peace movement who are sometimes very conflicted. Gene Hoffman once wrote:

“During my life I’ve worked with many peace people and peace groups. Rarely were the people I worked with peaceful. Perhaps I was the least.”

Gene went on to say that “like our counterparts in the military, we thought or ourselves as the righteous ones, while those ‘out there’ were the ones to change.” As a result, we seldom changed anyone. “We weren’t meeting with the opposition; we weren’t in dialogue with them or listening to them. We didn’t have a notion of their hopes or grievances were. We listened mostly to ourselves.”

Gene challenged people in the peace movement to listen to those we disagree with, and to try to understand where they are coming from. It’s very hard, and very few in the peace movement even try. We prefer to preach to the choir.

“Listening from the heart” is not something we learn from conventional education. What I learned in college and grad school was to express myself, to make my point. My conventional education was all about me communicating my ideas. My Quaker education was all about hearing the wisdom in others.

Such a practice has made a huge difference in my life. Listening from the heart has enabled me to be more effective in conflict resolution and has deepened my understanding and appreciation of those with whom I disagree. It made me a better teacher, a better husband, and better person.

I learned how to listen from the heart in meeting for worship. Not everyone who speaks during a Quaker meeting for worship is a gifted preacher, and not everything said spontaneously is a pearl of wisdom. Nonetheless, we try to listen with compassion for the deep truth that may be lurking beyond the words. Our Faith and Practice advises us to be compassionate and non-judgmental listeners:

Those who are led to speak have different backgrounds, verbal skills and interpretive power. Friends try to listen more than they speak, keep an open heart, seek the Spirit behind the words and hold the speaker in love. Listeners may find it helpful to pray that the messenger is faithful to the call, and that God’s word will emerge through the medium of human speech. A message that does not speak to one person’s needs may be helpful to another. After a message has been given, it is important to allow time to ponder its meaning, letting the Spirit move through the assembly of Friends before another ministers.

The non-judgmental listening skills we acquire during meeting for worship can be applied to situations in our daily lives. Such listening can make a huge difference.
Quakers do not have dogmas we are required to believe. Instead, we have advices and what we call queries, or open-ended questions, that stimulate us to reflect. One of my favorite queries is:

Do we practice the art of listening, even beyond words?

Do we listen, even beyond words? Real listening takes time, and that’s why it’s a lost art in our culture. Real listening sometimes mean waiting until a shy person, or a people with deep hurts or deep wisdom, feels that it is safe to speak.
In our Quaker worship sharing sessions, several minutes sometimes pass after one person has finished speaking and another person starts speaking. In that long period of waiting in silence we try to listen as deeply as we can to what has been said, and to what is stirring inside us. In so doing, we create a space where we can share the deep wisdom that is within us, the wisdom that comes from the heart and speaks to the heart.

So I will leave you with two questions to reflect upon:

How do you feel when you are listened to, and feel really heard?

How has listening deeply helped you in your relationship with others?


  1. Hi Anthony,
    Thanks very much for the insightful words especially the paragraph beginning with "Friends try to listen more than they speak, keep an open heart, seek the Spirit behind the words and hold the speaker in love."
    Too often, I am preoccupied with all the noise in my head or take the other person's offensive words as the last word rather than as maybe a cover for their own hurts and confusion.

    In the Light of God,
    Daniel Wilcox

  2. Holding the speaker in love is the key. When our hearts are filled with unselfish love, that's when real listening begins...