Yesterday’s gospel turns the tables on a lot of social conventions. For instance, we heard in our first reading how lepers were “outsided” from the community and had to yell “unclean, unclean” so others wouldn’t come near them and risk being contaminated by disease and also become ritually unclean, unable to enter the temple.
But when we turn to the gospel, the leper comes forth and violates that convention and Jesus touches him–another violation. And the leper is included in society once again by being made clean.
The homeless in New York City will tell you that it’s bad enough to be poor or to be addicted to drugs but what’s worse is the averting of the eyes– people often ignore them calling for change or food and thus, turn them into invisible people. I’m often surprised by how unwilling people are to listen to someone else. Often I too, have that unwillingness.
I’m reading a book right now called Holy Listening by an Episcopalian priest, Margaret Guenther, a longtime spiritual director, hospital chaplain and teacher. It should be required reading for spiritual directors, like myself. A great Paulist priest Jim Young once reminded his brothers that “You can actually listen someone into existence again.” I’ve found that to be true in my own spiritual direction sessions with others –and even in my own with my own director.
One story that touched me in Guenther’s book was when she was finished after a long day of listening at the hospital. A New Yorker, she began the journey towards the subway and longed to escape into her paperback and become another anonymous rider.
Alas, it was not to be. Her clerical collar betrayed her wishes as a disheveled woman got on the subway, spotted her collar and sat down and began to unload her story. She was a drug addict and headed for rehab. She hoped that she would make it this time, as many of us know the demons of addition are difficult to overcome. Margaret listened intently and offered her some brief comforting words. Not sure if her words were the right ones, she hoped that she could have at least provided a respite for this woman as she needed someone to talk to.
Of course, then the uncomfortable moment was on the horizon. Should Margaret give her some change or a dollar? As she rose to leave, the woman reached out and grabbed Margaret’s hand and pressed a subway token into it. “Thank you, sister.”
And there is grace. It reminds me of several gospel stories all at once. The widow’s mite, the woman at the well and even this gospel of the leper being made clean.
I think that’s what Margaret was able to do–she re-included this ignored woman, who sought an ear from someone that she thought would accept her. She, as Fr. Young aptly said, listened that woman into life again.
Who needs us to listen to them? Who do we often not have time for or patience for? Doctors often say that they are tempted to finish their patient’s sentences because they need to rush onto another patient. I know I often shortchange my wife who processes thoughts better by talking them out. These sins, if you will, are often undone by one experience of listening, even when exasperated by a day filled with listening.
The good news of the gospel is that God always listens to us and never tires of our groaning. Do we afford God that same courtesy? God whispers to us in the meandering of our days and finds us often deaf to his call, so deaf that his shouting doesn’t even work. Do we mask our unhappiness by refusing to hear that God is calling us elsewhere in our careers or ministry?
My last year at BustedHalo began with me examining that the pastoral side of my ministry was seriously lacking. As great as BustedHalo was, and is, it was and is, more based in media than in direct ministry. I know now that I’m called to the latter, especially in things like retreats and spiritual direction and even alternative breaks. My spiritual director at the time, Fr Rocco Danzi, SJ, could see this. And when I struggled to see that, myself he began to ask me about where I saw God working in me. Often this was when I was doing the ministry work that I loved doing and less of the media work that I enjoy but isn’t always my first call. I needed to leave BustedHalo and was afraid to make that leap. Fr. Rocco said directly, “Mike, I think you’re hearing a very clear call from God.” I replied, “Really, I don’t hear anything and am confused. I know something’s not right. What do you think God is telling me.”
And with a great Philly-style nash, Fr. Rocco said plainly, “God is telling you to get the hell out of there!”
I laughed, of course. And then, I cried. I knew I had to close that chapter, at least part way to grow into something new, something better, something and somewhere that God has called me into renewed life again. In my listening to others, I had also found myself again and thereby, had found God calling me to be that listener for others in ministry.
So today, let us listen to the whispers and screams that God offers us and also to the voices of those ignored, who often have nobody to listen to them. May our listening change our hearts and bring us into service of the poor and the vulnerable. May we listen to the voice of the unborn, of the mother too scared to bring her child into the world. May we hear the cry of the poor, the orphan and the person on death row. May we hear the voice of the dying words of the elderly, who are often lonely and just want a listener.
And may we hear ourselves, in brutal honesty, calling for God to show us more of who we are and where we are called.
And then, listen to that call and have the courage to follow it.