Cardinal Robert Sarah, seen here speaking at St. Michael’s Cathedral earlier this year, reminds us that God is silence and that the divine silence dwells in man. Photo by Michael Swan

Figure of Speech: Listen to what the Lord wants us to hear

  • October 1, 2018

Mondegreens are those wonderful phenomena in language where a misheard phrase is substituted for the real thing, usually in music. The term comes from American writer Sylvia Wright who explained that she misheard the phrase “and laid him on the green” in a Scottish ballad as “and Lady Mondegreen.” 

My two favourite examples of this come from the Pink Floyd song “Another Brick in the Wall,” in which some listeners believe they hear the lyric “ducks are hazards in the classroom,” and Eddie Money’s classic line, “I’ve got two chickens to paralyze.” In fact, the correct lyrics are “dark sarcasm in the classroom” and “two tickets to paradise.” 

Classrooms are also rampant with misunderstandings. Perhaps none are as cute as what happened in a Bible studies class where an elementary school student explained that the epistles were the wives of the apostles. Another in-class survey of children revealed the following: “Christians should only have one spouse. It’s called monotony.” And then there was the child who believed “Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark.” My favourite, though, was the child who claimed that Solomon had 300 wives but 700 porcupines! Cohabitation can be prickly.

While these may be legitimate misunderstandings, I sometimes feel that, in some matters, we are cursed with selective hearing. There’s a cute cartoon of an elderly couple in which the wife complains to her husband that he only hears what he wants to hear, to which he replies, “thanks, I’d love a beer.”

Selective hearing, though, is no laughing matter. It is the subject of management textbooks, media workshops and even psychological training manuals. 

I think it’s fair to say there are many reasons for this widely shared trait. It may be that we simply want to avoid a task being asked of us. It often is because the news we are hearing is threatening or upsetting. At times it is because we have already decided what an individual is likely to say, and so we hear what we expect. Indeed, in such cases, it matters little what the actual message might be — we’ve determined our response well in advance.

One might speculate that we do the same in prayer. We pray, sometimes guiltily, for something we know we shouldn’t have. Or we ask for forgiveness when the heart isn’t really sorry. Then we fret that the burden of our concern hasn’t been lifted. 

I have heard people say that they pray to God, but never hear back. I can’t help but wonder if the reality is that they don’t like the answer they’re receiving. 

Of course, selective hearing isn’t only a deficit — it can be a positive. Think of professionals forced to work in crowded, noisy spaces — the first responder listening to a victim in the midst of chaos; a crisis-call responder in a busy call centre. If you ask these people how they do this kind of work, their answer is humble and straight to the point: practice and concentration. 

Perhaps, in the end, prayer is the same. Cardinal Robert Sarah, in his book The Power of Silence, speaks against the “dictatorship of noise” and reminds us that “God is silence, and this divine silence dwells in man.” It is always already there. 

To access this sound of silence, however, we must learn not only to be quiet, but also to “cultivate” a deep silence of the soul that might help us to hear the sacred voice. Sarah goes so far as to say that “God’s voice is silent,” a concept many may find strange to contemplate. 

The Old Testament God seems to boom with authority and anger. But really, in our day to day, we must struggle to stay on message — to stay on His message — because we are so assailed with countervailing noise. Or, as Sarah puts it, “the worldly powers that seek to shape modern man systematically do away with silence.”

In the end, I think it’s true to say that we need to learn to focus, to listen, to filter out the white noise, in order to hear the voice of God. But most importantly, we have to be prepared for the answer we may not want. 

If we do this, then, in the words of Isaiah: “the eyes of those who have sight will not be closed; and the ears of those who have hearing will listen.”

(Turcotte is the president at St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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