It must have been particularly difficult having a conversation with Stephen Hawking, especially towards the end of his remarkable life.
His colleague, Leonard Mlodinow says as much, as he wrote in yesterday’s New York Times.
“Stephen could compose his sentences at a rate of only about six words a minute. At first I would sit impatiently, daydreaming on and off as I waited for him to finish his composition.
“But then one day I was looking over his shoulder at his computer screen, where the sentence he was constructing was visible, and I started thinking about his evolving reply. By the time he had completed it, I had had several minutes to ponder the ideas he was expressing.”
So Mlodinow (I’m relieved I’m not reading this blog out aloud), concludes: “This was a great help. It allowed me to more profoundly consider his remarks, and it enabled my own ideas, and my reactions to his, to percolate as they never could have in an ordinary conversation.”
As a rule we are not good listeners. To quote Ernest Hemingway: “Most people never listen.”
I often recall a conversation when on placement all those years ago as a theological student at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle. For me it was new territory and I was finding it very difficult, so I explained all this to the hospital chaplain.
He was hugely busy but I remember him giving me his total attention. I could actually see him listening to me, to what I was trying to say. Just that made all the difference. Good listening affirms.
But first we need to learn how to listen – and it does not come naturally to self-centred creatures as we are. Above all, listening to God.
For as Pope Paul VI points out: “Of all human activities, man’s listening to God is the supreme act of his reasoning and will.”
“Hear, O Israel.” So begins the Shema, the Hebrew word that begins the most important prayer spoken daily in the Jewish tradition.
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Priority #1 is to hear what God is saying. But sadly, we have other priorities, we follow our own agenda. It’s not that we can’t hear God. We simply would rather not.
So God sends his prophets to his people, often using dramatic effects to grab their attention, which Ezekiel in particular developed into an art form, beginning with him eating a scroll and progressively becoming increasingly bizarre.
Almost in despair he speaks to God. “But the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.” (Ezekiel 3:7).
Jesus used stories, simple stories from everyday life. Vivid, memorable and easy to understand.
Well, actually no – certainly for the original listeners. In fact, as soon as Jesus finishes his first parable, ironically the one about how to listen, no one understood what he was getting at. “What’s all this about a sower sowing his seed? What’s he getting at?”
So Luke recounts: “Then his disciples asked Jesus what this parable meant. He said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that “looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.” (Luke 8:9)
Jesus knew that we are not good listeners. So he makes us work at it. Like Professor Hawking’s speech-generating device, trying to understand the parables slows us down, make us reflect, causes us to ponder.
Jesus teaches us that listening is hard work demanding our entire attention. And it takes time and practice.
But Jesus shows us how. In meeting the outcast woman at the well in Samaria, Jesus gives her his attention. That itself was remarkable, to the evident surprise of the returning disciples.
And he was in no hurry. He knew it would take time for her to open herself up to him. So he listens. And continues to listen despite her curt responses, he hears her heart.
Then – astonishingly – Jesus reveals himself to her. When she tells him “I know that Messiah is coming, he says to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” (John 4:25f) She is now able to hear what he is saying to her.
The fruit of good listening.