A Key Strategy for Promoting Unity
The very first word in the ancient Rule of St. Benedict is “Listen.” “Incline the ear of your heart (Proverbs 4:20)” he wrote. In a monastic community, listening was the beginning of the rule for life together. Thus, St. Benedict advises the abbot to listen carefully in council, even to the youngest and seemingly least significant monk: “God often reveals what is better to the younger.” Listening requires this kind of humility.
In our current ecclesial and political situation, where unity seems so elusive and striving for it seems like a quixotic quest or a fool’s errand, we might ask what would St. Benedict recommend. How would he lead us to greater unity? What advice would he give?
I have two acquaintances who have very different approaches to those with whom they differ significantly. One has told me, referring to people on the other end of the political spectrum, “I don’t even listen to them anymore. They have nothing worth hearing.” This strikes me as the nature of the problem. A marriage is headed for divorce when we stop listening, when we know we are right and they are wrong, when we become dismissive and arrogant. What would St. Benedict say?
My second acquaintance, on the other hand, is engaged in apologetics. Most apologesis that I have encountered follows this pattern: demonstrate to your opponent that they are wrong by showing how reasonable your position is. My acquaintance, however, finds this approach unhelpful. Rather than trying to find out how his conversation partner is wrong, he wants to find out how they are right. He says that everyone who holds firm beliefs does so because they find them to be true. There is something valuable they are guarding. Most often, he finds, they are not wrong at all to value the things they do… they simply didn’t see a way within a religious worldview to protect that same treasure. Now, he has a way forward. He has also gained their respect and trust. They may or may not come to see things his way, but communion has already begun. His method is very Benedictine:
This second approach is not easy. It is much simpler to ignore the opposition and assume they are ignorant or idiots. Yet, only the hard work of listening comports with the values of the Kingdom. Listening is an act of love. It may even be that most radical type of love that Jesus demands: love of enemies! Listening, in this loving way, means humbly putting aside our assurance that we are right and they are wrong. It means putting to death that part of us that believes “they” have nothing to teach me, nothing worth hearing. In the words of St. Vincent de Paul, we should “Make it a practice to judge person and things in the most favorable light at all times, in all circumstances.” This was also the advice of St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. He wrote, “every good Christian [should be] more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.”
Imagine applying this to politics. Can you and I really listen to what Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) has to say, on the one hand, and to what Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) has to say, on the other? Can we listen to a Trump (R) supporter with the “ears of your heart,” not readying ourselves for a rebuttal but simply trying to understand what the person finds valuable and true that we are not seeing? Or, flip it around, can you imagine doing the same thing with a Hillary Clinton (D) or a Barack Obama (D) supporter?
Can we do this within the Church? Can we listen to both Pope Francis and Cardinal Burke, attributing nothing but good intentions to both even where they seem to disagree? Can we listen—really listen—to those who are worried about gay marriage and the high rates of divorce and want greater discipline and traditional theology in the Church? And, conversely, can we listen to those calling for greater spiritual care and a more adequate theology for LGBT people and for the divorced and remarried? Are we willing to listen and to assume good intentions all around, instead of suspecting the other side of being in collusion with the enemy?
Jesus prayed for unity. We must pray as well. But our prayer might be the prayer of the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14), full of arrogance and self-righteousness, if we think we already have a corner on the truth and we alone are the guardians of the faith. Our brothers and sisters have something valuable to share. St. Benedict’s motto was ora et labora – pray and work. We don’t know how to pray, but the readings today teach us that the Spirit will pray on our behalf. The work is also the Spirit’s. And we need to discern the Spirit at work everywhere on the political and ecclesial spectrum. The weeds and the wheat grow together; even in us they are both there. The Spirit alone will help us to discern what is truly good. To cooperate with the Spirit, though, we must do one thing well. With the “ear of your heart,” we must