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Listening to the Word

by Romano Guardini

Silence and speech are interdependent and together form that nameless unit which supports our spiritual life.  But there is another element essential here: hearing.

            Let us imagine for a moment a Dialogue Mass; Epistle and Gospel, indeed, a substantial part of the Mass is read aloud in English.  What do those believers who love the liturgy and wish to participate in it as fully as possible do?  Yes, they take their missals in hand and read along with the reader.  They mean well, they are eager not to miss a word; yet how odd the whole situation is!  There stands the reader solemnly reading the sacred words, and the believers he is addressing read with him!  Can this be a genuine form of the spiritual act?  Obviously not.  Something has been destroyed.  Solemn reading requires listening, not simultane­ous reading.  Otherwise why read aloud at all?  Our bookish upbringing is to blame for this unnaturalness.  Most deplorably, it encourages people to read when they should listen.  As a result, the fairytale has died and poetry has lost its power; for its reso­nant, wise, fervent, and festive language is meant to be heard, not read.  In the Mass, moreover, it is a question not only of beautiful and solemn words, but also of the divine word.

            Perhaps at this point someone may protest: “But these are mere aesthetic details which matter very little.  The main thing is that the believers receive and understand the word of God whether by read­ing or hearing is of no import.”  As a matter of fact, this question is vital.  In silent reading that frail and powerful reality called word is incomplete.

            It remains unfinished, entangled in print, cor­poral; vital parts are still lacking.  The hurrying eye brings fleeting images to the imagination; the in­telligence gains but a hazy “comprehension,” and the result is of small worth.  What has been lost be­longs to the essence of the liturgical event.  No longer does the sacred word unfold in its full spirit­ual‑corporal reality and soar through space to the listener, to be heard and received into his life.  Would it be a loss if men ceased to convey their most fervent thoughts in living speech, and instead communicated with each other only in writing?  Definitely!   All the bodily vitality of the ringing word would vanish.  In the realm of faith also the loss would be shattering.  After all, Christ Himself spoke of hearing.  He never said: “He who has eyes to read, read.” (Matt.  11:15).  This is no attempt to devaluate the written word, which in its place is good and necessary.  However, it must not crowd out what is better, more necessary and beautiful: hear­ing, from which, as St. Paul tells us, springs faith (Rom.  10:14).

            Faith can, of course, be kindled from the written text, but the gospel, the “glad tidings, the good news,” gains its full power only when it is heard.  Members of a reading age, we have forgotten this, and so thor­oughly that it is difficult for us to realize what we have lost.  The whole word is not the printed, but the spoken, in which alone truth stands free.  Only words formed by the human voice have the delicacy and power necessary to stir the depths of emotion, the seat of the spirit, the full sensitiveness of the conscience.  Like the sacraments God’s word is spiritual‑corporal; like them it is meant to nourish the spirit in flesh‑and‑blood man, to work in him as power.  To do this it must be whole.  This con­sideration takes us still deeper.  The saving God who came to us was the eternal Word.  But that Word did not come in a blaze of spiritual illumination or as something suddenly appearing in a book.  He “was made flesh,” flesh that could be seen, heard, grasped with hands, as St. John so graphically insists in the opening lines of his first epistle.  The same mystery continues in the living word of liturgical proclama­tion, and it is all‑important that the connection remains vital.   The word of God is meant to be heard, and hear­ing requires silence.

            To be sure that the point is clear, let us put it this way: how may proper hearing be prevented?   I could say something to a man sitting out of ear­shot, for example.  Then I should have to speak louder in order to establish the physical connection.  Or I could speak loudly enough, but if his attention is elsewhere, my remarks will go unheeded.  Then I must appeal to him to listen.  Perhaps he does lis­ten, notes what I say, follows the line of thought, tries his best, and yet fails to understand.  Something in him remains closed.  He hears my reasons, follows them intellectually and psychologically; he would understand at once if they applied to someone else.  In regard to himself, he fails to see the connection because his pride will not admit the truth; perhaps a secret voice warns him that, were he to admit it, he would have to change things in his life that he is unwilling to change.  The more examples we consider, the more clearly we realize that hearing too exists on many levels, and we begin to suspect its importance when the Speaker is God.  Not for nothing did our Lord say: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

            To have ears to hear requires grace, for only he whose ears God has opened can hear God’s word.  

            He does this when He pleases, and the prayer for truth is directed at that divine pleasure.  But it also requires something that we ourselves de­sire and are capable of: being inwardly “present”; listening from the vital core of our being; unfolding ourselves to that which comes from beyond, to the sacred word.  All this is possible only when we are inwardly still.  

            In stillness alone can we really hear.  When we come in from the outside our ears are filled with the racket of the city, the words of those who have accompanied us, the laboring and quarrelling of our own thoughts, the disquiet of our hearts’ wishes and worries, hurts and joys.  How are we possibly to hear what God is saying?  That we listen at all is something; not everyone does.  It is even better when we pay attention and make a real effort to understand what is being said. 

            But all this is not yet that attentive stillness in which God’s word can take root.  This must be established before the service begins, if possible in the silence on the way to church.  At church use the Missal to read the Scripture passages before  Mass starts.  Follow that with a brief period of com­posure and reflection in preparation for its live proclamation. 

Condensed from Meditations Before Mass by Romano Guardini.  Translated from the German by Elinor Castendyk Briefs.  © 1955 The Newman Press, Westminster, MA


 Read other articles of spiritual enlightenment in the January 2001 edition of The San Francisco Charismatics or return to the Main Menu by clicking on the blue.