Silent Listening, Listen Silently

Image from livewellcentre.com

In The Need to be Listened To – I was struck by the lyric that captured prayer at its most primal:

Anyone, please send me anyone
Oh, Lord, is there anyone?
I need someone

Parker J. Palmer speaks to this through his experience with others and his own depression in an article titled, The Gift of Presence: The Perils of Advice:

“Here’s the deal. The human soul… simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.

Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to “save” the other person.”

No doubt many (all) of us have felt the added pain of someone trying to “fix” or “save” us, but we would have been better served to be brought silently into the presence of the One who does in fact save.

As Palmer opens up about his own bout with depression, he talks about his friend Bill whom he says “helped save my life.” The process of saving was Bill’s fearlessness to accompany Palmer in his suffering, making him less afraid of himself:

“During my depression, there was one friend who truly helped. With my permission, Bill came to my house every day around 4:00 PM, sat me down in an easy chair, and massaged my feet. He rarely said a word. But somehow he found the one place in my body where I could feel a sense of connection with another person, relieving my awful sense of isolation while bearing silent witness to my condition.

By offering me this quiet companionship for a couple of months, day in and day out, Bill helped save my life. Unafraid to accompany me in my suffering, he made me less afraid of myself. He was present — simply and fully present — in the same way one needs to be at the bedside of a dying person.

It’s at such a bedside where we finally learn that we have no “fix” or “save” to offer those who suffer deeply. And yet, we have something better: our gift of self in the form of personal presence and attention, the kind that invites the other’s soul to show up. As Mary Oliver has written:

This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”


Our soul exists and is built entirely out of the attentiveness of the One who made us for Himself – and He conscripts us into the activity of attentiveness – as the Psalmist sings:

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways…

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

It is this One for whose presence we yearn and are designed. It is His presence that heals in ways that are both mysterious and clear.


For more on being companioned, see Come with Bread.

About R.H. (Rusty) Foerger

As I enter the third third of life, I am becoming aware of the role of elders today “to enlarge spiritual vision, being devoted to prayer, living in the face of death, as a living curriculum of the Christian life” (Dr. James M. Houston). I am a life long and life wide learner who seeks to: *decipher the enigma of our worth *rescue from the agony of prayerlessness *integrate spiritual friendship.
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