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  • Writer's pictureLuigi Gioia

Learning Difficulty

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

One of the reasons why I joined the monastery when I was 18 was that, at that stage in my life, I longed for unity, simplicity and clarity. Life under the Rule of St Benedict is harmoniously unified through prayer, work and study. Your place in the chapel or in the refectory is assigned, you always know what comes next, everything is predictable, and silence helps you to process everything at leisure. A paradise for the introvert. Initially this might seem repetitive and boring, but soon you discover that a regular pattern enables you to focus on what really matters and what seems to be lost or reduced in terms of the scope of prospects and activities is gained in terms of depth in your relation with other people, with regards to self-knowledge and in your ability to perceive God’s way of acting in your life. In a word, it is a lifestyle that wants you to slow down so as to learn how to listen properly. “Listen” is the first word of the Rule, the leitmotif of the Old Testament, especially of the book of Deuteronomy - and it recurs 7 times (6 in Greek) in today’s gospel (the English uses the words ‘listening’ and ‘hearing’ to translate the same Greek verb akouein): “Let anyone with ears listen”, says Jesus (Mt 13.9).

Very soon however (within one year) I realized that monastic life was not going to offer me the kind of unity, simplicity, and predictability I was looking for. I discovered that if Benedictine life does indeed simplify some aspects of external life and behaviour it is only to allow community life and exposure to the Word of God to introduce you to the most unsettling of all exercises, namely self-knowledge. There, instead of the calm self-possession we often associate with the ideal image of a monk, you find yourself unable to escape or deny the complexities and contradictions of your inner motives, your fears, your defence mechanisms, everything which is unresolved in your life and in your heart. I was hoping for simplicity and instead I found contradiction. I was yearning for clarity and instead I experienced the extent to which, to use of St Augustine’s sentence in the Confessions, I am a mystery to myself, I do not understand myself, I am incapable of becoming transparent even to myself. It soon became clear that the journey of monastic life – and indeed, the journey of any life that tries to be authentic and accountable, is about learning difficulty, accepting complexity, coming to terms with unpredictability and randomness.

Learning difficulty: this, it seems to me, is the main lesson of today’s Gospel. It is a very odd passage. What is the point of Jesus first telling us the story of a sower and then explaining its meaning to us? The best way of teaching something to someone, of communicating a message to someone is going straight to the point. Everyone familiar with social media knows that if you do not manage to convey what you want to say within 5 seconds, you lose people straight away – our thumbs are quick and unforgiving! In our increasingly fast paced world, information or opinion must be short, straightforward, pithy – and there certainly is some value in this.

So what is Jesus doing? We are given the answer when Matthew explains that he was “teaching through parables” (Mt 13.3) and Jesus himself explains why he resorts to this indirect way of teaching in a passage omitted in today’s selection and in which he says “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Mt 13.13). We could interpret this puzzling sentence in this way: if our only way of apprehending reality or the world is “information” we risk to give ourselves the illusion that we are listening and that we understand something only because we are able to memorize this information, verify it, discuss it – in a word we are able to master it, absorb it in our value system. This gives us great effectiveness, but makes us impervious to anything that cannot be packaged in this format, transformed in manageable chunks of communicable data.

Jesus speaks in parables because he is trying to open our eyes, minds and heart to the most complex of all realities, what he calls the “kingdom of God” – that is God’s strange, paradoxical, often highly frustrating way of being present and of acting in history and in our lives. The elusive medium of parables is meant to warn us from the outset that the way God acts is not predictable, that Scripture is not simple, that trying to discern the will of God in our lives is hard. This applies to God’s way of acting but is true of life in general. The older we grow, the more we realize that there are few solutions or resolutions in life and we’d better resign ourselves to have to deal with difficulty, complexity, uncertainty and instability until our last breath. Although maybe resignation is not the only way. There is the promise of a wisdom in life which consists in finding the right posture, so to speak, that enables us not just to endure this difficulty, but truly rejoice in it.

It is this posture that Jesus wants us to adopt when he says: “Pay attention to how you listen” (Lk 8.18). He hammers this message (cf. the repetition of the word akouein in this passage, 7 times!) – he knows very well that we are masters in the art of hearing only what suits us, of conveniently insulating ourselves against anything that might threaten the comfortable narratives that we have woven to keep alive our illusion of mastery and control, to prop the well-polished image we want to give of ourselves.

“Pay attention to how you listen”: this is something that people who are on the forefront in social services, who volunteer for helplines or work with people with learning difficulties have to work very hard at acquiring. Listening does not come natural to us at all – it is something we have to learn and this takes a lot of time and practice.

The truth is that listening is not the skill that we value most. We live in a world where success depends not on listening but on making ourselves noticed and heard. Most of our education system aims at honing not our listening skills, but our debating skills: confidence, fluency, persuasiveness, social ease, critical acumen. If some people remain on the margins, do not succeed, suffer injustice it is their fault – they should have learnt how to make themselves heard. As we have seen again in recent times, this breeds identity politics, which basically consists in shouting louder the everyone else– because unfortunately there seems to be no other way of denouncing systemic discrimination and injustices.

The depressing truth, however, is that some individuals and some categories of people are in such pain and sodisempowered that they do not have even the words to express what hurts them, they do not know even simply how to ask for help, they literally have no voice. One of the most common experiences when you volunteer for a phone helpline is taking calls from people who do not say anything at all for long, awkward stretches of time. None of our much valued “debating skills” can help us in these situations. The only thing that helps are “listening skills”: taking time, reassuring, giving space, asking open questions, “echoing” (that is using the same language as the caller to show that you hear what they say). “reflecting back” ​the caller’s​ ​feelings, never talking about yourself, summarizing, being non-judgemental. It is so refreshing to discover that secular wisdom has found such creative and imaginative ways of putting the Gospel into practice - has developed such insightful ways of “paying attention to how we listen”!

Jesus wants us to practice these listening skills not only in our dealings with people in need and who have no voice but as a way of life - not only in our relations with each other, but also in our relation to ourselves and to God. We have to think of God as one of the persons in need I was mentioning earlier, not because he is powerless, but because he disempowered himself (Paul even says that he “emptied himself”) in his relation to us so as to never impose himself on us. We believe in an immensely patient God, a God who will keep waiting and waiting until we decide to start paying attention to him.

Which leads us to the other important verb of today’s Gospel, which is “understanding”. There are those who do not understand and those who do. And this depends entirely the how we listen.

Again knowledge and understanding in our world have become commodities which can be bought through very expensive education and be monetized. This process has meant that we tend to call “knowledge” or “understanding” only that which can be measured, quantified – something we definitely have or possess and others don’t, and which for this reason can be sold to others. “Understanding” for us is all about having the right solutions.

The kind of understanding Jesus praises in today’s Gospel is of a very different kind. It is more akin to the meaning we give to this word when we say to somebody: “I understand you”. If we think about it, this is a very strange thing to say. It does not mean that I got all the information about you or that I have the solutions to all your problems. It only means: “I heard you”, which conveys empathy and recognition. I imagine we would all agree that these two things – empathy and recognition- are what we need most in life – even though most of the time they do not solve our problems (not immediately at least) and cannot be measured or monetized.

This type of understanding is much more demanding than we think, for a very simple reason: we can practice it only to the extent that we have come to terms with difficulty, with complexity, with the unknown.

Jesus alerts us to the crucial important of this kind of listening and this type of understanding because they are the only way of welcoming the justice of the kingdom of God - they are the only way of adjusting ourselves to the way God himself deals with us and wants us to deal with each other – that is by listening to each other, understanding each other, generously pouring empathy and recognition on each other.

We dream of a God who would solve all our problems, give us the right answers, protect us against the unknown. We want him to empower us with the authority to speak the truth in his name, to be righteous in the sense of always doing the right thing, to give the people who trust us the certainty that we are leading them in the right direction.

Unfortunately, as 2000 years of Christian history have amply demonstrated, this is not going to happen, because it does not correspond to who God is and to how he acts.

Ultimately, this is the real reason why Jesus describes God and his way of dealing with us through intriguing parables that talk about something we can easily miss, something that does not need our work to grow, that can coexist with weeds, that is with contradictions, and most importantly that often appears where we expect it less.

We live in a world built on debating skills and commodified knowledge – a world that has mapped even the most complex structures like the human body or the human psyche, and has created systems that give us control, or the illusion of control, and the ability to improve our well-being in ways unparalleled in history.

This however has come at a very high price. We have forgotten listening skills, we are increasingly unable to “understand” in the sense of welcoming and recognizing that which we cannot master or are afraid of and this has made us strangers to ourselves, to each other and to God.

Jesus suggest the way out in a sentence we should treasure and constantly return to, a sentence that can be just as inspiring and life-transforming if you are a Christian or just trying to live a good life: “Pay attention to how you listen”!


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