Practicing Catholic V: Listening to the Gospel

To be a disciple of Christ is to learn from Christ. We meet the Risen Christ in His Word, especially as that Word is heard in the communion of the church. But we only hear if we listen. Listening is hard, and rare.

Quickly: What was last Sunday’s Gospel? If you have trouble remembering, you weren’t listening. If your memory is only “Jesus was tempted in the wilderness,” that’s not much better. Does your memory of the Word of Christ last week have any impact on how you live today? Were you addressed by the Risen Christ at Mass last week? If not, why not?
I suspect that the primary reason is not distraction or anything like that; such reasons are superficial. The two primary, interlocking reasons we don’t really hear the Word are that we aren’t hungry for it, and we don’t expect the Word to meet any hunger in us. We may believe that Scripture is inspired, but we suspect that it’s a dead letter.
There’s a story in the Buddhist tradition about a young man who wanted to become enlightened. He was strolling with a master, talking about it, when they came to a stream. Without warning the master pushed him into it, and held his head underwater for a long time. When he finally pulled the fellow up the master said, “You must want enlightenment as much as you just wanted air.”

Am I hungry to learn to be a better disciple? Do I trust that the Risen Christ’s Word heard at Mass can do that in me? Unless the answers to those questions are as powerful as “wanting air,” we probably won’t change; our self-centeredness is just too powerful to be cracked open by half-hearted efforts.

If you want to hear Christ’s Word at Mass, here are some practical things you can do.

  • Every week read the texts you’re about to hear before you come to Mass — several times during the preceding week, if possible. Pay attention to words or phrases that catch your attention, or surprise you, or threaten you;
  • Come to Mass in time to quiet down and put aside distracting thoughts. (The new five minutes of silence before each Mass are our attempt to help you to do that.) Reread the texts you’re about to hear, or call them to mind and just sit quietly with them as you remember them.
  • Expect to hear something new and surprising. The “I’ve heard this story before and know what the point is” reaction will block you from hearing the Word anew. You’ve changed since you last heard this passage at Mass — expect that Christ has something to say to you as you now are.
  • Come to Mass with an issue or question — the particular deep “hunger” you feel at this time in your life; and expect that Christ will address it. He won’t necessarily answer your question or seem to address your issue. Trust that what you hear in the Word is important; Christ may want you to think differently, and a surprising Word can be the clue to that.
  • Consider keeping a little notebook (or computer file). Before you come to Mass each week, write down a sentence or a phrase — no more — that focuses your hunger. After Mass, write down what you heard in the Word. They may not seem to be connected. But over the weeks and months, see what the Word of Christ is doing in you.

Saint Paul says that the Word is “sharper than any two-edged sword” — it can find the places in our lives where we need to let Christ’s power in so that we can be changed into more wholehearted, wiser, more skillful disciples. Half-hearted listening keeps us from experiencing that power. Don’t let that happen to you. Until next week, peace.