Sunday, June 09, 2019

Learning the Language of Love

Solemnity of Pentecost (C)
Video: YouTube uCatholic

My dear friends, do you know why we have two ears and only one mouth? According to a well-known saying, it’s so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. Which makes a lot of sense, when we stop to think about it. Seeing as how our ability to speak is so dependent upon our ability to hear, that those who are born deaf often have difficulties learning to talk.

This close connection between speaking and listening is something that we might do well to bear in mind today, as we celebrate this solemn feast of Pentecost. For perhaps one of the most striking effects of the coming of the Holy Spirit – at least as it is described in the first reading – is how the Spirit endows the disciples with the gift of speech. The power to speak foreign languages. To preach, in the respective native tongues of their listeners, about the marvels of God.

I’m not sure about you, my dear friends, but I find my attention easily captured by this apparently miraculous gift of tongues. On occasion, I even wonder to myself why I don’t seem to have this same useful power. Why it isn’t easier for me to learn a foreign tongue. To be honest, I find it a challenge just to hear confessions in a second language, let alone to preach in a third or a fourth

And yet, engrossed as I often am by this power to speak in different tongues, it’s easy for me to forget that speaking is not the only gift that the Spirit brings at Pentecost. A closer look at the first reading uncovers another blessing, as important as the first. Do you know what it is? No prizes for guessing, since it’s really quite obvious, if only we take the time to look.

While the first paragraph of the reading describes the effects of the Spirit’s coming upon the disciples, the second paragraph shifts our attention to their listeners. It tells us of the amazement and astonishment of these foreigners from every nation under heaven. Surely, they say to themselves, all these men speaking are Galileans? How does it happen that each of us hears them in his own native language?

The obvious answer to their question is, of course, the one provided in the first paragraph. They are able to understand the preaching, because the Holy Spirit has given the disciples the gift of speech. But isn’t it also reasonable to suppose that, along with the power of expression bestowed upon the disciples, the Spirit has also given to their listeners a corresponding power of receptivity?  That the gift of speech comes with an accompanying gift of hearing. How else to explain their openness to the Good News, if the Spirit were not simultaneously at work, as much in the listeners as in the speakers? Perhaps it is no accident, then, that the first reading calls these listeners devout.

Nor is it just the foreigners in the first reading who have been given the gift of hearing, the power of receptivity. Haven’t the disciples themselves received this same gift? Haven’t they been taught first to hear, in order that they might speak? Isn’t this the promise Jesus makes them in the gospel? The Advocate… will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you. In other words, even before the Spirit bestows the gift of speech, it helps the disciples to listen again to everything that Jesus has said to them in the past. Isn’t this what we ourselves have been doing the whole of Easter?

Just as any child learns to talk only by first learning to hear, so too do the disciples learn to proclaim the Good News by first being taught to hear it and to receive it, to recognise it in their own experience, and be renewed by it. This is how they learn to listen and speak in a very specific yet universally understood language. Do you know what this language is?

It is the same one through which Jesus expressed himself when he walked among us on this earth, and especially when he allowed himself to suffer, to die, and to be raised up on the Cross for us. It is also of this same language that he speaks in the gospel, when he tells his disciples, If anyone loves me he will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him. This language of God’s love is also what Paul writes about in the second reading, when he encourages the Roman Christians to live spiritual lives. Lives that cry out, in the intimate family dialect of God’s love, Abba, Father! In contrast, those who speak only the unspiritual worldly lingo of selfishness are doomed to die.

All of which may help me to answer the question I asked myself at the start. Why don’t I seem to have the same gift of speech the disciples were given at Pentecost? For two possible reasons. First, it may be that I’m too focused on speaking foreign languages with my tongue, when I should really be more concerned about learning to communicate Christ’s love with my whole life. And, second, just as a child learns to talk by hearing, so too do I need to beg the Spirit for the ability first to better recognise and relish God’s loving presence in my own life. Only then can I hope to point it out to others in ways they can easily understand.

My dear sisters and brothers, in our Mass readings today, although there is a striking description of the gift of speech, we actually find even more references to the gift of hearing. A gift bestowed both upon the disciples and their listeners. So that the old saying still holds true. We are given two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

I’m reminded of these words from the late Fr John Veltri, SJ:

Teach me to listen, O God, to those nearest me,
my family, my friends, my co-workers.
Help me to be aware that no matter what words I hear,
the message is, “Accept the person I am. Listen to me.”
Teach me to listen, my caring God, to those far from me –
the whisper of the hopeless, the plea of the forgotten,
the cry of the anguished.
Teach me to listen, O God my Mother, to myself.
Help me to be less afraid to trust the voice inside —
in the deepest part of me.
Teach me to listen, Holy Spirit, for your voice —
in busyness and in boredom, in certainty and doubt,
in noise and in silence.
Teach me, Lord, to listen.

Sisters and brothers, as we bring the beautiful Season of Easter to a close, what must we do to keep allowing the Spirit to teach us to listen twice as much as we speak today?

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