Sunday 22 May was the 56th World Day of Social Communications. Last year the theme was ‘Come and See’, an encouragement to never lose the habit of leaving our screens and encountering real people. This year the theme is: ‘Listening with the ear of the heart’, and Pope Francis urges us to be more attentive to the practice of listening in a world that no longer knows how to.

The theme of listening, silence and contemplation is a central one in the writings of the Church’s saints and spiritual masters. Here are five quotes to inspire you to listen more deeply, not only to others but also to the presence and voice of God.

St Ignatius of Antioch

St Ignatius of Antioch was a disciple of St John the Apostle. He was an influential bishop in the early Church and was fed to the lions for his faith. Famously, while being held by Romans and escorted to his execution, he wrote several letters that were sent around the ancient world to Christian communities he had ties to. One of those was Ephesus, where Paul also had been.

In his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote:

It is better to keep silence and be than to talk and not to be. Teaching is an excellent thing, provided the speaker practices what he teaches.

Now, there is one Teacher who spoke and it came to pass. And even what He did silently is worthy of the Father. He who truly made the words of Jesus his own is able to hear His silence, so that he may be perfect: so that he may act through his speech and be known through his silence (§15).

St Isaac the Syrian

St Isaac, also referred to as Isaac of Nineveh, was a Syrian bishop, monk and spiritual writer whose mysticism left a deep and abiding impression on both the East and the West. In his Ascetical Homilies, he has this to say about silence:

Love silence above all things, because it brings you near to fruit that the tongue cannot express. First let us force ourselves to be silent, and from out of this silence something is born that leads us into silence itself.

Cardinal Robert Sarah

In 2017 Cardinal Robert Sarah, in conversation with Nicolas Diat, published a book called The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. Almost immediately it became a ‘modern classic’, and it is a rich text for reflection on the meaning and value of silence.

In it, he identifies what ails our world:

Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking, at a devastating speed and volume, in order to say nothing. Modern civilization does not know how to be quiet. It holds forth in an unending monologue …

Thus there is a dictatorship of speech, a dictatorship of verbal emphasis. In this theatre of shadows, nothing if left but a purulent wound of mechanical words, without perspective, without truth, and without foundation … Developing a taste for prayer is probably the first and foremost battle of our age (§§74–76).
Henri nouwen
Henri Nouwen was Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian Source: Wikimedia Commons

Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen was a much loved Dutch Catholic spiritual writer, whose reflections on ministry, prayer and community have benefited the lives of so many.

In his book Bread for the Journey (1996), he speaks of ‘listening’ as a kind of spiritual hospitality:

To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept.

Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves.

‘Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality,’ he goes on, ‘by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.’

Pope Francis

In his message for this year’s World Day of Social Communication, Pope Francis laments the deafness we have to God and to one another. This deafness is becoming increasingly evident in our politics and social communications, he says:

The lack of listening, which we experience so often in daily life, is unfortunately also evident in public life, where, instead of listening to each other, we often ‘talk past one another’. This is a symptom of the fact that, rather than seeking the true and the good, consensus is sought; rather than listening, one pays attention to the audience. Good communication, instead, does not try to impress the public with a soundbite, with the aim of ridiculing the other person, but pays attention to the reasons of the other person and tries to grasp the complexity of reality.