Teachers the world over have gently reminded me: you can't listen if you're talking no matter how hard you try. Unfortunately, they're right. Believe me, I've tried. Although I love other people, especially their views and interests, my challenge has been to curb my own enthusiasm for sharing long enough for them to share. Thankfully, people have taken the time to teach me how to do this. Thanks to their help I'm doing very well. Sometimes I can even listen to a friend without, gasp, interjecting any of my own thoughts, ideas, or experiences.
It is one thing to be able to take turns in a conversation and quite another to be comfortable in silence. I am not comfortable with silence. Instead of taking a step back, observing the situation and thinking, I usually feel the need to fill the empty space with chatter. Since I almost always have something to say, be it worthwhile or not, this can go on for a while.
Last Sunday I participated in a Quaker Clearness Committee as part of my Pre-Seminary group meeting. A Clearness Committee is a Quaker practice that is meant to help with making personal decisions. The practice rests on the belief that "each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth. that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems, but that inner voice is often garbled by various kinds of inward and outward interference" (Palmer, Parker J.). A Clearness Committee helps to remove that interference by creating a space in which a focus person, the person who has a personal decision to make, can bring their question to others in a safe and non-judgmental environment. The other members of the Clearness Committee will not make suggestions or offer advice, but ask open-ended questions meant to facilitate the focus person's own wisdom. The process involves long silences and inner reflection, both by the focus person and the others on the committee.
During my Clearness Committee I discovered a radical thing: it was only when I quieted my thoughts, my fears, my own inner monologue, that I was able to pick apart which of my motives were coming from myself, which were from outside pressures, and which were coming to me from some place else. I discovered that the "still, small voice" doesn't speak to us through words, but rather through certainty. We must be still in order to know. Knowing might not mean knowing the answer to our personal questions, at least it certainly does not in my case, but I do know that God is there, He has a plan for all of us, and that His plan is right, wonderful, and beautiful.
During this Lenten season, as I already said, I am working on meditation and relaxation. For once in my life I'm sitting down, shutting up, and listening. It is only when I am silent that others can speak. While discernment is a personal process, we are also called not only to live in community and fellowship with others, but also to live with, in, and for God. As Mother Teresa so wisely said: