Friday 6 February 2015

Really Listening

This year, the student body has chosen another theme with which to run, to put before their peers: Find Your Voice.  It is a multi-layered exhortation.  Much fruit for the months ahead.

Already I have heard members of the Music faculty delighting!  Among its many applications, this catch-cry might encourage singers and choristers to courageously find that voice.  I am sure the debaters would similarly mobilise this maxim for their cause.  For those with concerns of a social justice or ethical bent, this will be a rallying cry to stand up and be counted.  To be a voice for the voiceless.  To speak in ways that prod consciences, that remind us of values and bearings.  Not to keep silence when truth, goodness or justice is at stake.

In Saint Ignatius’ writings, though, we see him frequently describing other voices to be found and listened to.  He speaks about good and evil epirits at work in every human mind or heart.  At first that might seem a bit off-putting.  But he is not speaking about diabolical possession or any psychological condition of ‘hearing voices’.  Not at all.  Many current interpreters of Ignatius would prefer to use a term like ‘false’ to describe these negative voices.  When we stop to think about it, most people would acknowledge that there are both true and false voices within that we are given to listen to, to be influenced by.  They surface at different times.  When we are checking our bearings in life’s path, when we have to make important choices, when we come to a fork in the road on our journey, and when we ask ourselves at critical moments very fundamental questions such as “what sort of person do I want to become?”

Ignatius is not simply talking about conscience.  He is not dealing with a person being tempted to choose something clearly wrong – like theft, or speaking falsely about someone, or hurting a person, or drug peddling.  No.  We have a conscience for that and, unless we have a particularly hardened or ill-formed one, it will soon speak up within, will send a signal, will create a twinge of discomfort or a wake-up call, that this is just not right.  “I am about to do evil,” it says, or “I have just done something quite wrong.”

Ignatius is not speaking about such moral choices, about good versus bad.  He is speaking about something more complex.  He is speaking about having two good options before us, and choosing which is the better one for me.  It is a process called discernment of spirits.  And the spirits he refers to are the voices we listen to in making our choices.  Good spirits, or good voices, which lead us to options moving to God, or to the good.  And false voices that do not take us to our true selves, to better outcomes, or to what we also call the magis.

Where do these voices come from?  Well, not surprisingly, Ignatius would say they came from God.  Few people hear directly from God – at least that is my experience!  Most of us hear such communication in a mediated way.  I think God’s word most often comes in scripture where, through, say, the prophets or the gospel writers, God clearly puts before us all those values and orientations which are life-giving for us and for others.

Ignatius also suggests that the voices we might listen to, and which might influence us, come from angels.  That might be starting to sound like a very medieval theology.  But an angel is simply a messenger of God.  And I am not here talking only about feathered varieties.  I am speaking about all the ‘angels’ in our lives.  People who know us well.  People whose advice we trust.  People to whom we can open our hearts.  People who listen to us.  People who, in our cloudiness or indecision, remind us who we are, who give reassurance, who know exactly the advice to offer, the direction to point us in.  Certainly messengers of God.  They point, but never push.  For the boys, such ‘angels’ may be their best and life-long friend, a wise family member like an older sibling, an uncle or aunt, here perhaps a mentor or Head of House, later a partner or spouse.  Such trusted ‘angels’ are always worth listening to.

The false voices are also easy to name.  Of course, they have a source in the evil spirit: that being which seeks to bring confusion and discord, that never leads to our true happiness, that signals only to the one reference point of self – me, myself and I.  Do I believe in an evil spirit?  Yes, I do.  I think there is far too much evil in the world to be accounted for by simple human greed or the malevolence of powerful individuals.  But the false voices we listen to are sometimes more subtle than that.  They come from our own shadowy sides, our own weaknesses and limitations, our personal character flaws which we know all too well.  The ways in which we so often deceive ourselves.  The temptations, not necessarily to something evil, but to grab something which is less good, which would shortchange us of a better outcome, which would have us go for something which is fine in the short-term, but at the cost of something better in the long run.

Such choices are the grace or the gift we regularly pray for here in the Prayer for Generosity.  “To fight and not to heed the wounds” – there is nothing wrong with being concerned about your injuries; that is a good thing.  But sometimes continuing the fight is the better choice.  “To toil and not to seek for rest” – to rest is a good thing, too.  But maybe there are times when your rest comes second place to the common good.  “To labour and not to ask reward” – rewards are also good things, nothing wrong with them at all.  But sometimes we might commit to a task, to something nobler, a greater good, simply because we recognise a deeper value – and that is its own reward.

I think most of our boys show such discernment already in their choices.  They do it when they commit to studies when a lot of other good (but not necessarily better) things are vying for their time.  They do it for the team on the field, on the court, on the water, in the gym, when they might otherwise be looking out just for themselves.  They do it when they listen to a voice which encourages them go on an immersion or to continue their service work well beyond the number of minimum hours required.  They listen to that voice from time to time, when they take some space in our daily Examen prayer, going over daily experiences and hear them speaking to them, and reminding them of what really nourishes and energises.  Those young men moving into senior years will be, or have already begun, discerning what they might be doing post-HSC.  What will be the better choice?  Which option will match the real me?  Which will give better expression to the values I hold dearest?  Which gap or service year, which course, which career?

Choosing the better from the merely good is always a challenge.  We have to sift through all those voices which speak to us within. Both the noisy and the unobtrusive ones.  The core and the shallow ones.  The directional and the distracting ones.  The limiting and the life-giving ones.  Which will take me to my true self and go ‘Godward’?  Which will sell myself short and take me somewhere else?

Our student leaders have offered us a very apposite motto for this year:  Find your Voice.  Find the true voice.  That is very Ignatian.  We could respond in many ways.  One way is to start listening.

Fr Ross Jones SJ