"Empathetic Hearing"
August 9, 2023, 6:00 AM

[God’s Word] said [to Elijah], “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks… but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard [the silence], there came a voice [of God] to him. I Kings 19:11-13 (BCP Proper 14 – Track 2)

St. Francis began his work by learning to hear God’s voice in the quiet of nature. He spent a year recovering in silence after an injury during his country’s war, and St. Francis continued in silence as he lived in a cave. Silence taught him to hear the all-encompassing sorrow of others and the sighs that were too deep to be expressed in words. It was through this silence that empathy overtook him, and St. Francis was able to embrace even the leper as a member of God’s good creation.

Reports of violent attacks on others are being broadcast daily in the news. Interactions between people seem to be moving toward greater hostility; often marked by less compassion, and punctuated by thoughtless remarks. If understanding another person is a tool for survival, it has become one that has almost completely disappeared in today’s world.

Living with an open and nonjudgmental heart is God’s call for of all humankind. So, where are we reminded of the fundamentals of compassion? The oldest of stories in history sometimes have the greatest potential to teach us.

The story of Elijah seeking to hear God’s voice is one such story. Wind, so great as to split mountains, does not speak for God. Earthquakes do not give us God’s essence. Fire does not have the power to reveal the warm heart of God. Only in the space of “sheer silence” can God speak to us and teach us the first step in being empathetic.

Most people in the world have the capacity to be sympathetic. However, sympathy allows us too easily to stay removed from the pain of the suffering person. Sympathy has the potential to allow us to look down on another person, and also feel relieved that we do not have the same problem.

Sympathy also has the tendency to catapult us into looking for solutions for the other person. We, thereby, make assumptions about what the other person might be feeling and what options they should really consider. The result is that our assumptions minimize the other person’s problems and ignore their deepest feelings.

In reality, God calls everyone to be more than sympathetic. We are always summoned to the deeper love of empathy. Empathy is our ability to appreciate how someone else feels, and allows us to connect with their pain. We cross over into their story and travel with them. We do that by being silent, and then listening deeply – not just waiting for the end of someone’s sentence so we can jump in with our wisdom. We also ask questions in order to understand their story on a more intimate level, and let them know that we are with them on their journey.

We need to learn and listen as God listens to us. Empathy requires that we listen without judgment and with undivided attention. We need to avoid being distracted by the phone, television or other people.

Empathy also requires that we listen without giving advice. Giving advice takes away from the other person’s ability to come to their own conclusions and make decisions for themselves. Jesus shared wisdom, but never gave advice.

Empathy additionally requires that we listen with understanding and vulnerability. Affirming what the other person is feeling is essential, even if we do not agree with it. We do not need to understand someone to love them. Accepting the other person’s feelings allows for a bond of trust to be formed. That trust allows for vulnerability, and creates a path for the other person to work through their feelings in their own way.

Empathy always requires humility. As Thomas Merton said, “Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.” Empathy is about finding the echoes of another person in yourself. A person needs to be quiet and willing to listen in order to hear those echoes. Ultimately, empathy builds connection – the kind of connection that Elijah found with God and the same connection that God offers us today.

Prayers and Blessings,

Fr. John

Reference: “Approaching the Speed of Empathy.” Pattidigh.com