Listen, I’m Talking at You
I only knew Fathers Gall and Albin in their retirement, but even then each was a character of the first order.
Fr. Gall was born in Germany and spoke English with a German-Irish lilt. No one in the monastery seemed to know where the Irish ingredient came from; but he surely could not have picked it up in the POW camp in North Dakota, where he lived for a bit at the end of World War II.
Fr. Gall loved to talk. In fact, he adored talking, and he spent most of his waking hours doing just that. His idea of a good conversation was one in which no one interrupted the flow of his words. And all of his sentences were compound. And all of his questions were rhetorical. Luckily for him, his accent and his good nature gave him a certain charm; and depending on the subject, it could be very entertaining to listen to him.
By contrast, Fr. Albin was a very sober fellow, and he was not noted as a gifted conversationalist. In fact, he spoke in a rather nasal monotone, and his sermons were best characterized as non-addictive sleeping aids. To be fair, there are some parishes that would take up a second and even a third collection to get preaching like that. With Fr. Albin you always knew what you were going to get; and if you dozed off or your mind wandered, his voice would not intrude into your reverie.
Fr. Albin enjoyed music, and in his later years he became an amateur composer. He would then play his compositions on an electronic keyboard and record them for playback and editing. He was a sight to behold on his long afternoon walks, when he would go out all suited up and listen through outsized headphones.
One afternoon, as Abbot Timothy sat in his office, with the door ajar, Fr. Gall’s voice came wafting through the halls. It went on for several minutes, until Abbot Timothy lost his focus completely. So he went out in search of Fr. Gall to ask him to tone it down. Fr. Gall was nowhere to be seen; but Abbot Timothy followed the voice down the stairs to the Abbey barber shop. He peered inside, and there they were: in the chair sat Fr. Gall, and behind him stood Fr. Albin, cutting his hair. Fr. Gall was declaiming contentedly to the four walls; while Fr. Albin listened to music from his headphones.
The opening word of The Rule of Saint Benedict is “Listen”. Now you would think that after a lifetime of hearing that word that monks would be very good at it. Well, I am sorry to say that we’re generally no better than anyone else. I don’t know whether it’s because we just like the sound of our own voices, or because we’ve heard everything our brothers have to say, but we can be as deaf to one another as anybody else.
We’ve all seen the young couple on a date, both talking on their cell phones. We’ve all been in rooms where everybody was talking at the same time. We’ve maybe been that person who can’t remember what someone just told us because we paid no attention. Regardless of the reasons, listening skills are in serious decline today, and thoughtful conversation seems to be on the verge of extinction.
I was always intrigued by the question that Jesus put to his disciples: what parent would give a child a stone when the child had asked for bread. Well, I think I now know the answer. It’s the person who wasn’t listening. And closing our ears has still other consequences. It is certainly the first step toward the breakdown of relationships. It’s also the guarantee that all of our friendships will be superficial.
There are lots of good reasons why we should listen carefully to one another. If we don’t listen, we’ll miss the cry for help. If we don’t listen, we’ll miss the subtle signals that others use to tell us they care. If we don’t listen, we forfeit the right to expect others to listen to us.
But I think the best reason to listen to others is that we can get awfully tired of listening only to ourselves. Each of us can become that broken record, and we can begin to repeat the same stories or complaints day in and day out. How boring is that? None of us can afford to be deaf, because listening well produces mature ideas and understanding. Without listening, each of us can end up living in our own little world, where there’s no room for anyone else, except for a rapt audience.
A Bit of History: Lviv, Ukraine
On my recent trip to Poland and Ukraine, there were many surprises, but none more so than the lovely city of Lviv. Despite the difficulties of travel in the area, and despite the vicissitudes of war and Soviet occupation, Lviv remains an absolutely gorgeous place, and locals boast that no two buildings in the center of the city are alike.
Founded in the 13th century, the kings of Poland ruled Lviv for over four hundred years, until the Austrians annexed it in 1772. They ruled until the end of World War I, when Poland again regained control. But the Soviets took it at the end of the Second World War, and today it is part of an independent Ukraine.
As the pictures in today’s post suggest, Lviv is a beautiful place. The cityscape bears many ugly Soviet-era buildings, but the older portions have the feel of a piece of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is a touch of Vienna about it, with an overlay of eastern European color.
Despite the need for a healthy dose of paint and rewiring, the city has immense charm and is well worth a visit. If you’ve not been there, it would be good to get there before the western fast-food outlets invade and take over.