Telling our story – especially if it involves pain or trauma – in a space where others listen with deep compassion, can be an incredibly healing experience. Likewise, listening is an inherently contemplative practice that requires hospitality and openness to others’ experiences.
“Listen” – it’s the first word of the Rule of St. Benedict; the foundation of the contemplative life, of opening to others – especially to those who are most vulnerable – and to hearing the voice of God in our daily lives.
When Pope Francis invited Juan Carlos Cruz and two other survivors of clergy sexual abuse to visit him for several days at the Vatican, this was a radical act of contemplative listening. This very moving story (you can listen below) began with the Pope apologizing (he had previous accused Cruz of lying), and then listening – not just for a few minutes during a bureaucratic meeting but for hours over the course of several days.
This kind of listening can lead to genuine healing through what the psychiatrist Dan Siegel calls “attuned relationships” that foster “integration.” Such attuned relationships are “ones that honor differences and cultivate compassionate connections,” and they are “integrative relationships that promote health” (Siegel, 2012, p. 29 –
The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are)
When this kind of listening happens between two attuned people, it leads to healing. This can be important and necessary, especially within interpersonal relationships. Yet Francis and Cruz were both attuned to the further fact that the Pope is not simply making an interpersonal connection – he is apologizing and reaching out to Cruz and others as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, one of the largest religious organizations in the world. Now this touching encounter is taking place publicly within a large institution, one struggling to right itself after years of abuse and cover up. This suggests that contemplative listening that leads to healing also has profound implications for how we practice justice.
In the tradition of Catholic Social Thought there is a method for addressing issues of injustice. It’s very simple, and follows three stages – “See, Judge, Act.” Seeing is not just a visual activity; it includes also hearing or listening – it’s part of how we see the big-picture, the true nature and underlying issues that enable injustice to continue. Based on the listening he has done, Pope Francis is beginning to form new judgments about how best to address the injustice. Finally, justice is only truly achieved when all of this is put into action. Clearly, much action remains to be done, and ultimately such touching gestures – no matter how genuine and sincere – will be judged by how well they lead to just reform and a new institutional culture of protecting those abused rather than defending abusers.
The massive scale of the challenges facing a a global institution comprised of 1.2 billion people means that there are no simple solutions to the sexual abuse scandal. And yet, Pope Francis is listening, he has already taken small steps to apologize for his hurtful comments in the past, and many are speculating about what kind of reforms he is undertaking within the Vatican curia. Certainly, much remains to be done. But I am more convinced than ever that true justice is only possible when we begin with a contemplative heart – one that is open to listening, to seeing, and hospitality.
As Dr. King was fond of saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Contemplative listening helps us to tune into that long and bending arc (which is ultimately the justice and mercy of God imbued in the universe), and a regular contemplative practice can be the foundation that keeps us patient and grounded when it seems like the arc is stubbornly resistant, or bending the wrong way.
My free mini-course, Igniting Compassion, walks you through these three stages of “See, Judge, Act” with a contemplative heart and an eye toward addressing justice issues that you are particularly passionate about.