Saturday, 15 February 2014

Openness: Creating Temples Of Our Ears

I often "hear" it said that we have a growing literacy problem in this country. Now while I have no wish to dispute this I actually think there is a bigger issue. I think what we really suffer from is declining "listency". Most people can talk and write freely but how many of us have truly learnt how to listen? How many of us can say that the ears of our ears are awake? How many of us truly know how to worship at the altar of our ears? How many of us can truly say that we have learnt to listen with the ears of our hearts? Everyone's talking, but who's listening?

Last Sunday, during worship, I explored the question "What is Love". It was also the subject of my last blogspot. During the address I talked about the butterfly and how in order to truly understand its beauty you have to watch it fly through the gardens of life, that you can’t really understand a butterfly by pinning it down and pulling it apart. Yes you can understand what it is made of, but you can’t appreciate what it is. I used this analogy for love, explaining that you can’t understand love by pulling it apart; you can only understand it by watching it fly through the gardens of life.

Now I shared this service with three congregations, ending in the evening at Dukinfield Old Chapel. Just as worship was ending and I was offering the blessing a remarkable thing happened. A butterfly appeared in front of me and began fluttering all around my head. I stopped, half way through the benediction, and just watched it fly around the chapel, open mouthed. As I stood there in silence some of the congregations began to notice it too. After a few moments, which seemed like an eternity, I returned to my blessing and left with a broad grin on my face.

Now what on earth a butterfly was doing in an old chapel in the north of England on a wet February evening? I cannot answer. I do know that it was a beautiful moment of synchronicity and it got me thinking about the butterfly and how it opens up and is born again and that it is only after it has truly opened up that it can then fly around the gardens of life, if only for a short time.

Now the first thing I need to admit, before I continue with this conversation, is that it was not infact a butterfly that I saw it was obviously a moth; a very large and colourful moth, granted, but a moth all the same. Not that this really matters for they are related; they are both from the lepitoptera order. I will not get bogged down in the minutiae of detail. (I have since been informed by people in the know that it was very likely it was a butterfly)

In some spiritual traditions, especially those who see animals as totems, the butterfly is a symbol of transformation. It is said that when the butterfly comes into your life as a spirit guide it usually means you are either going through or will soon be going through some internal changes. It symbolises moving from one state to the next in the same way the butterfly emerges from one state to a new birth, as it metamorphosises from the pupa to the final adult stage. It is a beautiful opening up from a closed state, to a new form of life. It is this image of the beautiful butterfly opening up from the pupa that was in my mind as I drove home from Dukinfield.

I wonder if this is what is happening to me at the moment. I do feel like I am going through a process of change I have certainly been opened up in so many ways these last few weeks and months as I and those I hold most dear have lost two of our loved ones. I have spent a lot of time listening to my nearest and dearest as we have held one another in our loss. “The ears of my ears” have most certainly been reawakened in recent weeks.

Several people spoke to me last weekend about coming to new conclusions about their own lives and finding the courage to live more openly, more authentically. They talked of how they had closed down over a period of time, in an attempt to protect themselves and how this had utterly diminished their lives, they seemed quite depressed it would seem and were certainly not flying around the gardens of life, the gardens of delight. I had also heard Rev Bill Darlison discuss opening up during his talk at the Altrincham Interfaith Group Meal that Saturday night. He was specifically relating this to how as a society we had opened up so much over the last 50 years especially towards those who are different to us whether socially, ethnically and or religiously. Ok there is a long way to go, but we do at least listen to one another and engage in ways we never did before.

Bill made reference to one of the healing accounts found in Mark’s Gospel and how this was symbolic of opening up in dialogue and truly listening. The account is known as “Jesus Heals a Deaf Man” (Mark Ch 7 vv 31-37). I asked Bill about his thoughts and he sent me a sermon he’d delivered on the subject a few years earlier. In it he explains what he believes the passage and this particular section of Mark’s Gospel is attempting to teach. First of all he points out that the author is trying to make us listen by using a clever linguistic aid. In the account he states that Jesus says the Arameaic word Ephphatha as he heals the man. This is perhaps not so strange on the surface as this is certainly the language that Jesus would have spoken. What is strange though is that this is inconsistent with the rest of the Gospel which was originally written in Greek. Bill says that this is a deliberate ploy to make we who are listening to the account pay attention, because something really important is being taught here in this section of the Gospel. Bill states that:

“The word Ephphatha means ‘Open up!’ What Jesus is saying to this deaf man is the Gospel’s message to you and me. This man was suffering from a physical deafness; we are suffering from spiritual deafness. Our ears are closed to the entreaties of those who live in foreign countries, whose skin colour is different from our own, whose way of life does not correspond with ours. We are deaf to the words even of those who live in close proximity to us, but whose traditions are different from ours. We don’t hear what they are saying, and so our opinions about them and their customs are garbled and worthless...It’s a shocking reminder of our own refusal to listen attentively to the unfamiliar voices. It is only when we are prepared to open up that our prejudices can be eroded; and only then that the impediment in our speech will be removed and our opinions will be worth listening to. We have to break the shell of our own tribalism and exclusiveness.”

Earlier in the address he also states that:

“ objective of the spiritual life is to identify and then try to eliminate those instinctive factors which work to give us short term survival advantages, but which have now outlived their usefulness and which actually impede our development as a species.”

This brought that butterfly image powerfully to my mind and the thought of being reborn to new ideas. Remember that after the butterfly opens up it is then able to fly around in the gardens of life, the gardens of delight.

Please click here to read Bill's thoughts in full

I feel that so many of our troubles are caused by our inability to truly listen to one another and to new ideas; our troubles are caused by our arrogance and belief that we know best. Therefore by not really listening we fail to understand and therefore empathise with each other and we remain trapped by what we think we know. We are too closed down and we need to open up, to one another, to life and to God. We need to be opened up like the Buddhist Monk, arms out with his begging bowl. An image which as Thomas Merton explained “represents not just a right to beg, but openness to the gifts of all human beings as an expression of this interdependence of all beings...Thus when a monk begs from the layman it is not as a selfish person getting something from someone else. He is simply opening himself to his interdependence.” The key is to live openly and of course the key to openness is humility. No one lives apart from anyone else we are all interdependent. Also none of us knows everything, we all see through the glass dimly.

I remember the first time I heard Forrest Church’s assertion that humility and openness are the two keys to religious living, how much this struck me deep inside. I saw the truth in it. There is limitlessness in openness. Who knows how much we can truly change and learn to love if we just stay open, in our hearts and minds and senses.

It begins with our ears; it is these that need to be opened. We are after all listening creatures. Our lives begin in our mother’s wombs listening to the many sounds that surround us. Our lives end similarly; I understand that the last faculty that shuts down when we are dying is our hearing. And yet throughout our lives the thing we pay attention to the most is what we see or do not see with our eyes. Not that I’m decrying the eyes here please do not get me wrong, after all it was with my eyes that I saw the butterfly/moth last Sunday evening; nor am I really talking about the two ears either side of our heads, it’s the ears of our hearts that I really mean. What I’m really talking about is being more open to all that is life, because by doing so we will improve our “listency” skills.

So let’s begin again; lets open ourselves up to the altar of the ears.

Let’s improve our “Listency”


  1. One of my earliest memories is of being in awe of the sight of a colourful butterfly taking flight from behind the garden wall. I was three years old, and in my innocence, I thought it had come from somewhere inside the dry stone wall. So assuming that's where butterflies lived, I began dismantling the wall stone by stone, eager to discover more of these beautiful creatures.

    Clearly, I had been quiet for too long and so my mum, sensing I was up to mischief, came out to see what I was up to. She wasn't wrong, as she found me up to my knees amidst the rubble of my efforts.

    I remember my disappointment, as we tried our best to put the wall back together, as my mum explained that butterflies don't live in walls, and how it must have been resting on the other side of the wall and had only looked as though it had come from underneath the stones.

    I still like to think it had emerged from it's chrysalis ready to take flight and amaze a little girl's curiosity with it's brilliance. Perhaps a gentle reminder to listen to what comes from deep inside rather than just on the surface. :)

  2. Wow! Thank you Mel...really beautiful