Holy Listening: An Exercise in Wonder and a Cure for the Religious Wound by Paul Blankenship

Psalm 42

 1 As the deer longs for the water-brooks,
so longs my soul for you, O God.

2 My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God;
when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?

3 My tears have been my food day and night,
while all day long they say to me,
‘Where now is your God?’

4 I pour out my soul when I think on these things:
how I went with the multitude and led them into the house of God,

5 With the voice of praise and thanksgiving,
among those who keep holy-day.

6 Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
and why are you so disquieted within me?

7 Put your trust in God;
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

Our (Cultural) Relation to the Psalmist’s Despair

The Psalmist has written this poem in a despair that is soul deep. Like a parched deer searching desperately for water in a dry and barren landscape, so does our Psalmist search the depths of his soul for God. If he does not find the holy presence—the living water of the living God, which appears to him now only as a threatened remembrance—he fears that he will die a death not merely of body but of soul.

From a wound created by the pain of loss and absence, we feel his holy longing—a Pentecostal longing we could say, on this second Sunday after Pentecost—that does not seek remedy in the private space of interior experience. The Psalmist’s longing is not just for a personal experience of God which he can enjoy in the private space of his own soul, in other words, but for a sacred place where he can be with God in the presence of others. Without sacred place—sung into existence by faithful friends—the soul fears it will drown in the rising waters of despair and loneliness.

Can you relate to the Psalmist’s holy longing? Do you sense its sacred presence in your friends and family, in the natural world, in our culture?

Coffee Shop Chat: An Incident of Despair and Pentecostal Longing

A few weeks ago, on a Wednesday afternoon, as the sun started to make its presence felt in Spokane, I noticed this holy longing. I did more than notice it, I should say: I felt it. I was at Cedar Coffee on Monroe. From my usual spot by the window, I was working on my dissertation and watching people walk by on the sidewalk.

I confess that I was also eavesdropping. Behind me sat a group of women. At first, I just heard small talk. One woman had just gotten a new kitten. You have to see these pictures, she said. Oh my god, another woman said. So cute.

They also spoke about the weather: how long the winter was and how nice it is to feel the sun again. It changes everything, one woman said. It sure does, said another.

I heard them talk about someone’s new Tarot deck and whether or not astrology signs are phony or for real.

At one pointed, I tried to block their conversation out. I came to write my dissertation, I said to myself, not eavesdrop. That proved hard to do, however, when, a few minutes later, one of the women started to cry.

She’d been telling a story. Recently, she went through a divorce. She said she lost so much: money, mutual friends, her beloved property. Even her cat. Worse yet, she said, I lost my church. Church used to be her sacred place. It was where her soul drank deep, living waters as she suffered various trials and tribulations. No one at church said anything to her face about the divorce, she said. They never told her to leave. But people acted different. Treated her like she had a scarlet letter on. I could feel their judgement on my skin when they looked at me, she said. Gives me chills to think about now. These were people I raised my kids with.

Worst of all, she said, I didn’t know where God went. I’d stay up at night and cry and cry for his peace but I didn’t feel it. I felt abandoned.

Like a parched deer searching desperately for water in a dry and barren landscape, so did she search the depths of her soul for God.

There was a delicate, supportive silence. The women at her table listened. I imagine that they felt deprived of the right thing to say. Eventually, someone broke the silence. That must have been so hard, one woman said. Yes, another said, you are a survivor. That’s why I hate churches, another woman said. I went through something similar when my son came out. You know, she reflected, so many people go through what we did.

Perhaps I imagined it, but I thought I heard an “amen” come from someplace in the coffee shop.

Her soul bare and vulnerable on the coffee table, the woman cried again. I didn’t see her tears, but I felt them. I also felt compassion comfort her like a warm blanket on a cold night. The act of looking can do this to people: leave them cold or warm, alone or supported.

Thank you, ladies, she said. I don’t know what I’d do without you.

After a few minutes, I hear zipping and the rustling of keys. It is clear that they need to leave but are reluctant to do so. How do you put the soul back in its body when it has made itself bare and vulnerable? I wish I didn’t have to go, one woman said. You know what, another woman said, we should do this again. Heck, we could do it every week. It could be like church without all the BS and judgment. The women laughed. And agreed.

On the Religious Wound

“Worst yet, I lost my church.” “Worst of all, I couldn’t feel God’s presence.” “People treated me like I had a scarlet letter on.” “There are so many people who go through that.” “That’s why I hate churches.”

Do words ever feel sticky? Do they ever stick to you? Since I heard these words at Cedar Coffee a few weeks ago, they have stuck to me. Unfortunately, they are terribly familiar words. They are spoken not just in my memory but every day, throughout our culture. Indeed, it seems like these words have stuck to our culture. Last week, as I wrote this sermon, I typed “church wounded” into Amazon’s search engine. The search yielded these book titles:

Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics. Wounded by God’s People: Discovering How God’s Love Heals our Hearts. Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma. Church Hurt: The Wounded Trying to Heal.

Clearly, our culture is suffering from a religious wound. A religious wound is created when a person experiences serious pain and suffering from a religious organization. Religious wounds are damaging: they alienate people from communities of care, and they damage a person’s conscious experience of the Living God. Rather than support holy longing, religious wounds undermines it. To be sure, religious woundedness has caused people to flee the church and consider it a lost and delusional cause. Tragically, an increasing number of people believe that religion has become a force of pain and alienation in the world rather than one of healing and liberation. Even more tragically, they are often right.

In 1955, the acclaimed Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the decline of religion. His words are truer now than when he penned them almost fifty years ago:

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society,” he wrote. “It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.[1]

The Last Sermon

Last week, I preached about Pentecost. Together, we thought about the power of the Holy Spirit. We queried what pentecostal events might look like today and what it will take to help make the world quake anew. I suggested that wonder might make the world quake and I asked us to consider concrete ways in which we can create wonder in world and in our city of Spokane in particular.

Real wonder. I do not mean wonder about a new piece of technology. By real wonder I am not referring to what happens to us when we hear that our favorite basketball team won the championship. These things are wonderful but not the kind of wonder I am referring to. The kind of wonder I am referring to is soul deep. It reminds us of where we ultimately are and where we are called to go. Real wonder reminds us, as the beloved Quaker Thomas Kelly wrote, that “deep within [us] all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice” that is our home and that is calling us home.[2]

I want to continue to think about wonder and how that wonder might help make people quake. Quake not for theatrics or to prove that something is right but to replenish our world that has been damaged by pain and suffering. That is longing for love and presence.

Attending to the Religious Wound: Holy Listening as Remedy

Now, I want to make a proposal. It is simply this: one way we can help make the world wonder is by attending compassionately to the religious wounds people have. Not judging them. Not scolding them. Certainly not arguing with them

So here is a second proposal. We can attend compassionately to the religious wound in our culture and in people by the practice of “holy listening.” This, I think, will create wonder. This, I think, can make the world quake.

I think that is what was most compelling about the women’s group I experienced at Monroe Coffee. They were not moved by the power of a pastor. A hymn did not stir their spirits. What moved them was the power of listening to one another. Their listening created a unique kind of presence, a kind of presence I think it is rather easy to discern the presence of the Living God in. By listening compassionately to one another they created healing and compassion rather than confusion and suffering. They attended compassionately to a woman’s religious wound.

Listening is a recipe for wonder. It is one way we can heal the religious wounds people are suffering from.

How often do we—indeed, how often do I—forget such basic and fundamentally sacred things. That nonjudgmental listening is a healing power is hardly novel.

In my view, Simone Weil is one of the most influential theologians in our time. She was a teacher, a writer, and a political activist. She died in 1943 at the young age of 34. In one of her most famous books, Waiting for God, Weil wrote about the relationship between love of neighbor and listening.

“The love of our neighbor,” Weil wrote, “in all its fullness simply means being able to say to someone: ‘What are you going through?’”[3]

One of the great spiritual teachers of our time, Margaret Geunther, wrote that listening is really what the ancient practice of spiritual direction—or, as others call it, spiritual friendship—is all about: rendering a holy, full, loving, and nonjudgmental attention to the Other.[4]

What are we listening to when we listen to another person? I want to conclude by proposing an answer to this question which, at first thought, may seem too simple. Actually, I believe this is one of the most sacred questions the world confronts us with. In fact, we should never be without the query of who the Other is: the Other sitting next to me at church, the Other driving in front of me, the Other behind me at the grocery store, the Other I see beginning for change or camping by the river, the Other I call “daughter,” the Other who I claim to love and who sleeps beside me every night.

How we answer this query of who the Other is will determine more of our lives than we are able to comprehend. We must never forget that the Jews were taken into concentrations camps because of a peculiar kind of looking at them; that slavery was and remains justified in more subtle forms because of a particular kind of looking; that women weren’t given property or voting rights and still earn a fraction of what men do because of a precise kind of looking.

When I look at this person to in order to listen to her religious wound, or any other kind of wound, what am I looking at?

To my mind, the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas answered this better than most. Levinas taught that, when we look at another person, we are looking at something that is ultimately unnamable. A mystery. There is an infinite distance between the person us and other people, Levinas wrote. This infinite distance is the place where ethics begins. Even when the Other is sitting right next to us, they are more than a million miles away. What I am saying is that our thoughts about other people do not actually capture the mystery of who they really are. People are not reducible to how we think and feel about them.[5] Labels like “Quaker,” “Republican,” “Male,” “Atheist,” “Child,” fall short. They may tell us something important, but they do not go soul deep. Even though we are always trying to, no one can go soul deep but God.

The point I am trying to make is that we are always looking at a mystery when we look at another person. Yes, even at ourselves. We are a true wonder. The sight of another human should make the world quake with the power of God. How wild to think that we are made in God’s image and that we are sparks of divinity. That we are not seduced by this wonder is a cultural tragedy we have yet to really discover.

When we listen to the Other, whether she be wounded or exceedingly joyful, we are listening to a wonder. If we fail to wonder at this, then we must ask ourselves what our problem is. More than likely we will discover one problem is how we look at ourselves and see the world seeing us.


How do I look and listen to myself — and the wounds I have?

This message was given by Paul Blankenship to Spokane Friends on June 16th, 2019


[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983), 3.

[2] Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), 1.

[3] Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 64.

[4] Margaret Geunther, Holy Listening (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1992).

[5] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Norwell, MA: Duquesne University Press, 1991).

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