Bubbles surfacing in a water glass with the words "As listeners...it helps to be attentive...below the surface." by Brian Gallagher msc

Former chief justice, Sir Gerard Brennan, was much loved by Australia’s first peoples because of his significant ruling on Aboriginal land rights, the Mabo ruling.  Senator Pat Dodson, a Yawuru man from Broome, often called the father of Reconciliation, spoke at Brennan’s funeral, welcoming to land, placing eucalypt leaves on the coffin, and adding his respect for the chief justice. I was struck by Dodson’s statement that what most coloured Justice Brennan’s relationship with Aboriginal people was his ‘listening heart’.

Maybe Pat Dodson remembered St Benedict’s encouragement to his followers to listen ‘with the ear of the heart’. Justice Gerard Brennan did that.

When someone speaks to us, we hear the words and accept them at face value.  We don’t always hear what is underneath the words, the deeper reality that the words are trying to express, often inadequately. The other person’s body language or emotion in what they are saying is often more revealing than their words.

This is true in the listener, as well.  As listeners, when we hear another’s words, it helps to be attentive also to how the words are affecting us below the surface, how we are reacting, what emotion is being touched in us.  For example, as I listen to another, sometimes I find myself becoming quite excited, sometimes inspired, or despondent, or sometimes teary.  Once I learn to trust these deeper movements in myself (having checked – or been helped to check – that they are not coming from something of my own agenda), my response to the other person becomes more relational, more spontaneous, more compassionate. A compassionate response, for example, might be, ‘Great to hear that,’ or ‘Goodness, that must have been tough.’

These are heart responses, spontaneous, connected, warm and caring.  I call this listening with heart.  Much of our ministry at Heart of Life is designed to help.

These articles appear as part of Heart of Life’s 40th Anniversary celebrations, a series of observations from Heart of Life co-founder, Fr Brian Gallagher msc. Brian is a priest of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Australia.