Learning to listen at Vision
Erin Thomassen | Thursday, October 6, 2016
Two years ago, I thought I knew what God was calling me to do at the Notre Dame Vision summer program: encourage high school students to explore their faith as a small group mentor, and sing, dance and spread joy as a music mentor. When I learned about the opportunity to give a witness talk, I was thrilled. A seasoned columnist for Viewpoint, I was confident in my ability to craft a talk that would be both humorous and insightful. I was ready to use the talents I felt God had given me to serve him and make Vision an incredible, memorable experience for the participants.
Little did I know that God would call me to become an entirely different kind of mentor than the one I had originally envisioned. I had to let go of my idealization of what my service to God would look like in order to actually be a servant.
During the second week of our music mentor boot camp, I experienced a shock at the “Hospitality” workshop. I was informed that my role as a mentor was not to spew the theological knowledge I was convinced I had acquired during the spring semester. I learned I had to take off my engineering hat, as I was not called to solve the participants’ problems, but listen compassionately to and pray with them instead.
I was not content at first with the role God had cast me in. I wanted to be the star, not the supportive best friend. As if this wasn’t enough, I had not been chosen to give my witness talk. When some of my shy friends lamented being chosen to speak in public, I could not help thinking how much I would love to take their place.
Then I saw my “shy” friends come alive sharing their stories, touching participants who could relate to their experiences. I could see my friends better processing and understanding how God has worked in their life through speaking about it with others. It then became clear that a mistake had not been made. They were supposed to speak, and I was supposed to listen.
Listening was a challenge for me, but Vision gave me plenty of opportunities to practice. During the fourth week, the girls in my small group were dealing with family addiction, death and doubt. Right before our one-on-one conversations, I prayed not for words to say, but for the self-control to be silent.
The Holy Spirit came, and instead of allowing me to speak in tongues, it allowed me not speak at all. During one talk, a tearful participant shared something that she had never been able to tell anyone about before — not because I was a stellar mentor, but because I didn’t know her family and friends. She said she couldn’t write it in a diary because she was afraid of her parents finding it, but she could tell me because there was no way for it to get back to them. My ability to help her had nothing to do with a special bond I had formed with her, or the special gifts I possessed. It had to do with the fact that I didn’t know her, and that the Holy Spirit helped me be silent and listen.
Vision taught me the importance of loving others through offering them my full attention. In this world of self-absorption and constant distraction, it can be challenging to fix my mind on something other than my own needs and desires. Yet it is important to do so, for when my interior monologue and exterior dialogue cease, I can listen to someone, or Someone, else.
A quote by Meister Eckhart that I read during, fittingly, one of our hours of silence, stayed with me throughout Vision and for the next two years.
“The most important hour is always the present. The most significant person is precisely the one sitting across from you. The most important work is always love.”
As I conclude this column, I will resist the temptation to have the last word.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.