“Happy Birthday,” I croaked to friends being honored at a party recently. Four days earlier, my head cold had turned into laryngitis. My throat burned from days of coughing, and when I tried to talk, all that came out was a squeak. But I didn’t want to miss this celebration to honor three friends with November birthdays, so I went to the potluck and uttered few words.
There’s nothing like laryngitis to give you a lesson in listening.
Conversations swirled around me. I knew that I couldn’t respond or interject my thoughts and opinions, so I just listened. For once, my mind wasn’t doing double duty of processing others’ words while formulating my own. Well, OK, I did think of some snappy retorts I would have made if I’d had a voice. But all I could do was nod, shake my head, or smile.
I remained silent. And listened. I realized that I was hearing the voices of several of my friends who often are less talkative. And because I wasn’t planning replies, I heard them in some new ways.
“Listening is at the core of Quaker faith and practice,” writes Michael Wajda in the Pendle Hill pamphlet, Expectant Listening.
In the silence of worship, we gather together to listen for the “still small voice” of God. It’s my chance to listen to the Divine with no requirement that I reply. To take in that Presence in silence—kind of like being at a dinner party with laryngitis.
Caroline Stephen, a 19th Century Quaker (and the aunt of Virginia Woolf), writes, “The silence we value is not the mere outward silence of the lips.” Losing my voice after my cold took care of that part.
But, as Stephen reminds, “…in order to hear the divine voice thus speaking to us we need to be still.” Whether at Quaker meeting or in my daily practice of “expectant listening,” the silencing of the lips is just the first step toward the stillness that opens me to God’s voice. There’s often plenty of internal noise that continues—lists of tasks to do, worries about friends or family, self-criticism.
Now, if I could just have laryngitis of the voice in my head.
image credit - Yardley (PA) Friends Meeting