Press "Enter" to skip to content

Listening to oneself, listening to others

in Atti del IV Convegno Internazionale dell’UNIFAS – Fatima 13-18.7.2003
Roma – Segretariato Unifas 2003, pag.69-77


An favourable time for starting again



  1. Our times are permeated with a deep yearning to begin again. We all feel, in our own individual lives and at the level of history and the world, that we have reached a decisive critical point, a turning point, a point where a radical revision is needed. Many ideas, customs, forms of identity, languages, past ways of thinking and behaving seem totally worked out, they don’t hold up any more and are exhausted; they therefore lead to unsustainable positions. Unsustainability is thus a general category that describes the nature of our times. An unsustainability that is not only ecological or due to the economic imbalances between the north and south of the world, but also psychological, reaching to the very depths of our everyday lives, into our work schedules, our increasingly pathological rhythms of urban life. This growing global unsustainability acts like a thermometer marking the seriousness of our malaise and the urgent need to discover a cure, a therapy for mankind and for the world. We are, in other words, getting worse, in ourselves and towards others, towards our natural environment, towards heaven and earth, and thus we urgently need to experience new, creative relationships, within ourselves, our own persons, and also with history and culture, politics and indeed the very cosmos itself. This new type of relationship required of us to give a new start to our lives and a fresh impetus to the history of the world, we shall call finding peace. We all need to find peace, to receive and safeguard it within ourselves, to obtain it once and for all and thus be able to share it among ourselves, to give it to one another. This is the only remedy that each one of us and the world in all its complexity so urgently needs.


  1. The perception of finding ourselves at an important point in history, at which an entire civilisation, a complex anthropological and cultural configuration has come to its consummation and is now trying to grope its way towards a trans-figuration of humanity, this eschatological awareness of living on the boundary between the end and the beginning of an age, permeates, albeit in various degrees and ways, the whole of the 20th century. Jung and Einstein, Heidegger and Ungaretti, Freud and Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil and Teilhard de Chardin, John XXIII and John Paul II, all repeat the same message, namely, that we are living at a critical point in the historical saga of mankind, when a particular way of being human beings, i.e., the self-defensive and bellicose mode of being, the belief that being someone (an individual, a people, a religion) consists in separation from and opposition to others, is disintegrating into the tragedies of the world wars, interior and planetary, that it produces, while a new type of humanity is struggling towards adequate expression and development. Thus, Martin Heidegger was able to write, in the 1950s, “The age without a foundation is hanging over an abyss. Granted that there can be a turning point for this age, this can only come about when the world turns around, from top to bottom, that is, if it turns around starting from the abyss.” More or less at the same time, the Catholic theologian Romano Guardini was saying: “It can be stated with absolute certainty that a new epoch in history is beginning now. From here onwards and for ever, mankind will live on the threshold of a danger that is threatening its every existence and is ever on the increase.” However, Guardini goes on to say that this confrontation with these “extreme perils” also provides us with an opening towards “the highest possibilities” of our human nature.


Using the terminology we have employed in what we have been saying up to now, we could say that building that peace to which we are called is becoming an evident necessity for survival. It is no longer just a moral or spiritual imperative, but an urgent need – biological, psychological and ecological. It is this clear concrete, historical need for a profound anthropological new beginning that determines the radically favourable and apocalyptic nature of this end-time of ours.


More listening, more incarnation, more peace


  1. Contributing towards the emergence of a humanity that has greater interior peace, and therefore, to making peace, means, first and foremost, working toward the transformation of our basic interior attitudes, i.e., transforming our way of thinking, willing, feeling, changing the very shape of our mind (forma mentis), the complex way of being a human BEING. This revolution in being a human person that slowly changes us from being makers of war and separation into real peace-makers, is what we Christians called metanoia, and we automatically link this with the way the Gospel teaches us to listen to the creative Word of God, and thence to ourselves, to others and to the world (nature and history). Metanoia and listening are closely connected.


Moreover, a human being could be defined as a being that listens, in that, from its mother’s womb it gets its sense of identity and understanding of the surrounding world through the concrete relationships, emotions and sounds coming from the mother and the environment, that is, by listening to others. In the perspective of the Christian faith, the human being is transformed and healed by listening to a divine Word that, received in an increasingly intimate and integral way, becomes flesh, existence, a new humanity.


By listening to the Word that becomes incarnate, we procreate our free and divinised human SELF, as in the scene of the Annunciation: Mary, listening, becomes mother of the saviour: she conceives the Man of Peace through listening, as the medieval writers expressed it: conceptio per aurem. Listening to the Christ who becomes incarnate in us, we are renewed in the spirit of our mind and thus are clothed with a new self “created according to the likeness of God  in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4, 20-24). The more the Son is born in me and grows by means of my procreative listening, the more I understand and become myself, I become transfigured in my humanity. In other words, there is a process in act, at the personal level and at the historical and collective level, of the procreation of a new humanity, a real history of salvation, in which the Word of God becomes incarnate is us in an ever deeper way, penetrating into the very depths of our listening. It is precisely in this history that we find ourselves at the threshold of a new beginning, so that the Pope can speak of a new evangelisation. So we are called to listen (and thus to incarnate) more deeply to the Word of God in order to understand and become more fully who we are, and thereby to be able to enter into a new and unheard-of relationship of peace towards others.


Therefore, to sum up this first part of our discussion, we can say that listening to the Word that becomes incarnate, listening to/understanding ourselves and listening to/relating to others are three existential ways intimately connected to one another that today, all of them together, demand a leap into a greater depth. Given that listening is a relationship that is nourished by sympathy, compassion, basically by love, the threshold we are about to cross is that of a more mature love for God, for ourselves and for our neighbour. That sheds light on the theme of our meeting: Listening in order to serve; what we really want to do is to develop the art of listening at all levels so as to become more effective agents of healing and peacemaking, and thereby respond to the deepest and most exciting challenges of our time.



Listening in order to transform ourselves:

Psychological self-knowledge and Christian initiation


  1. In my view, this leap into a deeper form of listening (love/acceptance) to God, oneself and others, which is really a leap of knowledge, in the biblical and full meaning of the term, can be assisted by some tools developed by 20th-century Psychology, Philosophy and Poetry, which can help us check out in a more concrete way the process of our peace-finding and peace-making metanoia. This connection between the Church’s traditional sacramental journey of initiation and the new types of knowledge developed by the cultures of modernity, is one of the innovative aspects of this particular moment of destiny, a pathway towards a more radical incarnation and humanisation of the words of the faith. The Church’s pronouncements on the importance of the link between the spiritual journey and psychological self-knowledge are becoming more numerous, from the insights of the Council (cf. Gaudium et spes, no. 62b) to the General Directory on Catechetics (1997), which requires the catechist to study: “the psychological dynamic that acts upon man, personality structure, the deeper needs and aspirations of the human heart, developmental psychology and the stages in the cycle of human life, the psychology of religion and the experiences which open man up to the mystery of the sacred”(no. 242). We shall confine ourselves here to noting briefly how psychological self-knowledge, understood as a type of listening to oneself, can act in synergy with spiritual listening, listening to the Word who becomes incarnate, and collaborates with it in the revival and deepening of our journey of conversion. We shall look at three stages in the process of self-knowledge, stages that follow each other continuously throughout the process of self-transformation, not one after another in a straight line – rather, in a sort of spiral that keeps coming back to the same crucial points but always at a deeper and more radical level.


  1. Recognising our masks and defences


When we begin to look inside ourselves, using the tools that psychological research offers us, and so begin to learn how to see not only our modes of behaviour but even how we formulate our thoughts and how various emotions come about in us, we discover that very often we are not ourselves, we act in a false and constrained way. Introspective investigation shows us that on many occasions we put on, very often without even being aware of it, a sort of mask that has been building up in us since early childhood as a sort of defence mechanism that we are still using. This subtle, and often unconscious, masking has two very negative aspects: first, it is the principal source of our lack of authenticity, and then it also gives rise to all sorts of conflicts: the ego in conflict with itself cannot but produce strife around itself.


Careful listening to oneself and self-observation, engaged in on this level and assisted by the presence of a more skilled person, and possibly of a group, can be of enormous benefit in freeing ourselves of many internal structures of perfectionism, many neurotic guilt feelings, many false accommodations and false inclinations or rebellious streaks that continue to ruin our lives and poison our relationships. With time, we come to understand more clearly the distant causes of these defensive masks, we uncover emotionally the long-standing childhood wounds that were the cause of them and recognise the terrible effects that they have produced throughout our lives. In other words, we come to understand that forcing ourselves and doing violence to ourselves, we have only produced dissatisfaction and failures, creating continual conflicts around ourselves and further suffering, often perhaps with the best of intentions. This is a deeper sort of examination of conscience that brings us to see subtle ramifications and distortions, even precisely in those very places which we deluded ourselves we were cultivating as the best part of ourselves. We discover, sometimes with consternation but with a new sense of liberation in the truth, that all the relationships we build on the foundations of these defence mechanisms are basically disguised conflicts, nourished by a hatred that has perhaps learnt how to clothe itself in formal courtesy or ice-cold respect for the rules. We discover, in other words, that if we do not listen to ourselves right down to the depths, that is, if we do not learn to accept and love ourselves, imperfect as we are, we cannot but refuse to listen to or understand all those we come across: in the same way that I listen to (accept/love) myself, I shall listen to (accept/love) others. All of which becomes perfectly clear from spiritually enlightened self-observation, which urges us on to ever more radical conversions.



  1. Confronting our shadow: hostility and fear


In this process of knowing oneself, we discover that every time the old programme of defensive masking takes place in us, that is, every time we force our true nature, feigning compliance, detachment, superiority or the like, we build up inside ourselves strong forces of hostility, resentment, anger or real and proper hate. On the journey of listening to ourselves, we discover indissolubly welded together, like two sides of the same coin, our mask and our shadow, which we also have to learn to listen to without undue embarrassment or fear. This will show us how much hate and how much resentment we have really accumulated behind out attitudes of compliance, kindness and tolerance. This continual work of listening, that is, of allowing to emerge, be recognised, accepted and finally healed, all the rage, the fear, the shame, hate and the consequent guilt feelings that we have built up since childhood because of the wounds to our love that we have received and perhaps put out of mind, is a basic process of purging, by means of which we rid ourselves of ancient, terrible spiritual infections. Paradoxically, the more I succeed in recognising all the fear that there is in me, the more I become courageous; and the more I humbly recognise all the hatred I hold, the more I learn to love without enforced, pharisaic perfectionism. It is really the same principle that lies behind confession, in that we are forgiven only for what we recognise as error and distortion.


Furthermore, therapeutic, that is, non-judgemental, listening to our negative aspects is an indispensable prerequisite for accepting and listening to another person, with their limitations and negative aspects without immediately rejecting them. It is only thus that we become credible and effective witnesses to the forgiveness and healing that comes from God.



  1. Beyond my darkness Christ gives me peace

which I in my turn can offer to others


It is precisely this continual, patient process of listening to, recognising and going beyond my egoistical rigidities (and, that is, my defensive masks) and my background destructive emotions (my darkest shadows) that will allow me to enter into ever closer contact with the heart of my true being, with that Love spring up within me and which wants to become my whole being. In Christological terms: the Christ who dwells in me and who grows and is made stronger by the sacramental life of the Church, can only heal those wounds I show Him, those that I become more and more aware of. Thus, the more I can recognise my distortions, the more I will be freed of them, be healed and forgiven, and the more I am healed of my leprosies and blindness, the more I shall experience the true liberty of my being as a child of God, which will allow me to free and pardon others, to listen to them with true love, to bring them peace and thus to serve them as Jesus serves us and teaches us to serve.


This journey that brings to a new and deeper level the mystery of our being born from on high slowly transforms us into persons who can bring real peace to each other; persons who receive, every moment and by the dissipation of their own darkness, the peace of the Risen One, and receive as their true being: their true order of life, which they learn to share with each other, letting it grow in and between them, and in the world as the divine-human order, the Kingdom of God. The process of personal transformation thus becomes the dynamo of a transformation of collective history, the motive power of that new beginning that is now presenting itself, that demand for a new and truly global culture of peace.


Outline of group work for 14 July



11.00 – 12.30


  • Brief self-introduction by each participant in the group
  • Impressions and questions about the conference
  • Moment of silence and recollection to prepare to answer in writing the following questions:


  • When are we able to relate, in the best possible way, to others, to share something essential? In what circumstances, in what state of mind, are we able to listen to and be listened to, to give and receive affection in the most natural and pleasant way?
  • When, on the other hand, do we encounter greater difficulties? And how do we react when we are disturbed or are irritated? Do we tend to put on a mask, to make a pretence of politeness and store up rancour?



We are aiming at understanding how very often our conflicts are determined by our own internal tensions, our pretensions of perfection concerning both ourselves and others, and to show that interior peace, arising out of self-acceptance and contact with the mercy of God, affords us greater openness and ability to listen to the people we meet.



15.30 – 16.30


Continuation of the work begun in the groups.



17.00 – 18.00


In full assembly: questions and discussion around the theme:

What have I learnt from all of the work today?