The feeling is more than mutual.

When Kathleen was a kid, she heard strange sounds, sounds that no one else could sense. A tone here. A bell there. A beeping that would ring like an “all safe” in her right ear. She found it kind of magical but the “they’s” of this world disagreed. They said it would go away. They said to quit listening.

But Kathleen couldn’t quit listening. There were seasons when the sounds weren’t so frequent. And others where it was a like a symphony of song. A great sadness grew in her, though, because she could not communicate with the sound within. She did not know how to sing back.

Finally, some years into adulthood, she found a spiritual director who affirmed her ear, the way it attuned to the world and the way it wanted to commune with others. All Kathleen had to do was listen.

Just listen. Keep listening. First and always listen.

And so she did, until one day she met the singing bowls, bell-shaped vessels hallowed out for the holy. It was the first time she heard what was happening within mimicked on the outside. She had found her medium for meaning-making. She could finally sing back to the sound of the genuine in her.

When I heard Kathleen share this story, I was in a room full of retreat facilitators who, like me, had been shaped and trained by the work of Parker J. Palmer and the Center for Courage & Renewal. We’re in the business of listening. Deep listening. Sacred listening. Listening in the company of community.

Still, I showed up at that retreat straining to hear the sound of the genuine in me. Coming off a weekend of family fullness, I did everything I knew to set myself up for the stillness. All the tricks: bringing spiritual books—always two too many—, sharpening pencils for pointed reflection, even packing one less lipstick tube for the sake of SIMPLE.

I was desperate for clarity in my listening.

What I got was quality of listening.

Quality before clarity became the motto of my meditations. How often was I going to spiritual practices in order to produce? What was the point of retreat if not a revelation? And yet over and over again God sang to me a different song. Over and over again God said, “Quiet, child. You don’t have to sing back. Listen.”

Just listen. Keep listening. First and always listen.

There’s something so human in trying to make everything mutual, isn’t there? It’s perhaps my favorite part of Kathleen’s story: she was so sad not to be able to sing back. We want to have something to show for this show of love. We want to write a thank you note for the thank you feast. But God, the universe, whatever you want to call them, is conspiring for our good, our collective good, without us even having to lift our littlest finger. There’s something totally stupid in the matchless extravagance toward us.

I don’t know what the sound of the genuine is in you—a phrase that, by the way, comes from the majestic mystic Howard Thurman. But I know that Kathleen didn’t learn hers through the hustle. She learned it by listening. Through the systematic silencing of her they’s. By being faithful day in and day out to her unique idiom.

Even if she never met her singing bowls, I believe it would have been enough. It would have been enough to have soaked up the sound of love.

And yet to see her sit in front of me on the first night of retreat, legs folded beneath her, twelve colorful vessels in front of her, two mallets in either hand, smile held longer than a whole note across her face, I knew her faithfulness had found its fullness.

After decades—decades y’all! Kathleen is not a young kitten—she can finally sing back.

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