People have called me an ‘old soul’ pretty much all my life, it seems like. 19 years old, and people think of me as an old soul. Is it any wonder I over-think things?
Not that they’re wrong, I guess; it comes from knowing when to keep your mouth shut. Or just always keeping your mouth shut, I guess. People around me talk all the time, as if it just comes easy to them; I wonder if they know how wonderful that is, how much my soul quivers with joy when I say something and it doesn’t come out ridiculous.
But does that really make me any more mature? Or does it just make me scared?
Perhaps it’s maturity; I like to think of it like that, anyway. While the rest of the world goes on running at break-neck speed and screaming over the static of society, I sit in the corners yet untouched by the noise, still vibrating with echoes of the mystical quiet of Eden, and wait for the cool of the day when the Lord whispers into my soul. How I wish I could walk with Him like Adam and Eve in the garden.
I guess “listener” has always been built into my soul, partly genetics, partly experience, and partly something else I can’t quite put my finger on that now and again just quivers with happiness every time someone confides in me or simply speaks with me. Sometimes I wish I could be the one doing the talking, that I could take a little more central role, stand a moment in the sun and not always feel sidelined. And yet, as Agatha Christie says of Mr. Satterthwaite in Three Act Tragedy, “the role of onlooker suited him well”.
Really, what it all comes down to is opening the heart as well as the ears. A good listener needs not only to hear and remember well all that has been told them; anyone could do that. A true listener has to be able to do something a little more: take everything they hear into their own hearts. It takes a certain kind of sympathy, or perhaps a kind of empathy, or both, with a spectacular kind of solidarity which, together in some miracle of grace, allow you to enter into the life of the other. You must be able to exercise that beautiful gift called understanding at any moment, even if the voice you listen to grates on your ears or stabs at your heart. You must have an inner life that is rich with experience and incredibly fertile.
Perhaps the best listener I know is my new “big”. Only this morning, I became an intent to a household, sort of the Catholic version of a frat (minus the drinking, drugs, and other assorted stupidity). A “big” is someone in the household who is something of a mentor, like a big brother to you, walking with you through the process to become part of the household according to the covenant. Mine happens to be a dear friend (well not “happens to”, I got to choose; but hey, he could have said no). Though he comes off as very outgoing and talkative, he has an impeccable ability to silence himself, to to quiet his heart whenever I need to speak. His quiet, gentle nature doesn’t inhibit him from being a rambunctious, quirky guy; his loud, boisterous personality doesn’t block out his calm, understanding heart–so understanding that he is often able to articulate what I myself couldn’t quite pull from my own heart.
So maybe it’s high time I took up my role as listener properly–to let go of the fears (because I have plenty of them, trying to choke out the words I want to speak) and actually fall into silence less out of necessity and more out of understanding; to let go of the twisted idea that being quiet and being talkative are mutually exclusive.
It’s time to quiet my old soul, tell myself it’s ok to rest now; it’s ok to stop being afraid; it’s ok to stop throwing up walls that just keep collapsing anyway. It’s ok to just live, to just laugh, to just love.
As he waved goodbye, his smiling face collapsed in exhaustion into his hands.
It’s ok…You’re ok…
It had been long. Far too long. Too beautifully, painfully long to begin to understand.
Breathe…slowly now, slowly…
He sank back into the chair, rubbing his temples. The wooden trunk before him creaked and moaned.
No, just stop…don’t…
The lid gently creaked open…
…very well, then…
Out broke a tangled network of rusted railways, humming with a cacophony of laughter, tunes, and tears. They beckoned him into himself, his inner world.
Just one…just take one…
With all the willpower he could muster, he crushed his world down to the size of a dime and balanced it on a ballpoint pen. He’d bent a few railways in the process, but at least it was all small enough that he could pretend he understood it. At least until he grabbed the first set of tracks in the tangle and began to tug.
As he slowly rolled his mind down the tracks, pulling rail by rail out of the tangle, the memories poured out on his bony fingers in a moan of relief. They burned his skin like acid as they fell, but they weren’t burning him from the inside anymore.
He had no excuse anymore. He had to untangle it.
Because he wasn’t alone anymore.
He looked to the crucifix on the wall. “Courage, dear heart…It will burn, but it is only a purging…I have already withstood these flames…”
Such a long conversation, at least in terms of its heaviness. Speaking in linear terms, it had been only a matter of minutes. But when his heart spoke, it went on murmuring for hours. It could either make the untangling delightfully easy or painfully difficult. And it always meant a new railway.
But it wasn’t something he could just stop; even as he untangled, his heart reveled in the words that passed from their lips into its lovingly prepared inner chambers. He was born to listen, to come as Simon to the crosses of others.
And yet he wondered if he would ever learn to open the wooden trunk, the doors to his inner life, before another.
“Hey, are you ok?”
No, no, no! They found it! They found you! They–
In the arms of his friend was a wooden trunk, creaking and moaning. Maybe he could–was it possible? Could anyone understand?
“Courage, dear heart…”
Could he set his world free? Let himself out?
His world began to stretch out, bend itself in a gentle arch towards this other…
…Very well, then.
“Actually, could we talk?”
“I will speak to you in the silence…but sometimes the best way to quiet your heart is to speak…Be not afraid, I have seen and redeemed your world, your life…Courage, be still…”
Sensitivity. Not generally something a guy is expected or desired to possess as a personality trait, is it? Our culture declares that men should be impervious, rigid, rough. Stray from this pre-set stereotype, and you’ve opened yourself up for ridicule and scorn. Either step into the mold of a mix between Beowulf and a boulder, or accept that you’re gonna be on the fringe of society and called out for a lack of masculinity. Such is the mindset of the world.
As I’ve said before, I have SPS, which means that I literally have no choice when it comes to being sensitive, it’s just how my body works. Everything around me affects me tons of times more than the average person. I notice everything, feel things more deeply; everything bombards me–light, sound, touch, emotion, pain–with a force like a freight train, and my mind keeps running through the wreckage at a thousand miles a minute. Even the things that bring me the most joy wear on me until I literally can’t take anymore. It’s not uncommon for me to close or cover my eyes and ears in frustration, or simply walk off to the most quiet and lonely place to give myself a break. It’s either that or completely break down.
Needless to say, this didn’t particularly help me in my self-image growing up. A kid who cries at thunderstorms and fireworks, who would rather spend time singing or reading a book than running amok on a sports field, isn’t generally looked on as the most masculine. Particularly when your singing voice doesn’t change until freshman year (don’t get me started on all the “you sing like a girl” comments).
But when I looked at other guys, as much as I wanted to be more like them, I couldn’t help turning away and chuckling to myself. I felt like I possessed some secret treasure, a precious gem that brought me more than their trinkets of entertainment could ever bring them.
In an instant, I could sail on the words of some great author to the most distant lands of imagination, and scour the depths of the human heart along the way. I only needed to set my fingers on a piano or lift my voice in a familiar tune and suddenly I was washed in a sound that soothed rather than shocked, a sound that seemed to cleanse my mind of anxiety. I had but to kneel a moment before a glistening tabernacle and I felt in the depths of my soul that He was with me, loving me. I felt everything, and when I encountered beauty, I could be moved even to tears.
And I thought, “What’s so wrong about that?”
I think we as a society have forgotten the importance of the gift of the Holy Spirit called gentleness. We as men are indeed called to be strong and courageous, for these too are virtues; yet it is also our call to be gentle, humble, and truly loving. Part of these more forgotten virtues and gifts is being open to being touched and moved, to being receptive to that which God desires to use to move us closer to His heart. We are called both to roar like lions and sit in receptive sensitivity like lambs, to rise in strength with the Lion of Judah and walk in gentle peace with the Lamb of God.
So as we enter the Easter Triduum, I challenge all men to lift up their reluctance to feel, their fear of emotion, their illusion of superiority in hollow strength, to be crucified with Christ, that they may rise with Him as true gentle men. I call them to combine a lion’s spirit with a lamb’s heart.