Becoming Literate Listeners

Carol Harrison, in a chapter on catechesis in her book, The Art of Listening in the Early Church, talks about the importance of becoming what she calls "literate listeners." Catechesis, she says, involved not just a certain kind of teaching, but helping catechumens become certain kind of "hearers." Here's an excellent passage describing the kind of hearing the church fathers were after, namely, a kind of hearing connected to faith:

[T]he act of hearing, or at least of effective hearing, was clearly understood in direct relation to faith in the early Church. Hearing was somehow regarded as the necessary prior essential in order to inspire or faith. How did this work, and why was hearing, in particular, so crucial?

It appears, first of all, that for the fathers, there is a right sort of hearing which enables the listener to believe, and there is also a wrong sort of hearing which can cut the listener off from faith. The Jews, for example, are generally characterized as listening but not actually hearing, in that they read or hear their Scriptures, but do not believe; hence they do not actually ‘hear’ them at all. As Cyril of Jerusalem observes to his catechumens when commenting on arguments from prophecy, ‘The Jews read these words, but do not hear them; for they have stopped the ears of their heart in order not to hear.’ 

Effective hearing therefore seems to lie, not so much in the acquisition of knowledge as in a right orientation of the will; in opening the ‘ears of the heart’; in a willingness to receive what is heard and to allow it to impress itself upon the mind in such a way that it forms or transforms it—a process which could equally well describe how we come to believe.
— Carol Harrison, The Art of Listening, 89–90


Harrison goes on to describe how certain fathers, such as Augustine, will describe hearing the Word in church as receiving "daily bread." It's something we need to hear over and over. Repetition is a part of catechetical teaching, much in the same way it occurs in the weekly liturgy. But this is as it should be. In fact, the repetition plays a crucial role in cultivating the intuitions and dispositions of the hearers. Harrison alludes to the way in which this has important doctrinal implications:

A tacit, almost intuitive response had been engraved upon the minds of those who had heard, believed, and prayed the faith from the catechumenate onwards, which could not but inform any attempt to explicitly formulate and defend the faith when occasion arose.
— Carol Harrison, The Art of Listening, 92


In other words, as the words of the Scriptures slowly and repetitively—meditatively, even—get ingrained in the hearts and minds of catechumens, they become better able to "just know" when their hearing right or wrong doctrine. They develop a nose for deviant ideas if and when they arise.  

All this is to say that catechesis is much more than teaching new Christians about the faith—providing the list of facts that they must learn in order to be "good Christians." It is just as much about taking the time to teach people how to hear. I think we tend to assume that listening is a neutral activity—one we either do or don't do. What is more, the amount of media to which we're exposed today, and the kinds of distraction to which life in the digital age primes us, greatly inhibit our ability to really listen. Recognizing the challenges of catechesis in our time will mean recognizing that catechesis requires literate listeners as well as competent teachers. Catechesis is a two-way street.

There are better and worse ways of listening. Right hearing is something that needs to be learned, and it concerns our posture, our disposition. To be sure, we're not looking to cultivate passive consumers—the digital age is doing that just fine. Nor are we looking to cultivate dispassionate skeptics—the modern university is doing that just fine. In fact, we need to cultivate literate listeners, those who seek to know and to love. Learning how to hear, then, is just as important as what is heard. It's the combination of hearing the right things and the right kind of hearing that leads to effective catechesis.