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A Feature Review of
The Listening Day:
Meditations on the Way
Paperback: Zeal Books, 2017
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Reviewed by Madeline Cramer
In moments of uncertainty or indecision in which my inner dialogue resorts to a state of frantic, chaotic anxiety, my spiritual director used to calmly remind me that it was time to be still, observe myself, and “take a long, loving, look at the real.” Perhaps the objective of Paul J. Pastor’s The Listening Day, could be best described in the advice that she bestowed upon me. Each of the book’s ninety-one pages contains a daily “meditation” not unlike those practiced by the early monastic church fathers. As Pastor says, they are to be, “read…slowly—no more than one entry a day,” prayerfully, and with a quiet mind (xiii).
They begin with two passages of scripture on related topics, analogies, or images followed by his perception of God’s driving message from the verses articulated in the form of a poetic, lyrical dialogue: God speaking, his listening, and his “own heart’s response,” (xii). In turn, this gives the reader not only a quiet space to observe their own, present real but space to view their reality through God’s loving gaze as depicted both directly in scripture and through Pastor’s continuation of scriptural analogies and images. The dialogues often demand moments of silence and lead one to feel as if they’re having their own conversation with God as each punctuation fills with one’s own doubts and questions. However, Pastor simultaneously gives the impression of walking along beside him on his daily journey in faith. For instance, in the meditation “With All Diligence” he responds to Hebrews 11:6 and Matthew 7:7’s call to diligently seek and find with questions and pleads interspersed by bracketed silences:
“…Why do you make this so hard?
I have knocked! I have looked!…
While it is concluded, in this case, with a reaffirmation of God’s promise to continually love and be with us, it is not answered, and it is not meant to be. Each page is simply meant to be real and meditated upon in its frustrating, yet beautiful incompleteness. Hence, each ends with two to four lines of prose written in a tone similar to the Book of Common Prayer or a prayer for the intercession of a saint. The reader is given an opportunity to repeat and reflect upon the conversation’s essence throughout a day or week.
“Father you have promised that you will be found by all who look…Amen,” (18).
Refreshingly, the book never encourages its readers to belittle themselves or internalize self-flagellation for their human brokenness and sin. In fact, similarly to Henri J.M. Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved, its gentle, narrative tone encourages self-acceptance with the understanding that growth can never truly happen until one is still and present enough within the “now” to hear the voice that speaks grace and truth. As in the meditation “Well Pleased,” “Do you know I see my Son in you? In him, you are my wonderful adopted, my beloved child,” (32).
However, while usually comforting, the scriptural and personal dialogues that Pastor engages are honest enough to not be comfortable. The book thematically balances messages of peace, worship, and forgiveness with the difficult and less tidy parts of faith and scripture. In “The Hardest Kind of Good” (43), Pastor invites readers to struggle with human suffering and the problem of evil, and “The Warbreaker’s” (47) meditation revolves around the seeming contradiction of God’s peace with his wrath that “…lay[s] hearts open, to separate bone and marrow. To kill,” (47) as derived from Psalm 46 and Isaiah 2:4 He also acknowledges the humbler parts of his own “real.” For example, “The Bonesetter” uses the imagery of God mercifully resetting a badly healed injury to reflect the pain that results from our own stubborn insistence that we need no other strength but our own. Likewise, the meditation, “Regarding Suppertime” almost humorously represents God’s rebuke of human selfishness and judgment with a dialogue based on Revelation 3:20, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person…” Pastor responds, “Seriously, Father—anyone?” God uncomfortably, and inconveniently concludes the conversation with, “If you don’t like unworthy company, you’ll hate Heaven,” (89).
In truth, the thrust of Paul J. Pastor’s book of meditations The Listening Day is its willingness to kindly yet honestly embrace that, when each of us takes a step back to look at the real, we find that we’re all unworthy company in some way or to some degree. And, in a world that is busy, confusing, and cut-throat, prayerful meditation, something that forces us to assume a state of physical and mental stillness, feels far from convenient, comfortable, or natural, but that was never its point. If we never took time to be still, observe, and ground ourselves in something deeper than to-do lists, we would never hear or listen to the quiet, transcendent voice promising to sit beside us in our own unworthy company so that, through him, we might view our real lovingly. In its most basic essence, The Listening Day functions as a fellow brother in Christ’s guidance and aid in living out the epigraph:
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.”
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com