Ben McIlwaine remembers taking long walks with his father when Ben was a boy growing up in southern Virginia. The elder McIlwaine evidently loved to take breaks from his work as a Presbyterian minister and spend time with his young son, born to his second wife when Rev. McIlwaine was 64 years old.
Picture the aging minister clad in a long sleeved shirt and long pants, even in summer, with a handkerchief over his head to shade the neck and ward off insects, secured in place by a broad brimmed hat. Young Ben trails along behind his father wearing the same hat-and-handkerchief get-up as they weave along a path through the woods. Rev. McIlwaine sweeps a dead branch up and down to clear spider webs and a breeze stirs the tops of the trees.
Then the father finds a fallen log and the two sit on it. They stay there for long minutes, just listening.
After about 30 minutes, Rev. McIlwaine says, “Listen! Do you hear that?”
Ben’s mouth drops and he squints. “What, daddy?”
“Do you hear that little chirping sound off in the undergrowth over there?” Ben tilts his head toward the dark green leaves jerking in the wind.
His father points. “There! That rapid chittering. Do you hear it?”
And a slow smile crosses Ben’s face. He can hear it, just above the wheeze of the fitful breeze, a rapid, staccato beeping. “That’s a mother wren,” his dad says, “and she doesn’t like us being so close to her nest.” Ben would not have noticed it, but when his father called his attention to it, Ben’s ears were opened to hear it.
Once after Ben married my sister, we had enjoyed a meal together on the porch at our house. In the midst of conversation, Ben turned his head and said, “You hear that?”
All I could hear was the clinking of dishes as my sister and wife cleaned the kitchen inside. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Oh, you can hear it. That high clicking, almost at the edge of hearing.” And then it broke into my awareness. It had been there all along, but immersed in my routine as I was, I hadn’t paid attention.
“What is that,” I asked.
“Those are barn swallows and they’re heading home for the evening.”
Sounds stimulate and delight a trained ear while an untrained ear suffers deafness in the same environment. Now, because of Ben’s influence, whenever I take a walk or a hike, I hear avian calls I’d never heard before. The neighborhood where I walk and the woods and forests where I go for hikes resound with new calls and songs. Of course, they’re not really new. They’ve been there all along. It’s just that someone has opened my ears and trained me to listen. I had a mentor in the subject of birdsong and now I hear them in a more nuanced sense than I ever did before.
When we have spiritually untrained ears, we suffer a spiritual deafness. That’s one of the reasons we have such division and conflict in our Christian body – we haven’t quit banging our own drums long enough to determine if there’s another rhythm beating or to hear whether there’s another tune playing, which may very well compose beauty we’d never heard.
In order to listen, though, we will have to let go of our addiction to words. We’ll have to nurture a part of our humanity that our present culture profoundly neglects. That’s for next Tuesday’s blog.