With this, Naaman turned about in anger and left. But his servants came up and reasoned with him, “My father,” they said, “if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, ‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.”
2 Kings 5:12-13
As an only child, I spent much of my time in the presence of adults. As I became old enough to tune in on their conversations, I often experienced the longing to be a part of them and so often feared being seen as incapable of participating, of just being seen as a naive child. I suspect that it was in these early years that I developed an undue fear of making mistakes, of saying the wrong thing, a disposition that has been for me one of the greatest obstacles to learning new things.
In the story we read today from 2 Kings, we see two distinct casts of characters. One consists of the little Israelite girl whom the Arameans had captured and who had become the servant of Naaman’s wife, and, second, the servants of Naaman himself who accompany him to Israel to seek a cure for his leprosy. The contrasting cast consists of the Kings of Aram and Israel and, as reflected in the passage above, Naaman himself. The first of these sees things with the hope and the trusting naïveté of the child; the second with the sophistication and wariness of the adult.
The young girl, knowing of the reputation of Elisha the prophet, proposes to her mistress that Naaman go to this prophet of Israel, wanting only her master’s good and heedless of the conflictual social and political ramifications. Likewise, when Naaman refuses the command of Elisha because of its ordinariness, his servants convince him not to reject out of prejudice and pride what he is being offered. On the other hand we have the King of Aram who instinctively believes that it is only through the King of Israel that good can come to Naaman. Then there is the King of Israel who cannot but mistrust the motives of the King of Aram and Naaman.
It is in Naaman himself that we see the conflict between these two sets of human dispositions. On the one hand, he is willing to go to Israel, as the child proposes, yet, when Elisha tells him to wash in the Jordan to be cured, his prejudices against Israel and the affront to his own status almost keep him from the cure that he so desires and seeks. Naaman’s inner conflict, which we see personified in the other characters of the story, is one we know well. It is the conflict between our originality and our socially constructed identity. As spirit we are a call, a destiny, and a mission for the world that is unique. Yet, we also seek to be compatible with the values of the culture and society in which we are raised. We long, as I did as a child, to be seen as a responsible and significant adult by those around us. We desire to experience ourselves as possessing power and influence in our situation and world.
When Theodore James Ryken speaks of being put in his place at the age of 19, he is describing the awakening of his originality, of his own unique call and mission. The conversion to which the gospel calls us is the turning from the identity we ourselves construct in order to find acceptance, approval, and recognition from our society to a walking of the path, of the way, that is our own original calling and mission. This turn requires of us, as the gospel puts it, becoming childlike again, or as Paul Ricoeur puts it, developing a “second naïveté.” This is the ability to perceive and to be formed by reality that we witness in the young Israelite girl and the servants of Naaman. The blindness of the King of Israel and, momentarily, of Naaman himself is that of the arrogance of “common sense,” of the dissociation from our original selves that comes with our growing social sophistication and status.
The road to a cure begins for Naaman as his wife and then himself heed the words of the young Israelite who is their servant, and it ultimately takes place because of Naaman’s willingness to heed the words of his own servants. Our false form of life is nourished by our ingrained biases and prejudices. We have our standards in terms of who is to be listened to and who is to be ignored, who has something to say and who doesn’t. So, our openness to others is largely dictated by our cultural norms. We are interested in listening to experts who are credentialed in ways we appreciate, or to those with whom we feel a natural or social affinity, or those who gratify us in some way or other. We are not interested in hearing from, let alone being formed by, those we consider inferior to us or to whom we are indifferent.
A very many years ago, I was visiting one of our larger school communities. At the time there was a brother living there from another community who worked at a nearby therapeutic center. I noted that when he returned home, often well into the evening, he would make a point to spend a few moments with every brother gathered in the community room for community recreation. His encounters were not perfunctory, but he would rather sit for a time with each person and engage him in direct conversation. For a few moments he would listen to each and every member of the community.
Those of us who live in community of any kind know that before long we develop our own impressions of each person. Those impressions tend to become quite hardened interpretations. We are certain that we know each person and what he or she has to offer us. We quite readily lose the sense of mysterious call that is at the heart of each human person. So we live out our prejudices by attending carefully to a few and really just tolerating the others. We so seldom encounter many or most of the persons with whom we live and work. We really attend only to those who reinforce the limited perspectives and biases out of which we live.
As spirit, we are a capacity to grasp the world, in its mystery, as a whole. Yet, we exercise that capacity so seldom that we fail to enhance our interpersonal worlds with the reverence, appreciation, and awe that they deserve. We live on the surface of life and seldom plumb its mystery because we deny ourselves and each other the access to that mystery that is the inner life of each of us. At any given moment, the Mystery is being lived out in what every one of us is going through. Yet, we who consider ourselves families or communities so often live in ignorance of the deeper realities that surround us. In our arrogant and isolating sophistication, we are missing the sources of healing that are available to us, the “life to the full” that Jesus is always offering us.
Perhaps one of the greatest and most difficult ascetical practices for us is to listen where we are compulsively driven away from another. It is our pride form that makes our time, or our phone messages, or the latest news bulletin, or our own task or opinion so much more important than the life of another person. To open ourselves when everything in us wants to close is to experience within ourselves the conflict portrayed today. Naaman is on the verge of losing the possibility of a cure because what is asked of him is so ordinary and, at the level of feeling, demeaning. Yet, because he hears the pleas of his servants and obeys them, his greatest desire is fulfilled. May we have the courage to engage all that in ourselves would close us to greater life by moving against our tendencies to avoid encounter with others due to our own false pride and prejudice.
I would like to encourage everyone to see society not as a competition between strangers but above all as a home or a family, where the door is always open and where everyone feels welcome. For this to happen, we must first listen. Communicating means sharing, and sharing demands listening and acceptance. Listening is much more than simply hearing. Hearing is about receiving information, while listening is about communication, and calls for closeness. Listening allows us to get things right, and not simply to be passive onlookers, users or consumers. Listening also means being able to share questions and doubts, to journey side by side, to banish all claims to absolute power and to put our abilities and gifts at the service of the common good.
Listening is never easy. Many times it is easier to play deaf. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice, as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: we have to remove our sandals when standing on the “holy ground” of our encounter with the one who speaks to me (cf. Ex 3:5). Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.
Pope Francis, Message for 50th World Communication Day, May , 2016