Living As Contemplative Leaders in Action: Holy Listening

November 7, 2021

I bolted upright in bed, my hand clutching my chest. It felt like my heart would beat right out of it. I took deep breaths trying to quiet the thump, thump, thump resounding in my ears. My heart felt so loud in the quiet, dark room. I touched the sheet, the headboard, the nightstand letting each connection pull me back into reality. “You are here. You are awake. You are okay. Just breathe,” I whispered into the dark. 

When I felt I could finally move, I stumbled into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I ran my tongue along my teeth checking that they were still firmly in place as I finally felt my body relaxing. “It was just a dream,” I said to myself. “It was just a dream.” 

I dreamt that I was standing in an incredibly dirty bathroom in the basement of a creepy house, the kind of horror movies. My feet were riveted to the floor as I stared into a mirror watching my teeth crumble to dust in my mouth. 

That kind of dream would make anyone’s heart race, wouldn’t it? 

Even now, over fifteen years later, I remember so clearly the feeling of my teeth crumbling in my mouth and my heart racing in my chest as I tried desperately to wake up. That particular night, I convinced myself it was just a dream, but over time I came to know it as one of the moments God was trying to break through my walls and get me to tune in. 

At the time of the dream, I was mixed up in a situation I needed to get out of. The only problem was, I didn’t know it. On the surface, I didn’t believe anything was really that wrong. I was in the midst of it, so my perspective was narrow. Sure, there were voices around me offering advice. There were voices around me asking questions and inviting me to take a harder look.  I convinced myself I had it all handled. 

I had so strongly convinced myself that I was stuck listening only to myself. I listened to the self that said, “You are being too dramatic, you know what you are doing.” The self that said, “You are too intelligent to have made a mistake;  they just don’t understand.” In retrospect, the self that said “There is no way out, is there?” was the loudest voice shouting it’s bad advice and drowning out everything else. 

When I chose to write about contemplative leaders being holy listeners, I thought this article would come easily. Afterall, I wrote many times about what I learned about listening from my oldest son who is deaf. I figured I could easily draw from that knowledge. But every time I sat down to write, the words would just not come. I struggled for weeks to figure out what to say. What do I really know about what it means to listen? In particular, what do I really know about what it means to listen to God and help others do the same? 

But then, this moment in my small apartment fifteen years ago came back to me, and it wouldn’t leave me alone. I kept feeling the “thump, thump, thump” of my chest. I kept remembering the crunchy feeling in my mouth of my teeth shattering. The night wouldn’t leave me alone as it’s intricate details reminded me that there was something really important about listening I had learned in that moment that needed to be shared. 

Over the years, starting with that night, I learned that God speaks to us in a myriad of ways. God never gives up on us even when our ears are not open. When God finds our ears closed to the Spirit, God begins to use our other senses. I believe that God is present in the “thump, thump, thump” of our hearts. God is there in the tingling of our arms that happens when we sense that something is not quite right. God is there when we can’t sleep or when we struggle to concentrate or when we feel a pit in our stomachs that says “something has to change”. I believe God can be a bit pushy, and I am so glad that God is. If God hadn’t pushed so hard, I wouldn’t have finally listened and the consequences of that I don’t dare to imagine.

Holy listening is being open to listening to God active through all of our senses. It’s about allowing God’s voice to break through even when other voices cannot. It’s about reflecting on the ways God tried desperately to speak to us before so that we can recognize those ways in the future. It’s about reminding ourselves that there is always a way out… there is always a way forward. 

Holy listening reminds us that even in the darkest of nights, God will be there rousing us from our sleep.


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Photo by Septain Simon on 


Gretchen Crowder has served as a campus minister and Ignatian educator for the Jesuit Dallas community for the last fifteen years and counting. She is also a freelance writer and speaker. She has a B.S. in mathematics and a M.Ed. from the University of Notre Dame as well as an M.T.S. from the University of Dallas. She resides in Dallas, TX with her husband, three boys, and an ever-growing number of pets.

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