When I have introduced these practices to young people, many of them wonder what the difference is between contemplative listening and just plain listening, or contemplative gazing and just looking. And these are very good questions!
The way I think about it, there are times in life when we see or hear something, and it's like God has just smacked us upside the head with glory, wonder, awe and beauty. We are stopped dead in our tracks and we cannot help but recognize the holy. These moments are generally few and far between for most of us and they happen by accident.
Contemplative listening or gazing is the act of listening or looking with the intention of waiting for the holy, or noticing what God might be saying or showing us in the moment. The intention is what shifts simply listening or looking into the contemplative realm. You might make the intention to simply listen or look with awareness while taking a walk, but it also might mean looking at a piece of art or playing a piece of music and allowing the Divine to inspire or speak through that medium. We believe that God speaks through the people around us, why not through the art that those people create? Here is an opportunity to sink deeply into a space of listening, to be immersed fully in the presence of God through a particular sense.
December seemed like a particularly intriguing month to engage in contemplative listening. On the one hand, there are such amazing musical selections related to Advent and Christmas both instrumental and vocal. Some might be old favourites that evoke special memories, while others might be new (especially if I'm willing to explore a variety of genres or spiritual traditions). On the other hand, the month of December is often filled with a cacophony of noise assaulting the senses. The gentle ringing of bells while walking down the street or through a store can seem pleasant on Dec. 1 and jarring by Dec. 21st. I used to work in retail, and we received one cd for the season. That was a whole lot of Blue Christmas!
So I'm interested to see what emerges as I make the intention to listen this season.