Always Listening

It’s so much to take in—the cacophony of sounds that is never-ending in this place. There is never silence in our swelling, overcrowded city. The sounds are becoming familiar to our Western ears these days.

Allahu Akbhar. The musical nature of the call the prayer lulls the children to sleep.

Briing. Briing. We have come to expect the jingling melody of bicycle rickshaw bells. We hardly notice the yelping of the street dogs anymore, the clanging of aluminum rice pots in the early mornings. These are the sounds of life in the most densely populated city on earth. We feel our place amidst the noise, but a speck in this teeming sea of life.

But it is when I try to fill this space with my presence that I become even more aware of my smallness. The language I long to speak sounds like just another noise to my untrained ears. This language has existed in some form for thousands of years, descendant from one of the most ancient tongues on earth. This language is the pride of its people, shaped the very foundation and form of this nation.

Friends who’ve learned what feels impossible to me know tell me the first step of learning the language is listening, teaching your ear to recognize the rising and lilting sounds of Bangla. They call it the listening phase. For the first couple months full comprehension isn’t the goal, but recognition.

I hear a word that stands out in a string of melodic words, can recognize one or two and fill in some of the rest based on context. I know enough to get around town (sometimes) and talk to our house helper (about some things). I stumble my way through a sentence or two. A glimmer of joy passes through her eyes when she feels understood and our normal communication of gesturing and sounds becomes something a little bit more.

Dhonnovad. Thank you.

Onek Shundor. Very pretty.

Bideshi. Foreigner.

I recognize so little. Understand even less. I long for my listening to produce the fruit of knowledge, of separating noise from language. I want to cross the bridge into familiarity instead of everything feeling exotic, unknown, other. But it takes time. Lots of it. It takes discipline, work, repetition—and always listening.

I’ve been working for years to understand another language, the language of the Spirit. Silence. Communion with God. I’ve been struggling to separate God’s voice out of what feels like the din that is ever-growing around me. Sometimes I feel a glimmer of recognition. I feel progress in hearing, experience His Presence. Other times His voice seems as unrecognizable as the curls of the Bangla script to this bideshi’s eyes.

It’s been my goal to write in such a way to create space for others to listen for His voice too. It’s the very reason I dared to become a writer and author, to put my heart on the page and online for others to see. Every now and then someone writes to tell me my words opened up a space for them to listen to God’s voice. But I often feel no closer to my goal of hearing and guiding others to hear His voice in the noise than when I first began and it can lead me to despair. Will I ever understand?

I am starting official language school this month, giving myself full-time to learning the language of the country I now call home. I set goals for understanding, for conversation, pushing myself into what I know will be an uncomfortable and often embarrassing task. I ask a friend who has lived in South Asia most of his adult life when I should expect to leave the listening phase of language learning. Never, he responds with a laugh. You are always a learner. You’ll never be a Bengali no matter how hard you try.

So I think it is with Our Father. I’ll always be training my ear to hear His voice, always questioning if it is Him I am hearing. As the calendar pages turn and I face another year I try to set goals for my spiritual life, for my writing, what I want to accomplish this year. They all come back to my longing for knowing and being known. It all comes down to the hope that at the end of another year I know more of who He is than I did before. I am sure it will be on the top of my goals each year for the rest of my life. But I’m never giving up the search and the belief that He is speaking, that He wants to be known and to reveal Himself to me more each day. But it takes time. Lots of it. It takes discipline, work, repetition—and always listening.

Nicole T. Walters
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