The book “Why we Swim” reports this story from Iceland. There was a fishing boat with 5 fishermen on a routine fishing trip. The seas were very cold, but they were prepared for the cold. The seas were rough, but they were skilled in navigating rough seas. Yet this trip turned out different than they had expected. The storm was bigger than they could handle and their boat capsized. Each fisherman struggled for his life, but four of them eventually succumbed to the cold sea. Everyone knew that you had to get out of 41 degree water within 30 minutes or you would die of hypothermia. Yet Guolaugur Frioporssons (“Gudleger Friososon”) swam and swam, 3 miles through pitch darkness. He swam for 6 hours and then hiked barefoot an additional mile across jagged icy terrain. He came to land and appeared at the door of the first home he found, barely alive. He spent a month in the hospital recuperating.
Every day of those 30 days his father came and sat at his bed as he listened to his son tell the story of his survival over and over. I imagine the conversation he had with his father. That he shared about how scared he had been and how he didn’t understand how he had survived. His father listened to his grief about losing his buddies. He listened to his pain and his gratitude and he watched him sleep. He brought food and fed him. He listened as his son repeated his stories over and over until he had the koach, the strength, to get out of bed, and finally go home.
Gudleger became famous. Scientists all over the world wanted to know how he survived and after many tests, they discovered he had an unusual thick fat layer that protected him from hypothermia. They called him “the human seal”. What happened during his time in the hospital is what really interested me.
His dad brought him the gift of PRESENCE. Showing up, day after day, sitting by his side, and listening. No advice, no problem solving, no accolades, just accompaniment. A joining, a listening with devotion. For some of us, to show up without trying to offer a fix would be like crawling across jagged icy terrain on our bare hands and knees.
At times, our habit to fix, to problem solve, even to offer blessings and encouragement with praise will override our ability to offer the gift of a non-anxious presence. To accompany. To be silent when no words suffice. Our habits of convention often fill up the spaces that would otherwise be filled with depth/mystery and wonder.
We are in a particularly unfixable time. We need to especially find ways to accompany one another that don’t try to fix that which is unfixable. This requires a slower than usual communication pace. Not so easy. And yet, if we can embrace a slower pace, a gentle quietness, and welcome the uncertainty of the moment, even just a little, we can begin to listen to the kol d’mama dakah, usually translated as the still small voice. Translated more literally as the voice of a thin silence, a whisper or an utter silence. Imagine-listening to the voice of silence.
(Taken directly from the KINGS (Kings I 19:12) , “Kol” is a voice (Exodus 19:19). “Dak” means thin (Isaiah 29:5), and Damam (Exodus 15:16) is silence or stillness.)
As a spiritual director, rabbi and hospital chaplain I immerse in Talmud texts about visiting the sick, healing psalms and liturgy both in Hebrew and English, and I find the best niggunim for healing blessings that match my voice and heart. Ultimately, however, I have learned through experience, it isn’t about technique, or the right music, or the right psalm. It is about whether I show up and listen for the silent voice within, ready to embrace the unknown, the unexpected, and the uncertain. Also, sometimes by showing up in this way I receive images or thoughts that I may not understand, but may become important.
For example, when serving a woman with end stage cancer, I saw an image of a tall mountain I thought might be a symbol of challenge. When I shared the image with her, she saw it as a symbol of strength and resiliency and she found the image very helpful for the next part of her cancer journey.
And quiet accompaniment cannot be overstated. I sat with an elderly woman in the hospital during her lunch. After a long silence, a very long silence, I would slowly get up to leave, and more than once she would say, “please don’t go, I am really enjoying our visit.” I came to understand how much communication, accompaniment, and comfort happens between people without the need for words to fill the space.
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b) also speaks to us about the importance of presence as a healing force between people. When visiting the sick as a peer the Talmud teaches we have the potential of reducing their suffering by 1/60th. To have an effect.
We might apply this sacred obligation to every person we encounter, whether they are physically ill, emotionally struggling, in mourning, the target of systemic oppression or violence, or the survivor of some other trauma like a worldwide pandemic. We all need presence and accompaniment by others that reduces our suffering.
With support, we can learn how to do this.
I have been exploring ways to show up for ourselves, and for each other through Spiritual Direction group work. Together we accompany each other with devotional listening, a practice distinct from active listening or even empathic listening. The goal of devotional listening is to help each other deepen our awareness of the Divine or Sacred in our lives. In our everyday, including our stuck, grieving, wounded, and confused places. Where we yearn, or where our heart needs tending. We are not trying to figure anything out. We ask ourselves, do our responses expand rather than restrict a person’s arena of exploration? After several weeks of practice, we found this awareness got easier. Being the recipient of devotional listening offers us a profound restfulness.
We are going to take a few moments to reflect on where we are in our relationship with the Sacred today. Please, notice if you need to remove any distractions that might be in your environment. Feel free to lay down, close your eyes, doodle, or move your body to get more comfortable. I am going to ask you a few questions to reflect on during our precious time together. You might not find answers today. And that is fine. This is just a taste. The answers may come later. Sometimes just asking the questions is enough to create an opening.
What is on your heart that needs tending to right now? Bring that into your mind. Bring it into your heart. Is there a prayer or image that is emerging? An image might arise today or over time as it incubates. Quiet and spaciousness might become its friend. Is there a yearning? Consider if you want to share what came up for you later with someone or keep it private. Please come back into the room and if you want, take a look around in gallery view at the fellow travelers here, and quietly greet the sacred in one another.
Developing spiritual friendships where we can share what is truly on our heart, and know we will be accompanied by another, is precious. Pirkei Avot and the Chasidic traditions both strongly encourage spiritual friendships. Let’s study this together!
My hope for you for this Rosh Hashanah is for you to find a sacred place where you can offer and receive devotional listening. It may mean developing a spiritual friendship with someone or joining a group focused on spiritual listening.
By showing up for others through devotional listening, listening to the silent voice within, and embracing the unknown or uncertain, our habitual instincts to fill up the empty spaces will be slowly replaced with more sacred and meaningful connections. We might even get to experience deep rest for ourselves in the process.
As Leonard Cohen says, in one of his poems, truly a prayer: “Not knowing where to go, I go to you. Not knowing where to turn, I turn to you. Not knowing how to speak, I speak to you. Not knowing what to hold, I bind myself to you. Having lost my way, I make my way to you.”