The pagan art of listening

First of all, I apologize for the long silence on this blog.  I was, well, moving back to America!  But I still have plenty more thoughts about Japan, so I hope to continue writing here.  Now, on to the topic at hand!

Some Protestants accuse Catholics of being too pagan.  Actually, as a Catholic who’s lived with both Protestants and pagans, I have to say I think they’re on to something with that.  Catholics do have something in common with pagans.  Only, it might not be what the Protestants think.

Let me explain the pagan culture I know best:  Japan.

The Japanese are good listeners.  They don’t interrupt; they don’t form hasty judgments; they ask questions rather than turning the topic back to themselves.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that I learned how to hold a conversation in Japan.

In fact, the Japanese are even good at listening to inanimate objects.  Remember how the Iron Chefs always talked about eschewing heavy sauces and letting the natural flavor of the ingredients shine through?  I find there’s a willingness in Japan to be very quiet and look and listen and see what something is, to appreciate its nature.

This disposition even extends to the perception of reality.  For all their meekness, the Japanese are surprisingly resistant to spin and rhetoric.  They are very adept at seeing past the surface to the substance of the thing.  Everything is tested against the bedrock of experience; what doesn’t resonate, doesn’t stick.

I think this idea of listening–of being in touch with what is, rather than trying to superimpose our own thoughts on it–is both profoundly Japanese and profoundly Catholic, perhaps for different reasons. The Japanese worship nature, while Catholics read in it a message from its Creator.

What they have in common is that neither side is afraid of what it might hear.  The Japanese, because it is the basis of their religion; Catholics, because they know it can never contradict their religion–creation will never contradict the truth, since both were created by God.

So if what some Protestants mean by calling Catholics “too pagan” is that we’re uncommonly comfortable with reality, all I can say is, “Why, thank you–I think so too!”

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3 comments on “The pagan art of listening

  1. Daniel says:

    Are the churches in Japan attended by larger than normal family sizes? I know it must be difficult to be open to large families there given the massive population sizes and high cost of living, especially in the city.

    I have six kids and I always wondered what Japanese would think of Catholic teachings marriage and family. In many ways, where I live in North America, it has never been a better time to have a large family, so long as you are willing to give up a lot of the things that folks now-a-days take for granted, such as trips to the Bahamas or to Disney Land.

    Thanks for posting on my Catholic Answers thread earlier on this summer in June. I only noticed it today. This is a great blog. 🙂 I’ve been learning Japanese for the last year as a kind of coping mechanism for some huge stresses at work. No joke! I would listen to japanesepod101.com podcasts and study vocab for hours. The focus on learning every day words and listening to the simple dialogs coupled with my fascination with everything Japanese was a great way to blow off some steam. My kids also likes the dialogs and have learned some simple words. My son often wakes me up in the morning with a hearty Ohayo! What fun! Too bad I don’t know anyone who speaks Japanese.

    The other big draw for me is how finding escape from the negative “culture wars” that rage here in North America. I find it fascinating how beautify this culture can be at times, and at others, so clearly show a need for the light of Christ. The total lack of Christian influence makes this need show up so clearly. One of your earlier posts in May reminded me of this. “At the time he wrote, he perceived that many Westerners were stuck in the “penumbra” of the Church, neither close enough to it nor far enough from it to see it clearly.”

    God bless,
    Daniel (Utunumsint)

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  2. Rose Marie says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Thanks so much for writing! I apologize for my late reply–I’m staying at a convent right now and don’t have regular internet access, but I am gathering a lot of ideas for this blog! I’m so happy you’ve found it interesting.

    As for family sizes, well, let’s start with families! The attendees of my church in Japan were overwhelmingly elderly, although Japanese society in general is aging at an alarming pace, because people are just not getting married and having kids.

    God bless you for being open to life! Practicing Japanese with your family sounds like a lot of fun! I agree that it is a peaceful and calming language and culture. The culture wars found in America are indeed lacking.

    Here is the funny thing. Japan has never been Christian, and so there are some things that, from a Western perspective, are obviously lacking. But I also have to say that some of the most inspiring ambassadors of Christian love and humility I have ever met in my life were grandmothers living in the Japanese countryside. Our Lord finds them, somehow. 🙂

    It’s time for me to be in the chapel though, so I have to run!

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  3. […] can think of a few theories.  One is that, as I’ve written before, the Japanese are good at listening to reality.  The fact is that, if you throw away all your […]

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