The Listening Owl

I was meditating this morning, dark and difficult as usual and afterwards I remembered the story of the Listening Owl. It is not like any other story I have read. I cannot remember where I came across it now – some book of stories for children – but this is no ordinary child’s story. It is a story for adults too, but only for those who can suspend belief and see and wonder with a child’s eyes. Here is the story:

The Listener

There was the Other Voice Owl of the World.  He sat in the world tree laughing in his front voice, only his other voice was not laughing.  His other voice was saying the silence.  He had a way of saying it.  He said it wide and far when he began.  He said it tiny when it came close.  He kept saying the silence like that in his other voice and when he finished the silence swallowed up the sounds of the world and the owl swallowed up the silence.

No one knew he was doing it.  He was trying to swallow all the sounds of the world and then there would be no more world because everything would follow its sound into the silence and then it would be gone.  What the owl had in mind was to get it all swallowed and then fly away.  He only did it at night.  He thought he’d get some of it swallowed every night until the whole world was gone away.

No one knew what the owl was doing except for a child.  He didn’t have any eyes.  He listened all the time.  When he heard the owl saying the silence in his other voice he heard the silence swallowing up the sounds of the world, little and big, from the wind sighing in the trees to the ants crying in their holes.  The child knew the owl was trying to say the whole world away and he knew it was up to him to stop the owl, so he began to listen everything back.  He listened far and wide when he began, he listened tiny when it came close.  The eye of the goat and the dance in the stone and the beetle digging a grave for the sparrow. He listened them into his ear holes and he kept them all safe there.  The foot steps of the moth and the sea foam hissing on the strand.  He listened everything back.

The child only kept the sounds in his ear holes at night.  He kept them safe till morning.  When the cock crowed in the middle of the night it never fooled him, nor when he crowed again before first light.  He kept the sounds safe in his ear holes till the day stood up and the cock of the morning crowed everything awake.  Then the child unheard the sounds and they went back to where they lived.  The child was laughing at the owl, but the owl didn’t know it.  He thought he had done a good night’s work.  He sat in the world tree grooling and smarling all day, thinking he would get the whole world gone, only he never did.

The owl keeps trying and he’ll do it one day.  All it takes is for no one to be listening everything back.  He will go the world away and himself with it and that’ll be the end of it.  But it may not be for a while yet.  Not as long as there is a child to listen.


It suddenly struck me that this is what contemplative prayer is all about. It is dark. There are no images, brilliant ideas, or wonderful thoughts. It is simply a dark night and sometimes there is a sense of presence but usually there isn’t. Yet, paradoxically – at least with me – there has been a profound awareness of others, especially of those suffering and struggling. The horror stories from all over the world that fill the news have a personal impact and fill me with sadness. It is as though all the joy, tolerance, love,  generosity and goodness  of people is being swallowed up by the dark forces who have the power to enforce their will on the rest of us. All the hypocritical ‘front voice’ rhetoric about freedom, democracy and the rule of law means nothing in the face of the ‘other voice’ exercise of overwhelming power in the service of selfishness and greed. 

This is why it is so important for the blind child in all of us to listen back the love, courage, generosity and goodness that the ‘other voice’ darkness is trying so desperately to swallow up. 

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