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Monday, September 21, 2015

Are You Deaf? It Is Far More Fun To Speak Than To Listen

Bartley Acton loved to hear Father Brophy’s sermons. The old priest was a powerful, emotional speaker who captivated the congregation so that while he spoke, not a sound was heard from the pews.  Not a squeak, not a cough, not a stir.

Father Brophy


“The Devil is here among us”, he began in his deep, orotund voice. “Yes, right here in this house of God.”

How could this be, the parishioners thought? Why was the Devil not cast out or forbidden to enter the sanctuary?

Father Brophy raised his arm and swept it slowly in a broad arc from the first pews to the last, from the balcony to the vestibule. “You”, he said loudly, “have brought the Devil into this holiest of holies, the sanctified, glorified, wondrous place of Jesus Christ and sullied His home.  You have defiled His church. You, with your sinful, negligent, and dishonorable ways, have plunged this sanctuary into darkness; and for your sins, you will be damned.”

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The church was silent; the parishioners shocked. Young children looked up in the apse  see if they could see the Devil.  Their parents kept their eyes to the floor in shame and humiliation.

“Do you smell the sulfurous evil from Hell?”, Father Brophy now shouted. “Are you ready to beseech forgiveness from the Almighty for your sins?”

Bobby Pryce, a close friend of Brophy’s, had gone to Southern Baptist Seminary, became pastor of small church in his West Texas home town, and soon moved to bigger and more prosperous congregations in the East.  Word had spread about his oratory and his passionate belief, and his churches were always filled to overflowing.

From listening to Bobby Price, Brophy knew that his cries for repentance and redemption were very Protestant, but few in his church knew the difference.  All that mattered was that his entire church congregation sat open-mouthed, awe-struck, and stunned when he invoked the name of the Devil.

As a young boy Bartley Acton was always moved by Brophy’s sermons. Chills went up and down his spine when he heard the frightening words about Satan.  He felt powerful guilt and remorse when he was called a sinner and reprobate. Tears came to his eyes when the priest finally spoke of heavenly rewards for the forgiven.  More than anything, Bartley wanted to be like Father Brophy.

Bartley had no religious calling. The emotional impact of Father Brophy’s sermons lasted only until mid-week when he backslid into his old sinful habits; but the very idea of commanding such authority simply by speaking was irresistibly appealing.

Not only could able and talented priests move their parishioners to prayer and spiritual renewal, no one ever talked back to them or even debated them.  They could fulminate, move souls towards God, hector and threaten, and never have to listen to a word from anyone else.  It was an ideal situation.

Bartley didn’t only admire priests but also politicians who were of the same ilk.  They could rant, exhort, and rally large crowds to applause and cheering and never have to put up with nonsensical questions or inane challenges.  Once they were at the podium or on the stage, they were as holy and untouchable as Father Brophy.

Image result for image politician on the stump


“Let me tell you about America”, began Lewis Braxton, candidate for Senator of Missouri. “I love America.  I love America dearly.  I am not too proud to say that I love her spacious skies and her amber waves of grain.  America is the greatest nation on earth and I am humbled to be one of her servants.”  Here he stopped and looked at the crowd at his feet. “I will give everything….everything….every drop of my blood, my sweat, and my tears for this great country.  Return me to Washington, and I will be your servant too.”

Braxton was brilliant.  He understood the art of imagery even better than Ronald Reagan.  Braxton’s America was even brighter, more brilliant, and shone like a beacon atop the former President’s shining city on a hill.  He tempted, enticed, cajoled, offered, and humbled himself before his constituents who came to hear him and to be uplifted by his speeches.

Image result for images reagan shining city


“Listening is overrated”, said Bartley Acton; and although he never became either a priest or a politician, he learned well from them both.  In his profession he was often called upon to address conferences and seminars and he was as effective as any preacher.  He used a combination of emotive images of children, bold graphics, and most of all an inspiring and passionate oratory to sway the audience to his point of view.  Every head that nodded in understanding and agreement was one more convert to Bartley’s cause; one less objectionable opponent; one less skeptic to convince.  He, like Father Brophy could speak without having to listen.

His father had once told him that the keys to real success in America were not hard work, diligence, and rectitude; but charm and a silver tongue. Intelligence and competence are taken for granted, said Mr. Acton; but people have to be won over. Smarts and savvy are just the beginning. A smile, firm handshake, and a smooth delivery will do the rest.

Bartley understood women and knew that one of their biggest complaints about men was that they didn’t listen.  Men hide their feelings, selfishly keep to themselves and occupied with their own interests.  Yet Bartley quickly figured out that if he played his cards right and kept to the playbook of Father Brophy, he could win the game of sexual politics as easily as he won every other.  He became good at the solicitous look – one of concern, love, and sentiment – and even better at crafting a response to his wives’ concerns without having to bother actually listening to them.  Women were not that difficult to figure out.  They were either concerned about neglect, disinterest, tomcatting, or hairs in the sink; and not much more.  Bartley could read his wives like an open book, so he was able to cloture debate before it started.  In other words, he could talk but did not have to listen.

Image result for image crying wife comforted by husband


One might reasonably ask how he was able to mature.  How could anyone go through life without listening to the wisdom of others? Bartley of course paid attention, which was very different from listening.  He paid attention when his Harvard professors lectured.  He paid attention to what authors wrote (said) in books.  He learned from the plays of Williams, O’Neill, Ibsen, and Shakespeare.  He loved the dialogue, the drama, and the theatricality. He was an aural observer.  He didn’t have to listen with the purpose of replying.

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Bartley was so sophisticated in his approach to interpersonal relationships that few people suspected him of arrogance.  They thought him intelligent, responsive, and respectful. Which was of course what he wanted them to think.  The higher he was in the esteem of others, the less he would have to listen to them.  They would want to hear his opinions.

“You learned your lesson well”, his father said to him much later in life.  His father was the only person on earth that Bartley could not fool and if he was being honest with himself, he was the only person he ever listened to.

Bartley Acton was an accomplished person.  He was well-read and well-travelled.  He had many wives and even more paramours who, when told that he was leaving, were distraught and disappointed.  They never felt betrayed, for Bartley was at heart honest. Not listening had nothing to do whatsoever with moral rectitude.  He was a principled man who understood how society worked.  He simply had little interest in the bits and pieces it offered up.

I admired Bartley Acton and spent as much time as I could with him.  I loved to hear him talk.  I loved his stories about romantic adventures in the Orient, exegesis of the Gospel of John, disquisitions about Vermeer and Holbein, or fusion cuisine.  I knew he was uninterested in what I had to say, but I didn’t care.  He was as perfect, well-rounded, and persuasive a person as I have ever met.  Why should I speak?

It is unfashionable and very politically incorrect these days to admire someone who never listens.  It goes against the grain.  Yet one had to respect the Nietzsche in him; the dismissal of the herd, and the absolute certainty that he was right.  He was a treat in a world in which people seem afraid of their own shadow, afraid to hurt or insult and keep their own counsel no matter what.  He was a Superman, and I wish there were more like him.


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