Listening Through Lent

In the summer of 2021, thousands of cicadas emerged from the ground and their seventeen-year-long slumber to take over porches, parks, and thoroughfares across the city of Louisville and in other areas in the eastern and central states. As they emerged, our yard and the park nearby began to look more like pegboard than a nice stretch of green summer lawn.

Cicadas come out of the ground in a hard brown shell that they must shed to develop wings. They leave their empty carcasses hanging almost everywhere until their brittle limbs can no longer hang on. After a few weeks, clusters of the leaves on the tree will turn unseasonably and uncharacteristically brown, the ends of their branches break off and dangle above the ground. Ultimately, cicada carcasses and the broken ends of branches meet the same fate as they fall to the ground and litter the roots of the trees.

Cicadas also make very distinct noises. You may have heard them before. Sometimes it sounds more like a gentle click or buzz that can lull you to sleep when it is too hot and humid to do anything else outside. During that summer, their massive numbers amplified their voices so greatly that it sounded as if helicopters were constantly flying overhead.  Seldom did I walk outside without a cicada landing on my arm or shoulder, red eyes looking up into my face staring me down.

Some people found the sound of cicadas an annoyance, an interruption to their daily routine. It is true that listening can be hard. Studies show we only recall about 50% of what others have said. We also can tend to neutralize listening within ourselves so that we can more easily accommodate the truth to our own needs. We have to tune ourselves in to really listen. The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy calls this “ontological tonality,” meaning listening with our whole being. During that summer, I tuned myself in and focused on the buzzes and clicks of the cicadas’ tymbals as a mantra for meditation.

I learned that the type of cicadas that invade our city periodically are not destructive, but rather generative. Cicadas play a key role in the renewal of our ecosystem—feeding birds and other animals, aerating the ground, and improving water filtration. Some cultures think of cicadas as symbols of rebirth due to their unusual life cycles. In ancient China, “the headgear of rulers and nobles incorporated a golden image of a cicada with prominent eyes. The emblem signaled refinement, modesty, and a full awareness
of one’s surroundings.”

Fr. John Pozhathuparambil, my friend and colleague at Bellarmine who is a Franciscan friar and the Director of Campus Ministry, challenges us during this Lenten season to focus on practices that invite self-discovery, and creativity and lead to exploring our true selves rather than giving things up. We have experienced so much loss over the last few years. I have returned to listening as an intentional Lenten practice and it is once again opening new worlds and ways of being. Cicada summer is ever present in my mind.

What the buzzes, clicks, and whir of the cicada’s tymbals reminded me to do that summer was to listen for what social mystic and spiritual guide Howard Thurman called the “sound of the genuine.” In a Baccalaureate address given for students graduating from the University of Indianapolis, Thurman reminded young graduates that “There is in every person something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in herself … There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again—you are the only one.” You cannot fail to hear the sound of the genuine in you because it will hold you back … “you will never be able to get a scent on who you are.” You can read his full address here:

Listening can also reveal personal and social habits, attitudes, and practices that silence the voices of others and trample on their hopes and dreams. What are you listening to and for amidst the tumult and turmoil of our times? What sounds and whose voices are you hearing? How can what you are hearing lead to personal and social transformation?

I still hear the buzzes and clicks of the cicadas tymbals. Cicadas refuse to be ignored. Their sacred utterances call us to attention, centering us firmly in the world and reminding us of our connection to a much larger web of life yearning to breathe free and everyone’s role in bringing about new creation. 

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