It has been said that prayer is communication with God, a spiritual give and take session, a holy interchange between Lover and Beloved. Often that experience appears more one-sided on our part. We are prone to speak more than we listen. We may spend more time in prayer asking for what we need than discerning God’s will, rattling off our wish lists in the hope of getting God to do what we want rather than surrendering to His Spirit. When we pray out loud we may wonder how others will accept the character of our public prayers. We generally dread silence and feel we need to fill our inner voids with spiritual noise so there is never any unholy “dead air” on the wavelengths between earth and heaven. We are very good at talking, but how good are we at listening – truly listening – to what God wants to say to us?
The Word of God tells us that we should be “quick to listen” and “slow to speak.” (James 1:9) But for many Christians, it is just the opposite. We would rather be heard than take the time to listen to God. We follow the worldly mindset that says the loudest or the most eloquent person gets the glory. There are those among us who speak their prayers more like pseudo-incantations than expressions of godly fervor. Oftentimes we use our prayers to explain ourselves to those around us, rather than to yield to the God who longs for us to be still and listen. Our hearts seem to be in the right place, but still it is difficult for us. Perhaps we find solace in the sound of our own voices because we wonder how the God of the universe could ever take the time to share Himself with us.
Listening to the Still Small Voice of God
But there is a place in our hearts where we, like Elijah, must turn from the noise and struggle of our world and let our words give way to the still small voice of God. In the holy silence of His overwhelming whisper our needs and wants become unspoken as we allow them to be transformed by the One who inhabits our open praise and our awestruck wonder. In order to rediscover this place, we must accept that the best of our words are only like the bleating of sheep before the all-powerful and all-knowing Shepherd.
There is an amusing scene from the 1984 movie, Mass Appeal (Jack Lemmon, Željko Ivanek) that illustrates this point quite well. In one scene, Father Farley, a parish priest, and Mark Dolson, his new, young deacon, are consoling a woman who recently lost her mother. Mark listens to Father Farley offering a lot of positive-sounding comfort: the woman’s mother was in her 80s, she would never have wanted to suffer, look at what so and so’s mother had to go through for two years, and so on. Mark sits with the woman’s grieving daughter and feels helpless to say or do anything for someone he has just met. After their time with the women, Father Farley asks Mark why he was so quiet. Mark replies that he doesn’t like to say anything when he is offering consolation because he is afraid that anything he says will sound stupid. Father Farley, with deadly seriousness, replies:
“But that’s the whole idea! Consolation should sound stupid! That way, a person in grief can realize how inconsolable their grief is. Now, inconsolable grief puts a person in a very exalted position; and that’s how most people get through tragedies. Now it’s your responsibility as a priest to raise common grief to the level of the inconsolable, by saying something inane!” (Mass Appeal, Universal Pictures, 1984)
As funny as this may sound, there is a kernel of truth behind Father Farley’s advice. We often think so highly of our words that we come to believe that they alone have the power to console, heal, inspire, and build up. But this is not so. Real prayer can only come when we learn to listen with open hearts to God. How do we accomplish this? There are several powerful messages in the psalms that can speak to what listening to God truly means. The first is “Be still and know that I am God.” from Psalm 46:11. The entire psalm illustrates so well the inner battle between crying out to God and settling our minds to hear Him speak. The psalm strikes a beautiful balance between facing the struggles of living in a broken world and resting in the peace of God’s eternal presence. The chaos of the rushing waters and the quaking earth give way to glad streams and a rock-solid resting place. The mighty voice of God speaks clearly through the devastation and destruction, dissolving the earth into nothing; and yet we find peace in the fortress of the Almighty. The wars of mankind will come to an end when the final word of God is spoken in the last days. The pain of the past, the worries of today, and the uncertainty of the future all will find rest in humanity’s endless exaltation of the Lord. Knowing this great truth enables us to become caught up in the ever-flowing stream that is God’s great love.
Deep Calls to Deep, God Searches and Satisfies
Our second message comes from Psalm 42:7: Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. This is the psalm that begins with the image of a deer panting for streams of water. It is the cry of a downcast soul, one who longs for the presence of the Lord in a place where he feels forgotten. This is not the image of a deer that saunters into a bucolic meadow scene and leisurely takes a cool drink. This is the one pursued by the enemy, separated from the presence of God. This is the man whose tears are so continuous that they have become his sustenance. In the place where all seems lost, the soul becomes empty and open to the rushing waters of God’s living presence. In that moment when oppression and suffering strip away all pretense and worldly security, the depth of God’s eternal love can speak to the deepest part of our longing heart. We are energized to reproach our weary soul with the hope of God’s salvation and love.
Finally, in Psalm 139:23-24 we hear, Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. These are words of comfort to those who are willing to acknowledge that God knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. For the one who has stopped running from heaven, who sees how our discerning Lord knows the very words we will speak before we speak them, peace comes in the knowledge that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, knit in our mother’s wombs by the tender hand of our Creator. In our surrender we find rest, for we understand that there is no place we can run from God on the earth, in heaven, or even within our own hidden hearts. We submit to the One who will hem us in, guide us into His presence, and test our ways until nothing remains but the wonderful and everlasting knowledge of God.
Through Valleys of Sorrow to Mountaintops of Praise
As humbling as it sounds, we must become like the sheep in the 23rd Psalm, as we allow our bleating and babbling to give way to prayer that is birthed by the overflowing power and presence of God. We must stop living as the world, thinking that our many words will win us a hearing in the courts of heaven (See Matthew 6:7). In the end, we must accept that all we can offer to God and to others are our “inane” words. Once we surrender to that great truth, God’s consoling voice can speak to us and through us, and His words become our own. They will lead us through the darkest valleys to green pastures of rest and restoration.
When we open our spiritual ears to the still small voice of God and let it spill out into our lives we will hear His truth resound in the praises of a joyful hymn we sing with brothers and sisters or an inspirational word shared with passion during Sunday Mass. We will encounter Him in the sacred signs of the sacraments as we taste and touch, hear and heed, bless and believe. Our souls will burst forth with thanksgiving on the mountaintops of our journeys. We will travel through the wilderness of our struggles and leave our cares in the valley of sorrow below. His tenderness will flow from the time we share at the bedside of a relative or friend sick with illness or injury or cancer. We will hear Him speak to us in the whispered melodies of a child who is singing herself to sleep after a long day of imaginative play, in our times of quiet contemplation with the Word, or in passionate prayer vigils in dimly-lit churches through seasons of waiting and expectation. Each and every moment of our lives will become a holy encounter with the living Word speaking His powerful whispers to our listening souls.
True listening springs from humility, surrender and openness. As we put aside our human words, we will become a channel through which the God of the universe can speak His life into our hearts. The words that will flow from His fountain of Grace will speak peace to a weary world. Let us still our souls, surrender to the wind of the Spirit, and let God’s words pour over us each and every day so that we may be raised up to bless others in His holy name! God Bless!