Most of us treat prayer as a rather one-sided affair. We were taught that prayer is when we talk to God, no one ever suggested that it should be a time for us to listen to God.
Mark 6:12-13; 30-34
as interpreted by Deborah
The disciples went out into the villages, proclaiming that everyone should turn to God. They cast out many demons, and healed many who were ill.
Then they returned to Jesus, and told him what they had been doing. He said, “It’s time you got away for a while to get some rest.” — for the place was a beehive of activity: people were coming and going all of the time. Jesus and the disciples couldn’t even sit down to eat without interruptions.
So they set off in the boat by themselves, heading for a quiet place.
But many of the people who saw them leave realized where they were going — and raced off on foot and got there before they did.
When he came ashore and saw the huge crowd, Jesus was filled with compassion, seeing that they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began to teach them many things.
Since I often discuss the importance of honesty in our faith journey, it is only to be expected that I should get honesty in return (“Ask and you shall receive”). Therefore I am delighted to share this response to Part 2 of my reflections on prayer from one of my frequent correspondents:
“What a great idea to spend quality time with God. Can you tell me how to do it. I have to lock myself in the bathroom to get 5 minutes of quiet.”
Evelyn raises an excellent point: our intimate conversations with the Beloved require “quality time.” In order to adequately review how our life is going and accurately reveal our truest selves, we will need more than five minutes in the middle of a work day while phones ring, customers complain, computers crash, or children cry.
We need to “go away to a quiet place,” as Jesus advises his disciples in this week’s Gospel passage — somewhere free from interruptions, with no sense of pressure and no need to hurry. As impossible as that may sound in the midst of our hectic days and over-filled calendars, it is essential to our work of Christian witness.
Is there a place in your busy schedule to meet with Someone who loves you utterly — fully and without reservations? Someone who wants only the best for you, who would do anything for you — who would even die for you? That is the opportunity we are given when we meet with the Beloved in deep prayer: it is a virtual “date with God.” Surely we can find time in our lives for a meeting like that.
This is not to say that a few “stolen” moments cannot be sources of profoundly meaningful and salvic prayers. The whispered cry, “God, give me strength! For the love of Jesus, hear my prayer!” can see us through traffic jams, mind-numbing meetings, and midnight feedings.
Likewise, a prayer of sheer delight may be brief, but overflowing with awe-filled gratitude.
Our heart’s leap of joy — at the magical rumbling purr of a kitten, the kiss of a cool breeze, the scent of summer roses, moonlight on a distant hill, a radiant sunrise, the face of a loved one — in that instant we stand in the very Presence of the Eternal, when all that is insignificant falls away. That moment of holy insight, when we catch a glimpse of Creation through God’s eyes is what Meister Eckhart meant when he said, “If your only prayer is ‘Thank you,’ that is enough.”
Although we equate prayer with words — and often a specific set of words, like the “Our Father,” — it is far more than that. As we’ve seen, our experience of joy has nothing to do with literacy or verbal skills — but with a feeling: a sensation that is quite indescribable. The same is true of profound sadness, when “words fail us.” At such a time tears may be our only prayer.
Those wordless prayers, I believe, go directly to God’s heart.
And in that silence God can readily enter into our hearts.
When we are silent, we can hear.
Most of us understand prayer to be a rather one-sided affair: a monologue rather than a dialogue. That’s how we’ve been trained. We were taught that prayer is when we talk to God, no one ever suggested that it should be a time for us to listen to God.
And that’s understandable, too. It could be a risky notion to encourage. Folks who think they hear God’s voice are apt to find themselves discussing their belief with a psychiatrist.
I believe that God is capable of speaking — as clearly as necessary, in whatever manner is necessary — in order to reach us. In general, though, it isn’t a shout from heaven. Instead, God is in the still small voice: the soft whispers of our dreams, the gentle nudges of conscience, the tender stirrings in our hearts.
That quiet voice is hard to hear above our incessant chattering.
We may unintentionally be keeping the Beloved at bay through our many words, and building walls between ourselves and our Creator with our limited and limiting perceptions of what God is like, how God acts, what God can do, and whether God still speaks to us. What we need to do, sometimes, is (if you’ll excuse me): Shut up and listen.
It is in quietness; in a still, listening attitude, that we can more readily hear what the Lover of our Soul has to say to us. Free from any expectation or prejudice, our hearts are open to the Spirit’s leading.
Listening prayer is not the same as “quieting the mind” — a practice familiar to those who have studied some of the Eastern religious traditions. It is not “thinking about nothing.”
The goal is not to eliminate any thoughts or images from our minds, but to create a tranquil, uncluttered place in our hearts. In listening prayer we seek to clear a space where “the King of Glory may enter in.”
Just as it is difficult to simply shut the door on everyday life for more than a few minutes, it can be equally challenging to shut mundane distractions out of our minds. How can we “make space for God” in the midst of a constant stream of concerns, worries, and responsibilities?
It can be as simple as taking a breath. That may sound ridiculous — after all, we’re breathing all of the time. But how rare it is for us to be genuinely aware of it! Each breath is an affirmation of our incarnation: of the precious and holy reality of our bodies and of our lives here on God’s exquisite blue-green planet.
Our every breath can be an occasion for praise; a reminder that the Beloved in-spires us over and over again each day, and that this very instant is a new beginning.
Music, too, can help to open our ears to God’s voice. As comforting as hymns can be, it is best to use classical pieces, or music from other cultures — otherwise we may end up singing along with the well-known words, rather than listening for what “new thing” the Holy One may have to say.
One of the best practices for listening prayer is to choose a single, holy and comforting word to reflect upon. Just one word. It might be grace, or joy; goodness, peace, mercy, love, forgiveness; serenity, strength, comfort — any word that describes an aspect of God.
It could be something you’re very much aware of right now: “joy,” for example, if you’ve adopted a new puppy, passed your exams, or been kissed by a special someone. It might be “creation,” “beauty,” or “humility,” if you watched the sunrise, walked to the rim of the Grand Canyon, or seen a baby being born.
Or you might choose a quality that seems in short supply in your life right now.
Start with this word, and see where it takes you. Don’t get caught up in policing your imagination; restricting it to that word and nothing else. Listening prayer is like chasing butterflies: our purpose is not to catch the words, only to follow where they lead us.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Remember that prayer is a conversation: there are two participants — you aren’t just talking to yourself. Express your concerns, then listen for a response. Be patient and persistent, but not anxious. Live every day in holy anticipation, confident that God does still speak, and will speak to you.