Tuesday, February 21, 2006

What is Prayer? Listening

It is often, and rightly, said that prayer is a dialogue with God. I don’t think it has ever been said that prayer is a monologue directed towards God. But that’s what it often becomes if we don’t become quiet after we’ve said our piece and give God a chance to say his.

For a while those “Question Authority” bumper stickers were popular, until someone came out with one that read: “Question Authority: Then Listen for the Answer.”

An essential part of prayer is listening, though that may be the part we’re somewhat uncomfortable with. We may get a little fidgety, anxious, or discouraged, if we don’t “hear” anything while we’re trying to listen in prayer. Even so, it ought to be clear to us that listening is still more important than speaking, when it comes to prayer (and most anything else). We already know what we have to say; wouldn’t it be much more beneficial to listen to what Eternal Wisdom and Love has to say?

But what can you expect God to say, anyway? Is He going to give you tips on how to manage your day, or will He point out your faults, or will He speak words of blessing and comfort, or will He just give a sermon? I don’t know. Ask Him! Then listen.

The first thing to do is to try to get a little outer, then inner silence. You can’t expect to hear the whispers of the Holy Spirit with the stereo on, or with a lot of commotion going on around you. Go find a quiet place and do your best to set aside all your cares and worries for just a little while. Remind yourself that you’re not going to solve your problems in the next 20 minutes anyway, so just put them on hold. Now, if you want to hear what God has to say to you, where’s the first place you’d go? To his word, of course! The Bible is full of God’s dialogues with man, and many people have found that God really answers the cries of their hearts (and even their specific questions) through the words of the Scriptures. So open the Book, read until something moves you, then put it down and let the word sink into you, let the Holy Spirit enlighten you and show you how the word of God is living and active, penetrating your very soul, making clear the way of salvation.

You may wish to pray the Jesus Prayer or some other short, repetitive prayer in case your attention wanders, but even that prayer is meant to turn into silence while you just rest (not sleep) in the presence of the Lord, who loves you and wants to engage in an ongoing dialogue with you. Focus on a holy icon of Christ or the Mother of God if that helps keep your attention and sense of communication with God.

You may find (or not) that your mind clears, your body and spirit relax, that the truths of revelation become more lucid, more meaningful to you, and that you become aware of the presence of the Lord. Actually, the various possible “effects” of prayer are not all that important at any given time. The Lord, not you, will choose when the moments of grace and clarity and revelation and peace will come. What you are doing when you try to listen in prayer is at the root of all contemplative prayer: you are creating an inner “space” for God, you are cultivating an interior disposition of readiness, surrender, openness, and loving docility to the movements of the Holy Spirit. Your prayer may seem dry and even boring sometimes, but as long as you are opening that interior “place of the heart” for God, He will respond. Perhaps not during your time of prayer; perhaps when you least expect it. But leave it up to Him. When you make a place for God, He will fill it.

This reflection has been rather brief and scattered (like our prayer sometimes), but you shouldn’t really expect anyone to be able to tell you how to pray. Does anyone have to tell you how to appreciate a sunset or a starry sky, or how to enjoy the company of someone you love? It just happens—though you have to put yourself in the place where the sun or stars or your beloved are, and pay a little attention. (If you’re so burdened that you don’t even look up, you won’t see the stars—but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, waiting to fill you with wonder and delight.) Someone once said that you learn to pray by praying, and you pray well by praying much.

So, be still and know that the Lord is God. Give Him some time, let go of your diversions and ceaseless activities for a while. Make the effort to listen during times of prayer, and you’ll end up being able to listen to Him all the time, and in all different circumstances. Then you’re ready for the dialogue of love.