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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How to Listen to God

As Providence would have it, this morning I received a wonderful question from Jose, who happened upon an old post/article,  Centering Prayer vs Contemplative Prayer.  Because his question is pertinent and of course, a common one, I felt it deserved its own post.

Jose asks:

I have been trying to "learn to pray" of late and find myself often confused between Catholic Meditation and the mix of Chistian-Eastern practices. I do have one question. The Saints and others say that one must LISTEN for God when one prays. I also recall the story of the Old Testement prophet who heard thunder, and earthquakes but didn't find God. He DID find God in a whisper. And, one must clearly listen for God to hear him in something as subtle as a whisper. So...What's the difference between emptying ones mind and listening for God? I feel as if I can't really listen to ANYONE if my mind is elsewhere and busy. If you were in a conversation and your mind is filled, your friend would accuse you of not really paying attention. Can someone explain the difference between the emtying of the mind and listening for God? I feel as if one can't listen without a quiet mind. It's truly confusing. God Bless and thank you!

Jose, you bring up several points, and I'll try to address them all.

It's not surprising that you're confused by the mix of "Christian-Eastern practices" because in reality, the non-Christian Eastern religions have practices of prayer that are diametrically opposed to Christian prayer.

It's first important to understand what those differences are and WHY they are, and that may help sort out your confusion. In a nutshell, Eastern non-Christians aren't praying relationally but for a very general way; the object of their prayer is impersonal, and their goals in prayer have a far different object.

In Christianity, we pray to a Person: God. We recognize the Holy Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. We believe that we are Temples of the Holy Spirit; God Himself is within us, and it is the Holy Spirit who initiates our prayer, who teaches us to pray, who inspires the desires of our hearts and helps us to cooperate with God in union with His will.

By definition, prayer is a conversation with God, and any conversation has a certain amount of give and take. When you pray, recognize that you are looking for an encounter with a Person, a real Person. God is not an impersonal, uncaring deity, but He is your Father who called you into being to be loved by Him. Prayer is your response to that love and is in and of itself an act of love for God.

Think of it this way:  when you want to get to know someone, you sit down and you have a conversation with that person. You speak, but hopefully, and more importantly, you listen. Listening is an action; your mind is engaged as it must be in order to formulate a response, to process what is being said to you and perhaps to take action. When you converse with people you know, do either of you sit and stare blankly at the person speaking?

Prayer is no different than that.

Yes, you do have to eliminate useless distractions, but keep in mind that not all distractions are useless!  For example, if you're praying the rosary and trying to meditate on the mysteries of Our Lord, and a certain person keeps popping into your mind, could it be that God is speaking to you and asking you to pray for that person? Or perhaps there is a problem with your relationship with that person - maybe you have not become reconciled to someone, or you're holding a grudge, you need to be forgiven something or maybe more importantly, you need to forgive that other....or yourself. Those things can actively block your prayer to God - and yet, in a way they've just facilitated something wonderful: the gift of self-knowledge.  Our distractions in prayer are often God's way of telling us what we need to bring to Confession!

Now, if you're just sitting there wondering about what to make for dinner that evening, or what to put on the shopping list for your kids, or whether you should shovel the walk when you get home or perhaps in the morning...those are useless distractions. That may require a bit of self-discipline, nothing more. Knowing that you're, say, in the Adoration Chapel to spend time with the Person of Christ and continuing to focus on that fact will probably go a long ways towards eliminating the garbage but still allowing your mind to continue to operate.

Christian prayer is a beautiful thing, for it engages the entire person, body, mind and soul. Our postures, our thoughts, our entire being can be absorbed in prayer; they shouldn't be suppressed. We NEED to engage our minds in order to listen to God, but we also need to know HOW He speaks to us.

It is different for each person and you may need to try different things if you're not sure how He speaks to you.  He may speak through your distractions, or, if you pray the Bible (Lectio Divina), God will speak through His Word, the Holy Scriptures. What stands out to you in a certain passage? Stop and simply ponder that. Read the gospels - what details stand out? God is speaking! Stop and allow him to reach through to you!

One big mistake people make in prayer is that they bring a whole stack of intentions and devotions, they run through their "routine" and then rush out the door. At no time do they ever give God the chance to answer. Silence, therefore, is important. That doesn't mean devotions are bad or bringing prayer intentions is a terrible thing; quite contrary, they are wonderful things, and God wants to hear those! Balance is needed, though - allow Him to respond. He may not do so immediately. Simply wait. Enjoy His presence, and even if you are not praying in the chapel, know that the Holy Spirit is within you, that God is always with you and WANTS to respond to your prayer.

The other biggie - praying in the will of God. We don't know His will, and perhaps in our prayer we are asking for things that are OUR will, so we must always be willing to "die to ourselves" and pray the prayer of Christ in the Garden: "Thy Will Be Done."  Not mine. YOURS.   (And yes, that's often hard to pray with sincerity!)

Prayer is very simple; it doesn't require complicated techniques. Contemplation and Infused Prayer are gifts from God we cannot elicit through any technique, but without knowing Him, loving Him, and simply delighting in Him, we will never grow in prayer.  Keep it simple; begin with focusing on the fact you desire a relationship with God, and He will guide you more deeply in accordance with His will.

You may also find this wonderful post from Fr. Charles to be very helpful to you!

I hope this helped, Jose, and if you have any other questions, please let me know. I'd be happy to clarify any points.  God bless!


* St. Francis de Sales  Introduction to the Devout Life
* Fr. Thomas Dubay  Prayer Primer


Faith said...

Thank you for this. I beat myself up because I can't do centering prayer. This post was meant for me.

Adoro said...

Faith ~ Do you mean "centering prayer" or "contemplative prayer"?

Glad this post helped, in any case! God bless!

Faith said...

I meant centering.

Adoro said...

Faith ~ Thanks. The reason I asked is...I was just wondering what your experience was with "centering prayer". If you click the link at the top of the post on that topic, it'll take you to another article.

The thing I did not take care to define there, though, is the fact that sometimes the 2 words are interchanged as though they mean the same thing, and there are certain techniques called "centering prayer" that are more akin to meditation but NOT the Eastern techniques that are incompatible with Catholic prayer.

Speaking for the area in which I live, I've noticed that anything labeled "centering prayer" tends to be the wacky stuff calling us to "empty our minds". I won't do that!

Faith said...

I feel a headache coming on. Meditation, Contemplation, Centering Prayer, are interchangeable. Don't you think?
I live in Massachusetts so Fr. Keating's Centering Prayer is what I was thinking of. I go on retreats to his St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, and my Spiritual Director is a Trappist monk.
I can't empty myself a la Keating. So I plug away with fighting distractions and rationalize my poor prayer life with "I'm letting the Holy Spirit lead me." Sometimes my SD says "this is a blessing. Keep at it."
Sometimes, he says, "So? Why should you be any different than anyone else?"
Either way, I understand that praying isn't easy. My question, is: Why is this so?

Adoro said...

Faith ~ Actually, no, Meditation, Contemplation are different from each other, and Centering prayer (depending on how it's done) is not prayer at all, but more akin to self-hypnosis. Definitions are VERY important (which is why I'd directed you to the post on Contemplative vs Centering prayer - they are different.) One of the things my grad profs drilled into me; DEFINITIONS!!!! lol

As Catholics, we are not supposed to "empty" ourselves, for the very reason I described in this post; prayer is relational. We cannot be both empty and full of the Holy Spirit. If we try to empty ourselves, that is directly contrary to what God wants us to do.

Now, if by "centering" you're talking about breathing exercises that help you focus, etc...that's fine. But being totally empty is not prayer. It's nothing at all, and "nothing" is what non-Christians are trying to get to. We aren't; we as Catholics are trying to get closer to God.

I think what you're describing is exactly why Jose expressed so much confusion.

As far as why prayer is difficult; it isn't. It's simple. It's VERY simple. But we being human complicate everything. What's hard is our relationship with God, which is cultivated through prayer. And..when things get hard, we tend to fall away.

How 'bout if I try to answer your question in another post on "Why is prayer so hard?" Possibly later tonight if I can. :-)

Harbor Star said...

From an earlier question:

Actually I was anticipating that your posts would generate a lot of questions / discussion and therefore I’ve held back from asking anything specific…for now.

For me - right at this moment and in the next few days or so - I just want to read and re-read these posts. Let them swim around in my heart. “Listen” to them.

It’s actually quite difficult to avoid getting all gushy with praise. This particular post for example should be printed in many of our Catholic newspapers. It’s that good. Earthy…like beautiful rich soil…yet still reflective and responsive. Clearly you have a gift.

Anonymous said...

Looks like you made it :)

Adoro said...

Harbor Star ~ Thank you.

Please know that my three years of study in obtaining my MTS provided for the ability to speak of these things, and I pray that what I'm stating is accurate with regard to Catholic teaching. Sitting at the feet of faithful theologians was a true gift, and I don't want their work to have been in vain!

I'm glad you're enjoying these posts. Please do ask any questions you have. I won't always have freedom to answer in such quick succession as the last couple days, but believe me - questions of others help me to learn or solidify what I've learned. Even better if they make me delve into the sources I have gathering dust on my shelves!

Adoro said...

drawntocatholicsm ~ You mean ? ;-)

gosh, the last thing I am is a pundit, but my stats are going crazy with him linking to me! Cool!

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Adoro, and the consolation of your fervor. Peace.

Lynne said...

This is beautiful...

Adoro said...

Fr. Charles ~ Any time!

Lynne ~ Thank you. :-)

Jose said...

I feel that discovering this blog has been a good example of Providence. I'll be visiting often.
I have lately been experimenting with the Ignatian Examen prayer. I like it because it is an active form of prayer, with specific things for my mind to do and focus on. I have "tasks" to work on in that prayer and for someone with an active mind like mine I find it useful. STILL. I am left worrying if reflecting on my day and seeing where God was is what I really want. It's great to find God in your daily life....But does it count as a Conversation with the Almighty? Am I giving him a chance to speak?
I recall when I was a teenager back home , a priest gave me this advice. Knowing I had an active mind that was easily distracted, he told me to go ahead and talk at first. Share my concerns, and desires. Tell God what I want him to know and what's on my mind. Put it all on the Altar. BUT, when I am done, when I have talked myself out to be sure to sit silently and give God a chance to get a word in. Talking at God was always easy...sitting and listening often seemed like a lot of waiting. Very difficult.

I think giving the Lectio a try may be good.

Adoro said...

Jose ~ Ignatian prayer is WONDERFUL, and yes, have no fear you are truly having a conversation with the Almighty!

There are many different forms of prayers; and they are a supernatural experience which can take different forms. It seems God has led you to Ignatian prayer, so I advise you to stay with it if it is helpful to you.

There may come a time that God will call you to a different form of prayer or help you go more deeply into prayer in another way. Lectio Divina is wonderful, and if you can, I encourage you to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. That kind of prayer may not "feel" like prayer but it is the official prayer of the Church which may help you as well.

WE should all have a mix of spoken and mental prayer, all to different degrees...and all is grace.

I'm so glad this has been helpful to you, and so glad to "see" you again.

Thank YOU for helping me break writer's block! :-D