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Hearing God’s Voice in Prayer (John 18:37)

God speaks to us in prayer. How do we learn to hear God’s true voice?

The call to enter prayer is a call by God, who is communication itself, that is first given at baptism. God exists as self-revelation within a holy communion of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is a relationship of self-revelation, of self-gift, of communication between persons. In other words, God wants to be known.

At baptism, one begins the human journey to welcome God, to respond to God’s desire to be known and loved. In this holy communion with God, baptism, we enter the dialogue between Christ and his Father in the Spirit. We come then to define ourselves as persons who commune with God. If we receive baptism as infants, we assent to entering this life of communication with God through the desire of our parents. It is they who gather their children within a life of sacramental grace, culminating in our own commitment to participate in Christ’s life and love at the altar of the Eucharist. At this altar, over time, the baptized enter the one sacrifice of Christ who reconciles God and humanity in his own body. When believers enter this sacrifice at the eucharistic liturgy, their desire to commune with God deepens. Remaining in communion with God, we regularly choose to enter sacramentally inflamed prayer.

Such prayerful communion reorders self-involvement, directing a person instead to behold, adore, and listen to God. With this reordering the Christian makes his or her life a gift in service to God and those in need. Through this self-donative life Christians testify that Christ has sacramentally taken up residence in their hearts. And because of this indwelling they go through life receiving divine love even as they share it with others in charity. This sacramental life of prayer is so rich that it comes to define one’s identity and, as such, bestows upon the believer a Catholic imagination. No one is more creative than the person who lives in communion with God. Such creativity is known in a growing holiness of life, a life drawing from God’s own grace, newness, and creativity (Is 43:19). Such a rich spiritual life summons believers to personally contemplate what the Eucharist bears into their bodies. In so contemplating the actions of Christ, these actions and the truth they bear are deeply internalized. One then becomes creative; one chooses the demands of love.

No one is more creative than the person who lives in communion with God.

In Galatians 4:6, we are told that the Holy Spirit is sent “into our hearts.” In Romans 5:5 Saint Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit, God who is love, is “poured out into our hearts.” It is this indwelling God who saves us from a burdensome preoccupation with the self. God’s indwelling ensures that we learn the “sound” of God’s voice, one born within sacred silence. The suffocation that is self-involvement, absent any yearning for communion with God, engenders a deafness to hearing God’s voice. Such personal isolation can become more determined over time. Alternately, faith opens the ears of the heart enabling one to listen for the divine voice within. “When the soul believes . . . it recovers its spiritual hearing.”[1] As then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “Faith is an event that expands the limits of individual reason and brings isolated individual intellects into the realm of him who is the logos of all being.”[2]

In prayer, through faith, believers encounter the indwelling Spirit. This Spirit seizes one’s entire being in love, birthing within the heart hope and trust. Over time, a praying person becomes adept at calming the cacophony of voices in his or her mind. Capacitated in this way, one comes to hear and respond to a singular voice, God’s voice. But what does God’s voice “sound” like within the heart?

Saint Bernard says, “The Word is a spirit, the soul is a spirit; and they possess their own mode of speech and mode of presence in accord with their nature. The speech of the Word is loving kindness, that of the soul, the fervor of devotion.[3] This “loving kindness” is itself a voice without a sound, a word delivered but known mostly as an end and not a process. It is a voice that comes upon a person of prayer even throughout the day[4] and not simply during set prayer times. But to hear this voice we have to desire real communion with the Holy Trinity.[5] Desire, then, makes us vulnerable to hearing God. God’s voice gently startles in its effects, and the effects are always a deepening of love for God and also a deepening desire to love others. As we are invited by the indwelling God, who is communication itself,[6] to attend to God’s voice and share our own with God, how do we discern God’s voice? How do we recognize what to attend to in our hearts, normally filled with clutter and loud with noise? How do we identify God’s voice being carried within our own?

Four Characteristics of God’s Voice

In trying to answer this question within my own prayer life, I have become conscious that God’s voice carries four characteristics: God’s voice is deep, brief, true, and gentle.

Deep: By this expression, I mean that God’s message in prayer is intuitively grasped from within. There is no need to discern. The message arrives complete. When all the subsequent criteria listed below are present, there can be confidence that it is this particular message that should be shared in spiritual direction. Now, once shared, we need to utilize the discernment criteria for further prayer or action. Being vulnerable to this voice demands we become patient with silence. In prayer we are mostly in silence, patiently waiting for God’s voice to emerge from out of it. Do not despise the silence… it is God’s way to diminish our ego as we wait to receive what God is preparing. “Deep” also refers to the indwelling of God as I noted above. This indwelling, although not a voice in our prayer, is the foundation of all mystical communion and is itself the mystery that God revealed (Col 1:27): God does not just want to be “with” us, God wants to live “in us.”

The Church calls this abode the “heart”.[7] Here is the place where the indwelling God communes with us for the sake of our holiness, in the service of God sharing God’s own life with us. The heart, the deepest of depths within the human-divine relationship, rules prayer. God speaks from here and to here. Of course, the matrix for this speaking is the eucharistic mystery. It is within the eucharistic liturgy that the relationship between God and humanity is ever more substantially appropriated. There is no maintaining subjective communion with God on our part without the mystery appropriated objectively, sacramentally. God dwells within the heart; but if the heart is not nourished at the fount of divine self-donation, the Eucharist, it may go after shadows.[8]

Over time, a praying person becomes adept at calming the cacophony of voices in his or her mind. Capacitated in this way, one comes to hear and respond to a singular voice, God’s voice. But what does God’s voice “sound” like within the heart?

Brief: God is the Word. God is communication and commands all communication. Since God is so, God has no need for long speeches (Acts 9:4-7). During prayer, our heart hears many voices: those of our own making, those of our parents or authority figures, those carrying wounds from the present or past, those that temptation or Satan inhabits in order to disquiet us. Many of these voices enter as rambling speeches and accusations; they carry long defences justifying one’s actions or contain arguments, grudges, judgments to be held or memories of persons rejected. In listening to these voices, one notices how prayer becomes about the self, or even about others as enemies of the self. Prayer time can wander through these fields where loud and lengthy voices echo but where God’s voice is silence. God’s voice is succinct and centered on revealing truths, love, and consolation. One can be sure that lengthy speeches occupying our prayer do not match the nature of God. God is self-possessed and bears truth as God’s nature. The Truth does not ramble or utilize prolonged speeches to enter our conscience. Truth simply sears into our hearts with a “word.”

True: Since the One who speaks the truth does so succinctly, then our recognition of the truth will be immediately received. It will pierce our hearts with a personal word, a word relevant and unique to our current needs. The voice’s content will be known in a self-evident discovery. We will respond, “That’s it!” (“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (Jn 18:37). But such apprehension implies that one is living in the word of God… and is praying with scripture on a regular basis. The classic method of such prayer is called lectio divina,[9] defined as listening to scripture until you hear something. Once “something” is heard in the text we then rest with that truth and let it become internalized. The more the truths and actions of God in Christ are internalized the more “material” the Holy Spirit has to work with in our imaginations when we pray. With this living word of God within us many truths can be raised in our hearts and our recognition of them as such will be that much more immediate.

In prayer we are mostly in silence, patiently waiting for God’s voice to emerge from out of it. Do not despise the silence… it is God’s way to diminish our ego as we wait to receive what God is preparing.

Gentle:[10] God is perfect self-possession. God has no need to yell, harangue, or coattail one’s super ego. God’s voice comes like “drops of water entering a sponge.” This does not mean the content of this gentle voice cannot “sting” in the Ignatian sense.[11] Stinging is not self-harassment or self-condemnation, but many do drift into these abusive habits during times of prayer. The lesson that God is gentle toward us will be learned only if we suffer a new disposition in prayer, one that turns down the volume on any self-condemnation or judgment while in God’s presence. Slowly, as we commit ourselves to prayer, we come to ever deepening interior silence. The soliloquies we deliver against the self will diminish, and we will learn to allow God’s voice to rise from the silence. This voice carries love-bearing truth to the heart. It cannot affirm our own ego involvement or self-loathing. Listening to God tell us what is on God’s mind and heart is prayer, and none of what is on God’s mind carries harsh words of rejection.[12] Jesus is the one who endured harsh words and behavior from us during his Passion, not the one who delivers them. If God’s voice is known to “sting” on occasion, it is only because some aspect of our life is not in accord with truth. In delivering the truth in a gentle voice and when received by us hospitably, God re-establishes our relationship with God. God invites us to leave fantasy and settle with God into reality. When we are accustomed to ignoring the truth about ourselves, such an invitation to re-enter reality can “sting.” In order to hear this voice, however, we have to calm our own and gently turn away intruding voices as well.

With these criteria in mind, we enter prayer again and then listen for the voice that is deep, brief, true, and gentle . . . the voice of our God. It is this voice we share with our spiritual director and, in so doing, appropriate it unto new thinking, new behavior, and new intimacy with the Holy Trinity.

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  1. Saint Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God, 4:2
  2. Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 51.
  3. St Bernard of Clairvaux, Song of Songs, vol.2, sermon 45
  4. St Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, Chapter 8
  5. Jean La France, Pray to Your Father in Secret (Boston: Pauline, 2016), 136.
  6. Christopher Collins, SJ, The Word Made Love (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press 2013), 65.
  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 2563
  8. “My God my heart goes after shadows. I love anything better than communion with Thee. Often I find it difficult even to say my prayers. Teach me to love prayer. Teach me to love that which must engage my mind for all eternity.” Saint John Henry Newman, Meditations and Devotions (London: Burns and Oates, 1964), 26-27.
  9. One good source to learn how to pray with scripture is: Mariano Magrassi, Praying the Bible (Collegeville MN: 1998); To deepen our understanding of scripture in the life of prayer and the Church see also: Benedict XVI, The Word of the Lord (Vatican City, 2010)
  10. Is 42:2; 1 Kgs 19:12; Satan shouts; God does not: Lk 8:28.
  11. See Timothy Gallagher, OMV, The Discernment of Spirits (New York: Crossroad, 2005), 36ff.“In those who are making progress in the spiritual life, from good to better, the good angel touches the soul gently, tenderly, and sweetly, as a drop of water entering a sponge, but the evil spirit touches it sharply, with noise and agitation, like a drop of water hitting upon a rock. (Spiritual Exercises, 335; 2nd Week Rules, n 7)
  12. Philippians 2:5-8 recounts that Christ is humble, that Christ’s very nature is to give himself for our sake and not condemn (Jn 8:11).

 


About James Keating

Deacon James Keating, Ph. D. is professor of spiritual theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Saint Louis, MO. He has served as professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, OH and director of Theological Formation at the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska. He is a popular speaker and writer.