LISTENING AS LONGING FOR GOD
READ: Ecclesiastes 4:17-5:2
“Watch your step when you go to the House of God. Drawing near to listen is far wiser than offering the sacrifice of fools, though they do not know that they are doing wrong. Be in no hurry to speak; do not hastily declare yourself before God; for God is in heaven, and you are on the Earth. Be sparing, then, of speech. From too much worrying comes illusion, from too much talking, the accents of folly.“ Ecclesiastes 4:17-5:2 NJB
Jesus was surely a man of prayer, yet His prayers tended to be of fewer words, with possibly the prayer in the Upper Room (John 17) being the longer exception. When Jesus prayed, He prayed simply – no religious airs, no huffing and puffing, no endless repetitions or holy interjections. His prayers were simple and straight forward. To be sure, Jesus spent much time in prayer … yet … one senses in all those hours of prayer, He used an economy of words. When I read Jesus’ instruction on prayer, I believe Jesus taught us to pray with far more listening time than speaking time. I believe Jesus taught that prayer was about quieting the mouth and the mind, so that we might hear the heartbeat of God’s love and the breath of God’s wisdom. Prayer is more about listening to God than about impressing God (and those about us) with many words.
I talk too much. (I can see those who know me now nodding their heads!) I have often confessed that specific frailty in my life, yet my repentance from uttering far too many words has come slowly and lately. Now, in this contemplative time of my life, I cherish the Quiet, the Holy Quiet where I can listen in a deeper way to God, to my own longings, and to the voices of those about me. And as I learn to better listen to the Holy Quiet, the whispering of God is beginning to be heard, more often, more clearly, more purely, more accurately. Whether it is the whispering of God through Scripture, through the ways and voices of nature, through the Spirit within me, through the thoughts and expressions of others, or through the mere, sheer Presence of God experienced in the contemplative moments of prayer, I find that listening, true, sincere listening is the wiser and greater part of prayer.
St. Augustine, one of the great teachers in the history of the Church, wrote, “To be continually in prayer does not mean to pray with much speaking. Prayer is our longing to be with God; and continual longing is not the same as much speaking.”
I love writing. Always have. Often in writer’s workshops, beginning writers will ask, “How do I improve my writing?” Two of the most common bits of counsel offered are … 1) “Say more with fewer words.” ...and, … 2) “The more you read, the better you write.” If I might translate that counsel into the matter of prayer … “How do I improve my praying?” 1) “Pray more with fewer words.” … and … 2) “The more you listen, the better you pray.”
Effective prayer is much like effective listening. In our ministry of caring for others, we often do our best work through the ministry of listening. Effective listening requires focused-attention, not only to the words spoken to us, but also the pauses in-between the words, the subtle tones of the voice, the small expression of the face, even the posture of the person. Along with this focused-attention, effective listening involves a reflecting back to the speaker of what we heard from the speaker … so that, if needed, the one speaking can confirm or clarify.that our listening was true. This minimal reflection is the quiet conversation on the listener’s part.
Effective prayer requires much the same. Contemplative prayer is a process of focusing one’s attention on God, rather than on ourselves. Contemplative prayer is a process of actually getting involved in a two-sided, quiet conversation, continually reflecting back and forth in clearer and clearer understanding both the longings of our human heart and the longings of the Heart of God. Prayer is the setting in which Christian Listening takes place – the Divine Listener listening quietly to the human soul; the human listener listening quietly to the Divine Soul. Prayer, we must keep reminding ourselves, is not a human soliloquy, but rather it is a two-party conversation between the Divine and the human, between ourselves and the Lord.
My Loved Ones, listening is not a skill that comes easily for many of us. Listening, this prayerful listening, is a quality of our person-hood, an aspect of our Christ-likeness, that is cultivated over time and with much practice.
Brother Anthony of the Cross