Apr 24, 2021 237 Deacon Jim McFadden,

Listening in the Silence

The spiritual writer and poet John O’Donohue once wrote, “When you listen with your soul, you come into rhythm and unity with the music of the universe” (Anam Cara—Spiritual Wisdom of the Celtic World). 

For a generation, the chosen people knew only the silence of God. In the book of Samuel, we read that the Word of the Lord was seemingly not happening: “a revelation of the Lord was uncommon” (1 Samuel 3:1). The people spoke, gave praise, pleaded, petitioned, and lamented—and nothing came back.  Until, one night, a voice startled Samuel.

Samuel thinks it is Eli, the high priest of Shiloh, who might need help.  But Eli sends the boy back to bed. After Samuel hears the voice a second time, Eli begins wondering if this might be the night the Lord breaks His silence and returns to Israel with a word of guidance. “If He calls you again,” Eli tells Samuel, “you shall say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3: 9).

CBS correspondent and 60 Minute host Dan Rather once asked Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta about her devotional life.  “What is it that you say to God when you pray?”  She answered, “I don’t say anything; I just listen.”  Perhaps a bit perplexed, Rather followed up: “What is it that God says to you during prayer?”  Mother Teresa thought for a moment and said, “(God) doesn’t say anything.  (God) just listens.”  Teresa and God—sitting together, both quiet, and listening in silence.

Can we be still in the silence?  Do we get restless wondering whether God is there, whether He’s paying attention, whether He really cares?  In a letter to her spiritual director, Teresa confessed her doubts regarding God’s presence: “In my soul, I feel just that terrible pain of loss…of God not being God.”  She added, “If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’”

Sometimes prayer is patience in the darkness of the night, listening for a voice.  But the question is: are we willing to listen the way that Samuel assured the Lord he was ready to do? “Listening” means we direct our hearts toward God, trusting that the subtle movement of His Spirit will do the rest.

Prayer is not something we can force.  If we sense a movement to rest in God’s presence, that nudge is coming from God, Who always takes the initiative.  Our part in responding to God’s invitation is to create a sacred space, minimize the distractions, and remain alert to God’s presence.  Prayer is God’s gift to us and if we show up, He will always take us by surprise, which is, after all, what gifts are supposed to do.

How can we open ourselves to God’s presence?  We do what Samuel did: we listen.  We ask for the grace to listen with our full attention.  Perhaps we get started with lectio divina, the sacred reading of Scripture, which can lead to a profound experience of listening. After we have mused on the passage, seeking understanding, and applying the passage to our lives, we have a conversation about what we have read. Then we rest in silence, being content to remain in God’s presence, without words or images.

For many of us, stillness doesn’t come naturally, especially in our super-charged, 5G, frenetic world where we flit from one distraction to another. The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once said, “We’re all meant to be mystics; if we don’t become one, we’ll destroy ourselves.” Prayer eventually moves towards stillness, a quality modeled by our Blessed Mother who continually pondered what she experienced as mother of the Messiah.  Silence moves us into the currents of our hearts where we can experience our true feelings and discern where they are coming from.  It is precisely in these deep currents that God speaks to us, revealing our innermost desires and fears to us, inviting us to reach toward communion and fellowship as we surrender our fears and hurts.

Listening to God requires surrender. To do that, we must first take the focus off ourselves and then make God the Center of our lives. Letting go of control is the beginning of listening to God. But surrender involves risks because God is going to take charge of our lives and suggest new ways of living our lives. When we put God in charge, we are making an act of faith that declares God’s Word is true, that He keeps His promises, and that He is trustworthy. We are saying that we trust God will pour himself into our silence and fill us with His Spirit.

With Samuel let’s extend the invitation: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” But when God does speak, be ready to respond the way Mary instructed the attendants to respond at the Wedding Feast of Cana: “Do whatever He tells you.” That’s the risk, that’s the cost, that’s the adventure of the inner journey into the mystery of God.


Deacon Jim McFadden

Deacon Jim McFadden ministers at the Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church in Folsom, California. He is a teacher of theology and serves in the Adult Faith Formation, baptismal preparation, spiritual direction, and prison ministry.

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