From Song of the Sparrow
The art of listening. How hard it is to cultivate. We seem to be able to listen to others only so long before we start talking ourselves, usually about ourselves. It is that way with prayer, too. The hardest part is the listening, the quiet, the patience it takes to be still and wait upon God. We always want to start talking, and yet what more can we say beyond the words Christ gave us in the “Our Father”? If we spent time in prayer saying the “Our Father” once and then listening for the remainder of the time we set aside for prayer, it would be one of the best disciplines possible in learning to pray. But we are uncomfortable with silence, with waiting for the other to speak. This is strange, really, because we all know how much more is communicated in silent communion with someone we love than in a plethora of words that soon seem empty and repetitious. God, like all lovers, speaks louder in silence than in words spoken in a rush of emotion. And God hears us better in our silent awareness and concentration than in a multiplicity of words.
There are times, of course, when we pray in a rush of words and emotion, in times of great trouble or joy, for instance. But that is more for our sake than God’s, who knows what we are going to say before we say it. The saying it, however, helps us and heals us in the release of pent up sorrow or lifts us up in the release of too much joy or gratitude. Generally, however, lovers speak in silence and hear in silence, and words only complicate the purity of their communion.
Prayer is not only a need that each of us has; it is also a power. Jesus has told us that whatever we ask in his name, God will give us. And because prayer is a power, it is also a responsibility and challenge. It is a responsibility because through prayer we can join with Christ in redeeming the world. If we pray only for ourselves or about ourselves, we have not yet learned to pray, for prayer is outward-reaching and all-embracing. A good barometer of where we are in our union with God is whether or not our prayer reaches out to all people. If my prayer centers mainly on myself, then that is where I am. The true prayer accepts Christ’s challenge to join with him in opening his or her arms to all. And as one’s prayer becomes more cosmic and other-centered, so does one’s thinking and attitudes.
I once heard the philosopher Gabriel Marcel say, “I found God in another person in whom God dwelt.” I remember how stunned I was to hear this complex, deep man say something so simple. I had expected some profound answer about his search for God through the circuitous route of his own existential thought. Instead, a simple statement and this in answer to a question from the audience after a penetrating lecture on the theater of the absurd. A young man rose in the audience and asked Professor Marcel how he had found God, and in contrast to the complexity of his lecture, he said that he had found God in another person; it was as simple as that. This answer was something anyone could understand.
We are all, whether we realize it or not, living symbols of the presence of God in the world. By who we are and how we act we can either build up or tear down the kingdom of God. God has chosen to act through us humans, first through God’s son, Jesus Christ, and then through all the members of Christ’s Mystical Body. That God is alive and well is most evident in those who live through, with, and in God. No greater compliment be given a man or a woman than that someone should say, “I found God in you.”
When we finally come to love ourselves, something happens inside us that makes humility possible. I cannot humble myself if I think myself worthless or unworthy of love. It is only when I recognize that I am worthy and lovable that I can even think of humbling myself. If we try to humble ourselves before we love ourselves, we only sink more deeply into depression and low self-esteem. What most of us need is to know we are loved, to know we are worthwhile. And this is precisely what God wants to do for us.
We pray and worry, worry and pray over some heavy burden of mind or body, and nothing happens. Time passes. And all our hope rides away with time. Then, just when time’s last car is passing by, with all our hope inside, the burden is lifted just in time for us to run lightly again and catch the last car. Why God lets us wait for that final car is a mystery, but perhaps that is what faith and hope are about – waiting. No instant answer, no instant changes. No ride on the first seat of the first car in a train, but just making the last car of a moving train with one seat left. Waiting and watching all those cars go by, too heavy to jump aboard, makes every ride a miracle and every leap something only God can accomplish in us.
You, O Lord, are the one
Who calls my name.
I hear you in the place
Called prayer, where
Names are necessary
Only in the beginning
Prayer lets you experience the gospel paradox of losing yourself in order to find yourself. The more you lose yourself in contemplation of God, the more yourself you become. You come away from prayer more convinced that you are someone special, having just talked with God. You know your name, and it sounds good to the ear. How this happens is a mystery, but it has its counterpart in human love. When I lose myself in someone I love, I feel more free, more independent than when I am alone; and I am full, not empty, when I give myself away.
Simplicity of style. In art as in life simplicity has its own charm. The simple word is often the exact word that triggers complex responses within us. The simple person, we feel, has somehow passed through complexity and confusion, and his or her simplicity is really transcendence and victory over the inessential entrapments of life.
In prayer we learn the simple word that effects and flows from a simple life. Our life and prayer are so intertwined that they too, become a new simplicity of word and act. There is a Chinese proverb on the wall of the children’s museum in Boston that sums up simply what I am trying to say so falteringly:
I hear. . . and I forget.
I see. . . and I remember.
I do. . . and I understand.
Very simply, that is prayer and action integrated.
We strain hard at times, listening for that one word, that voice of assurance from the other side. And when the strain becomes too much for us, we go back to feverish activity and diversion convinced that prayer is not for us, that it is a gift God gives to special souls. Then something draws us back again, some hope that this time it will work. What draws us back is something inside us, something that was there from the beginning. And that movement from within, that drive is really the voice of God that we were listening for “out there” somewhere. In other words, more often than not, the “voice of God” is a force within us propelling us toward God. It is God leading us.
But we remain frustrated because we are never satisfied with what happens at that rendezvous called prayer. If there is satisfaction of any kind, it is so short-lived that we wonder if it was worth it. And yet we return to prayer again and again. And in the returning we notice something happening, not during prayer exactly, and not all of a sudden. But gradually something has been happening to us. We are changing. A peace and calm is settling into our lives and we begin to hear God’s Word in Scripture in a way we didn’t before. It is somehow more personal, more directly related to our lives. The Mass takes on a new meaning, and we yearn for frequent union with Christ in the Eucharist.
In brief, what we had been expecting to happen suddenly in prayer, had been happening gradually in our daily lives.