When we learn to pray as children, we usually memorize the proper, traditional, well-thought-out prayers of our particular faith. We say our piece, we make the motions, blessing ourselves or folding our arms or kneeling down or prostrating ourselves, and then we are done. We aren’t necessarily taught to take the time to listen for a response. Even as adults we are fond of rote prayers, formulas we can rattle off as easily as we breathe. Many types of prayer, such as adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication, rely on the spoken word. Spontaneous prayer also focuses on what we have to say to God. These prayers all matter, of course. These prayers enrich our faith life. In each case, however, we do all the talking.
If prayer is ideally a conversation with God, however, we have to learn to be quiet. “The opposite of talking isn’t listening,” wrote the humorist Fran Lebowitz. “The opposite of talking is waiting.” She was being funny, but I suspect many people conduct their conversations in exactly this way: I am waiting until your lips stop moving so that I can say my next thing. Which has nothing to do with responding thoughtfully to anything you just said. Which has nothing to do with listening to you.
So perhaps we are better off to think of listening not as the opposite of talking, but as the complement of talking. The balance of talking. The twin sister of talking. Or talking’s perfect partner. Both are essential, but each is incomplete without the other. The older I get, the more I realize that listening is the key to most, if not all, harmonious relationships in life, with children, with spouses, with co-workers, with relatives, with friends, even with those people whose company we least enjoy. Listening leads to understanding, which leads to empathy, which leads to compassion, which leads to love. If listening makes our human relationships sounder, imagine what listening can do for our relationship with God.
And if the way we have a conversation with God is through prayer, we would do well to remember this important principle of give-and-take. There is the talking, and there is the listening. For example, the practice of lectio divina or the silent contemplation of a phrase that lingers from the slow and gentle reading of Scripture, is one way to accustom ourselves to listening to God. So is any form of meditation. When we simply sit in the presence of God, without expectation and without an agenda, we begin to put ourselves in the posture of a listener.
But how do we hear the message of a God we cannot see or touch? How do we listen to a God who does not appear to us or speak to us directly? How do we know when a prayer has been heard, let alone answered?
If we are those rare holy ones, saints or prophets, God may speak to us regularly. Most of us laypeople, however, do not enjoy the luxury of chatting with God. Twice in my life, I am certain that I heard God’s voice clearly in the depths of my heart. Otherwise, I believe that most often, when we truly listen for some clue to discerning God’s will for us, God speaks to us through the beloved device of other people, our fellow humans. Anyone can be an instrument of God in our lives, if we only listen.
So we bring our wants and woes to God, and then we listen. As we go about our daily lives, and as we interact with the people in our lives, God’s answers may come in our exchanges with them. Through our honest and loving relationships with others, God may even use us to respond to them, and we may not even know it.
“In the morning, let me hear your faithful love, for in you I place my trust,” writes the Psalmist, in Psalm 143. (Psalms 143:8) We will hear God’s faithful love — we will have our answers of the spirit — when we commit ourselves to listening.