“Don’t just do something, sit there!”
You may need to read that first line again – aren’t we much more used to hearing, “Don’t just sit there, do something!”? This is what I have to offer about how to hear God/the Holy Spirit speaking to us: sit there. In other words, slow down, don’t do something, and allow some time to pass between the urge to do something and actually doing it. In other words, I try to give the Holy Spirit time and space speak.
To do this, I begin by turning off all the things I typically listen to: podcasts, music, books, and even my own thoughts (even if only possible for a millisecond at a time!). I find it very hard to quiet my thoughts, so I’ll try to direct them to my advantage… either by being curious about them, or molding them to the question I might be bringing to the Holy Spirit. This comes very close to the idea of meditation, but I have never been great at that. That is why I say this “turning off” is just a beginning. Because silence is very hard to listen to. However, as Saint John of the Cross has said: “God’s fist language is silence.” Thomas Keating, in Invitation to Love, adds: “Everything else is a poor translation. In order to understand this language, we must learn to be silent and to rest in God.” So, I consider this first step as erasing a chalkboard; it might only be cleared off for a moment, but it has made a space for new things to appear. The same can be said for ‘turning down the volume’ on all the other inputs I usually plug into (and especially those I don’t intentionally plug into, such as advertisements and environmental noise) – it may only be for a short amount of time, but it creates the ‘space’ needed for God to speak.
Once I’ve cleared as much audible clutter from my mind as possible, and can get even a glimpse or a moment of God/silence, I can begin to add back some of the inputs, choosing wisely the mediums through which God might speak to me. At home on any given day, this might mean choosing to stream some Taize music or listening to the words of Thomas Merton via an audiobook. Or, it could mean listening to my own thoughts via a journaling exercise, and taking pauses in the midst of it all. On Sunday, this ‘adding back’ to a cleared space of silence might mean making it to St. Simon’s in time to settle in and listen to the prelude. Listening to the prelude often serves as an ‘eraser’ of sorts – crowding out my own chaotic thoughts and the noise of my commute – preparing the ‘chalkboard’ upon which the Word of God might appear during the worship service.
While worship certainly isn’t the only place where the Word of God can be heard, it can serve as the designated time for creating the needed space for listening attentively. There are so many opportunities for creative listening during the service, including silence, others’ voices, and one’s own voice – all vehicles for the “poor translation” of God’s language, but effective nonetheless. And, it is often during the postlude – when I intentionally seek to stretch out that time and space for listening – that I can reflect upon how the Holy Spirit might have communicated with me during that day’s worship service. The postlude allows time for reflecting upon the worship service, to see what comes rushing back, and what I want to intentionally carry forward into my week. Once I stand up from that pew, all of the scribbling on the chalkboard starts up again, whether my own thoughts or the cacophony of life in community.
This isn’t to say that the Holy Spirit can’t communicate with me through the community of faith as well… but I do feel as if I’ll be able to ‘hear’ that even better when I’ve taken the opportunity to ‘train’ my ears through faithful participation in the worship service. I would compare it to listening to a concert after you’ve taken a music appreciation course – the performance may not be any different than before your training, but your training prepared you to hear/listen for so much more than you ever had before!
This leads us to the very important follow-up question that Jenny has posed to us as a community of faith: How do we know what is from God and what is not from God? Well, I don’t know. Not for sure. And this is where the community of faith really comes in for me. I’ll look for confirmation from those around me. Sometimes, I’ll share what I think I’ve heard and listen, really listen, to what someone else in my faith community has to say in response. I’m also encouraged when certain ideas or intuitions (dare I say convictions?) seem to pop up in multiple places and/or sources. But, in reality, I am never sure that what I am hearing is from God. For me, time is the best judge as to what is from God. Any amount of certainty that something has truly ‘come from God’ has developed only in hindsight, after a very long period of time has passed. In the meantime, I find it important to stay grounded and connected in a community of faith that seeks to deepen their relationship with God, and assists me in that same pursuit.
It might seem like an impossible task: How does one deepen their relationship with God, when God’s first language is silence? From what I can tell, it’s going to take some sitting….
Thank you for sitting with me, for listening with me, for listening to me, and sharing what you