One facet of staying awake is being present enough to what is happening so that we can hear what God is saying to us.
In the gospels, the phrase “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” is repeated by Jesus multiple times (Mk 4:9, Mk 4:23, Mt 11:15, Mt 13:9, Lk 14:35). This phrase always stands out to me. It jolts me out of the story and makes me wonder why Jesus would have repeatedly said these odd words. Since this specific phrase repeats multiple times and is in all three synoptic gospels, the historical Jesus likely said these exact words. Therefore, it seems that these words deserve some special consideration. I can’t help but imagine Jesus saying this with a tone of exasperation (the same tone I am likely to use if I’ve already said something multiple times, but the person I’m speaking to doesn’t seem to get it).
My conclusion is that Jesus said this because so many of us do have ears but do not hear what is being said. We’re thinking about how we will respond, our minds are caught in a worry loop planning the future or ruminating about the past, or we’re distracted by something else that prevents us from being mindfully present to what is happening. And as tempting as it is to blame this on our always-available and always-entertaining smartphones, it was also happening 2000 years ago. So now I read this as a not-so-subtle reminder to pay attention, so I don’t miss what God is saying to me.
God may often be trying to catch our attention, but listening can be tricky. God doesn’t speak with me in a way that I hear words in my ears. (This is for the best since physically hearing a divine voice would probably make me more alarmed than attentive!) Instead, God tries to get my attention in more subtle ways. And this requires me to pay attention, or I may miss it.
When listening closely, I sometimes detect that God has a sense of humor which I can easily miss if I take myself and my problems too seriously. Sometimes after praying for clarity on a specific situation, over the next week or two, I get a message repeated in so many different ways that I have to laugh at God’s knack for being creatively dramatic. The realization that God doesn’t communicate only with solemn proclamations, but can also make me laugh while lovingly making a point, is an excellent reminder not to take myself too seriously.
Strangely enough, I don’t often hear from God while praying. But I firmly believe regular prayer puts me in the right frame of mind to hear when God does communicate with me. Most often, I gradually notice a recurring theme in my life or a growing uneasiness around something I’ve been trying to ignore because I don’t want to deal with it. If I’m not paying attention, the message becomes increasingly insistent, so it’s harder to ignore. And it’s only in looking back that I see the earlier messages I adroitly chose to ignore.
I can’t control when God chooses to speak to me. But I can do my part in the relationship by staying awake to notice when it’s happening. And, at least for me, this requires doing a regular daily practice of prayer and meditation. Although God doesn’t often speak to me during these times, I know that I’m training my mind to welcome stillness and be receptive so that I can better notice it when God speaks.
The gospel for the third Sunday of Lent (Jn 4:5-42) is a story of not attentively listening or understanding. The Samaritan woman at the well doesn’t understand what “living water” is. The disciples are confused when Jesus speaks metaphorically and says he has “food to eat of which you do not know.” They misunderstand and think someone else has brought him actual food rather than understanding he is referring to spiritual nourishment. Although it’s easy to gloss over this point because the disciples often are (amusingly) puzzled by Jesus’ words, we too may not hear what God is saying to us because the message may not come in the form we want or expect, or we’re too distracted to listen to it.
Suggestions for Further Reflection
Here are some suggestions and thoughts to consider about how you listen to God.
- Do you pay attention to your intuitions and desires and believe they are God’s way of speaking to you? If not, what gets in the way of this?
- How and when does God speak to you? Are there things you can do to be more likely to hear it when God is trying to get your attention?
- Do you have time set aside during the day when you’re quiet and more receptive to hearing God speaking to you?
- If you don’t feel God speaks to you, have you considered praying and asking for this?
I know that Jesus’ admonition, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” could often be applied to me. My ears are sometimes overridden by my mind thinking about what I’m going to say, planning what I will do, or ruminating on what I’ve already done. Open my sometimes oblivious ears and calm my racing mind, so I hear it when You speak to me.
If every moment is an opportunity to encounter You, remove my preconceptions of how, when, and where You communicate with me, so they are no longer barriers to hearing Your voice. Give me the grace to recognize when I’m “hearing” your message in my everyday life, especially when it’s not how I expected.
Thank you for admitting that God doesn’t always talk to you while you are in prayer. I keep thinking I’m doing something wrong bc I listen but don’t hear — although I ack that my ability to listen could use some improvement as I often drift if God doesn’t talk to me immediately! Your comment about the Apostles not having smart phones and yet they, too, got distracted was very interesting! I often wonder what I’m missing bc I’m just not paying attention. I needed this reminder to slow down and lean into God.
Have I mentioned to you that on at least 3 diff occasions (yesterday being the latest) that Born To Run will come on my iPod (in shuffle mode) when I’m attempting my jog drills? Perhaps God is forcing me to pay attention by throwing Bruce in my ears?
God knows you and knows that Bruce will get your attention, even if you’re gasping for breath!
I have been struggling with prayer over the past few months. I’ve been dealing with a medical issue that has not been resolved so I’m mad at God for not letting me know (Or getting me a diagnosis) what this is. What you wrote confirms what I’ve been learning about prayer. Prayers take time to be answered. Prayers are not magic nor are they going to be a quick fix. I will pray that I listen to hear what God wills for my life. Thanks Cathy!
I wish God gave us a clear answer to all our prayers, but that doesn’t seem to be the way it works. Although you’re not getting the answers you want, I believe God is still there with you (and can handle you getting angry about it). Keep listening!
Thanks for the insights on God “catching our attention” and how we might better hear Him speaking to us! I was blessed to be able to meet with Father Barry a few times – one time he shared that God has never spoken directly to him – which I found surprising and comforting at the same time. Surprising that someone who devoted so much of himself creating a “friendship with God” had to struggle like the rest of us to be open to God’s messaging. And comforting to know I can be in friendship with God despite my own struggle to remain open to what God might be saying…
Thanks for sharing that comment from Fr Barry. Like you, I find that comforting and surprising. I admit that I assumed *I* was the odd one, never hearing God speak directly to me. Maybe we all have an incorrect assumption of how God is “supposed to” speak to us.