The Prayer of Listening

When I was a child I never understood when someone would tell me that I had to listen to God. No matter how hard I tried, I could not hear any voice. Why did the characters in the Bible hear God’s voice but I couldn’t? As I grew into a more mature spiritual life I discovered that God’s voice manifests in so many ways: in scripture, in other people, in my experiences, in my feelings, and in my gifts and talents.

In 1 Samuel 3 we hear the story of Samuel, who hears a voice call out to him in the night. He mistakes it for Eli’s call and goes to Eli saying, “Here I am.” This happens two more times and eventually Eli realizes that it is God who is calling Samuel. The scripture says that Samuel was not familiar with the Lord. He had not prayed before and he did not know anything about how God communicates. Eli tells Samuel that the next time he hears God call him he should respond, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” Samuel’s first experience of prayer is listening.

For most of us, our first experience of prayer involves speaking. Growing up we are told to say our prayers. We learn specific prayers like the Lord’s Prayer or we are encouraged to ask God for this or that. Seldom are children encouraged to listen. Though Samuel was a child, he was encouraged to listen to God. It took a very long time for me to learn how to listen to God, but I wonder if it would have come earlier had I been taught how to listen in prayer as a child.

The First Commandment of Ignatian prayer is to listen. Ignatius might call it contemplation. It involves listening to our reality through our senses—this is the basis of the Examen. When we imagine a gospel passage unfold in our minds, we first observe what happens before we start interacting. We observe Jesus’ actions. We listen to what Jesus says to his disciples. We hear a conversation. And then, slowly, we notice what happens within us. Only once we listen and receive from God can we respond to God. And when we do respond, we must then again pay attention and listen. Eventually this listening and responding and listening becomes a conversation, a “colloquy,” in Ignatian terms.

Prayerful listening occurs in the everyday, too. Keep a lookout for God through your day. Ask yourself questions like these: Where did God appear this week? What have I learned about myself and God through this experience? What set my heart on fire? What are the deep desires within me? What am I longing for? How does God feel when God looks upon me? What does God desire for me?

One of the best ways to listen to God is through the daily Examen. God In All Things offers a few audio examens you can use to help you listen better to God. Another way to learn how to listen is through spiritual direction. A spiritual director can accompany you in your journey with God. He or she can help you notice the ways in which God has been speaking to you or working in your life.

As with Samuel, the foundation of our prayer life begins with listening, looking, and noticing God all around us, calling out our name.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.