I once knew four women with a gift for musical harmony who made a recording. When they played the tape back, they could hear a beautiful fifth voice joining them when their voices blended just so.
They knew, of course, that there was nothing supernatural here — the phenomenon is known as “overtone” and is often used to great effect in music composition. But they still joked that an angel had joined them.
Prayer is a sort of music. However, many of us feel that we have tin ears. Indeed, even St. Paul’s first insight into prayer is that we do not know how to do it (Romans 8:26).
If you have ever felt the same way, join the club! So have all the saints from Abraham on down. Such doubt about our worthiness and ability to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit is a sign of both our sickness (since partial deafness to the Spirit is a consequence of original sin) and our health (since awareness of that deafness is a safeguard against pride and megalomania). Indeed, so accustomed are we to our estrangement from God that some actually seem to think deafness to the Spirit’s voice is supposed to be normal and vaguely virtuous.
Nonetheless, we find Christ and his apostles answering this notion by taking up the ceaseless refrain of the prophets: “Listen to me, my people, and live!”
Christ doesn’t say, “Don’t get uppity and start imagining you can hear from God.” He says, “Him who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Scripture repeatedly urges us to discern the voice of God. Indeed, Our Lord, Our Lady, the apostles, Scripture and sacred Tradition all talk as if ordinary men, women and children can and should discern and obey God’s will. And indeed, throughout the history of the Church, we find this has in fact been done. Thus, the question is not whether, but how, modern Christians can tap into that reality.
Discerning God’s voice takes practice. My four friends did not spontaneously invent the song, harmonies and all, as they were recording it — they learned the song as a whole and their separate parts in it by reading and listening. In the same way, we do not, by ourselves, know either the will of God or our part in it without the Father’s revelation. Therefore, when we pray, we also must begin, not by talking, but by listening.
Someone might say, “Uh-oh, I’m no mystic. What does he mean by ‘listen’?” Don’t worry. You don’t have to be Padre Pio or St. Teresa of Avila. “Listening” simply means we must start by making the same request of Jesus that his disciples did: “Lord, teach us to pray.”
This is an exciting opportunity, since it allows us to enter in a living way into the ongoing work of Christ in the earth. It is also a bit scary, since it puts us in the position of really needing God to do something to us and through us rather than leave us comfortably chugging through the paces of some abstract religious duty. To listen is to open ourselves to the fact that a very real supernatural world surrounds us. And uncanny as it seems, God will show us how to pray — teach us his song and our part in that song — just as he did the disciples.
How? First, of course, through the primary avenues he has made available for centuries. That is, through the revelation Jesus Christ made to us through the Mass, through Scripture and through the teaching, traditions and sacraments of the Church.
But he also frequently speaks in concert with these primary avenues in myriad ways — through a chance comment, a gift of the Holy Spirit, a natural event, angels, coincidence, our conscience, etc. In short, he comes to us in the daily occurrences of life.
Yet, he never comes to us in isolated and confusing signs — omens which violate the teaching of Scripture and the Church, which demand obedience without discernment or rupture the Spirit’s bond of peace.
Indeed, you can be certain that such “signs” (which can often tempt us to be prideful “Lone Ranger” Christians or violently shove us toward a reckless course of action), are not from God.
God does not urge the tuba player to belt out a Sousa march while he leads the rest of the orchestra soaring through the “Moonlight Sonata.”
The Spirit leads us in peace even when he calls us to difficult things. That is why St. Paul tells the Colossians, “Let the peace of Christ rule [act as umpire] in your hearts, since as members of one body, you were called to peace” (Colossians 3:15).
Jesus has more to say about prayer. Let’s consider it further next week.
Mark Shea is senior content editor