I often wonder if I truly hear God’s voice when I ask for His guidance or if it’s my own imagination telling me which way to go. I pray that God will help me to hear His voice and to understand His word but I’m afraid that I get distracted and sometimes I’m overwhelmed and may not hear Him. How do I know that I’m going in the direction God is showing me?
For three months, I have carried in my heart questions of faith that people across the Diocese of Washington have sent me. It has been a great blessing. I’ve come to realize that the best response to life’s deepest questions isn’t necessarily an answer, but the cultivation of a spiritual practice that opens us to the presence of God.
This week’s question is particularly appropriate for the Christian season of Epiphany–a word that means “revelation.” An epiphany is anything that comes to us from the outside that resonates deeply on the inside. There is a part of us that is always listening for that external/internal connection, what the theologian Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine.”
Thurman told the 1980 graduating class of Spelman College:
There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself, and if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching. . . . if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will, all of your life, spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.1
Every year in Epiphany, we read in church the biblical accounts of how Jesus called his first disciples to follow him. In one version, at the sound of Jesus’ voice, four young fishermen immediately knew that they needed to drop everything and follow Jesus. It reminds me of the moment in West Side Story when Tony and Maria first see each other across the crowded high school gymnasium.
We’d all love to have that kind of epiphany, and sometimes we do. But those moments are rare, and even when we experience them, we still have to consider what they mean. Thus, there is no escaping our need to cultivate some kind of inner spiritual practice, one that helps us both to listen and to ponder, that is, to sort things through.
One might call this spiritual practice “prayer,” but it is prayer with a specific purpose. It is discerning prayer, the process we go through to help us hear what God might have to say to us on the inside as we’re deciding how to respond to what coming to us from the outside.
So how do we go about this process of listening and pondering?
We can do many things. For some, the process is a daily practice of sitting quietly and paying attention to all that comes into consciousness. For others, to ponder requires movement–going for a walk or a run. Also helpful is talking through with someone who has your best interests at heart. But in the end, this is a solitary process, as we claim for ourselves the path we will take.
One time-tested practice of pondering is beautifully described in a small book entitled, Sleeping With Bread 2. The book’s title comes from a story told about children left orphaned and starving during the Second World War. When at last they were given food, they couldn’t trust that there would be more later on, so they ate themselves sick at every meal. Their caregivers’ solution was to give them a loaf of bread at bedtime, so they could sleep with confidence that there would be food in the morning.
Inspired by the image of children holding their loaves of bread, the authors describe a simple practice of holding onto what gives us life, especially in times of uncertainty and transition.
The practice is this: at the end of each day, take a few moments to reflect, asking yourself two questions: For which moment today am I most grateful? And, for which am I least grateful? Or, when did I feel the most alive today? When was I drained of life? It helps to write our reflections down, just a few sentences each day, so as to discover patterns as they reveal themselves over time.
This practice, known as the examen, heightens our awareness of those moments we might have otherwise missed through which God is speaking to us. The assumption here is that God’s desire for us is greater life, not less. Should we discern that a costly, difficult road is ours to take, we do so equipped with a greater reservoir of what sustains us in lean times.
And if, by grace, we have an experience of seemingly instantaneous clarity, we’ll realize that God, in reality, has been preparing us for it for some time. We’ll be ready, as those first disciples were, to say yes.
1Howard Thurman, Commencement Address at Spelman College, May 4, 1980.
2Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1995).