Prayer as Listening
ART: IVAN MESTROVICRecently we received some conferences on prayer in the monastic tradition by Fr. Daniel Hombergen OCSO. I was moved by Fr. Daniel’s reflections of Enzo Bianchi’s book, Why Pray, How to Pray especially the chapters “
On the subjects of The Initiative God takes in relationship,“ and “The germinating of authentic prayer where there is listening.” Fr. Daniel differentiates two movements with our relationship to God.The first is the strong initiative taken by God in searching for humanity, calling us, questioning us, as well as asking us to listen and receive what God has shared with humankind from Genesis to Revelation. The God who “first loved us” (1 Jn. 4 :19) speaks. God begins the dialogue with His people. Enzo Bianchi states, “God has turned Himself towards human beings in order to enter into relationship with them, in order to open up dialogue with them which is directed toward communion” ( Why Pray? How to Pray, p.24). “God reveals Himself as Word and makes of Israel a people who listen, even before making them a people of faith, unveiling to them their vocation: the call to listen”
After God’s self- revelation throughout history human beings respond in faith, blessing, laudes, thanksgiving, adoration, supplication and the confession of one’s own sins (Why Pray, How to Pray, p.22-23).
This second movement, being incomplete, is the human person’s response to God, directed at love for God and the neighbor. This movement can be a distortion if our human attempt at prayer is limited to our own effort and if we believe we can pray solely by ourselves. “If human prayer, as the desire for God, presents an ascending movement of words toward heaven, listening on the other hand, is characterized by a descending movement, by a descent of the Word of God towards the human being; the one who truly prays, from Abraham onwards (Gen. 12:1) is the one who listens, who opens his ears to God” ( Why Pray? How to Pray, p.25).
Authentic prayer germinates where there is listening; it is integral as it precedes our capacity to reply. We hear this most poignantly in the gospel readings for the feast of the Transfiguration, namely; “Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him’
( Mk. 9:7, Mt. 17:2, Lk.9 :35). “Speak Lord for your servant is listening” ( 1 Sam. 3 :9). This is the first act of prayer, which, unfortunately, we are tempted to reverse into “Listen, Lord, because your servant is speaking” (Why Pray? How to Pray, p. 26). Enzo Bianchi re-states, “Listening is already praying and should have absolute priority, as it acknowledges God as the One who takes initiative for our encounter with him” (p.26). An example of a response to active listening in the Old Testament is 1 Kings 3 :9. God asked Solomon what he wanted, the young Solomon replied, a “heart capable of listening,”
“a docile heart.”
It pleased the Lord that Solomon asked for this (1Kings 3 :10). St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans also says, “faith comes from listening.”
Enzo Bianchi cautions, “when one searches for formulas and gestures to give shape to prayer in which an individual is particularly in search of assurance and satisfaction, prayer can degenerate into an expression of spiritual arrogance, a substitute for really performing God’s will' (Why Pray? How to Pray, p.27). By being aware and attentive to the Word of God, namely listening, we will hear the Lord speaking ( Dt. 4 : 32-33 ) and loving ( Dt.7 : 7-8) for our God truly loves us! Jesus when asked what the first commandment was replied, “Listen” knowing very well that it is from the capacity to listen that the capacity to know and love God and neighbor flow ( Mk. 12 : 29-31). Enzo Bianchi notes then that the movement of Christian prayer is delineated: from listening to faith, from faith to knowledge of God and from knowledge to love,
the ultimate response to God’s gratuitous love for us (p.27).
We, for our part, struggle to pray because in our lives we encounter the 8 vices or thoughts of gluttony, fornication, avarice, melancholy, anger, acedia, vainglory and pride of which both Cassian and Evagrius write about in the Conferences and Praktikos respectively. To counter these negative thoughts, we have the example of Christ the Incarnate Word, namely, to cry out to our “Abba”, your will be done, not mine, and have mercy on me a sinner as we hear the tax collector say in Scripture. We are powerless over these vices in our lives and it is only by God’s grace and mercy that our thoughts may be purified by reaching out to our “Abba.” Hopefully our little mustard seed of faith in God and renunciation of the ways of the world will help us to convert distracting struggles into occasions of prayer so a greater self-knowledge and a pure heart can be created in our being.
Sr Ann-Marie, OCSOAs our listening deepens and matures we enter into the mystery of dialogue between the three persons of the Trinity. This communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is fed by reciprocal listening, as some of the Words of Jesus demonstrate: “I have made known to you everything I have learned (heard
) from my Father” ( Jn. 15:15). “When the Spirit of Truth comes…, he will not be speaking as from himself, but will say only what he has learned (heard
)” ( Jn. 16:13). “Father, thank you for hearing
my prayer” ( Jn. 11 : 41) ( Why Pray, How to Pray,p.28).
The Father’s gift of Jesus to us provides an excellent model on how to be a daughter/son by listening, in order to do the will of God, even in the times of suffering and struggles. We know that love overcomes as we remember the Paschal Mystery, and that the Holy Spirit is given as gift to reassure us that God’s presence is always with us. The mystery of Love is incomprehensible, however let us foster a deep listening
in our lives as we daily come to Christ in prayer and are nourished with his wisdom and love.