A transcript of a retreat talk given by Trevor Miller.
President FD Roosevelt got tired of the many White House receptions where all he did was smile his famous big smile and utter the usual banalities to the awed guests. One day he decided to find out whether anybody was listening and paying attention to what he was saying. As each person came up to him with extended hand, he flashed his smile and said to them ‘Good evening, I murdered my Grandmother this morning.’ People would automatically respond with comments like ‘O, How lovely’ and ‘Good, I hope you continue in your great work.’ Nobody listened to what he was saying except one foreign diplomat. When the President said ‘Good evening, I murdered my Grand-mother this morning’ he replied softly ‘Well, I’m sure she had it coming to her!’
This story well illustrates the fact that hearing someone speak is not the same as listening to what they actually say. The difference is crucial especially if the Person who is speaking is God or God’s representative or any means of grace available to us.
For this reason alone we need to understand what we mean by listening? How is it different from hearing?
a] To concentrate on hearing something. To focus attention, as in tuning into a radio programme. To tune in to someone’s wavelength. Not just background music but a careful listening to a particular programme.
b] To take notice and pay attention as in ‘Jeff begged her to reconsider but Jill wouldn’t listen’.
c] To be alert so as to hear. He’s all ears or she keeps her ear to the ground. Listen did you hear that?
a] To receive communication and information as in ‘I heard about your problem, Roy’. Or as in ‘Hear, Hear’ = used to express understanding and agreement.
b] To listen formally as in ‘The priest heard her confession’.
c] To listen attentively as in ‘I really hear what you say’.
They have many similarities and yet real differences. If I say ‘Can you hear? It is very different to ‘Are you listening? All of you can hear what I am saying right now but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are listening to what I say. When this is applied to listening to God, hearing God’s heart, it is vital that we learn to listen.
To complicate matters further the Bible words for ‘listen/hear’ are one and the same and they also include the element of responsive obedience. The Greek word ‘hypakovo = to listen, to obey. Jeremiah 6:10, Matthew 7:24-27, John 8:43-49, James 1:22-25. Also in many Parables and in the letters to the Seven churches we read ‘he who has an ear to hear let him hear’. John Powell writes, ‘The most serious obstacle to a life of faith is ‘inattention.’ Esther De Waal says, ‘We are not being truly attentive unless we are prepared to act on what we hear. If we hear and do nothing more about it, then the sounds have simply fallen on our ears and it is not apparent that we have actually heard them at all.’
A good illustration is captured in Isaiah 6. The prophet is walking close to God, so that he overheard the Conversation of the Trinity. He was listening with the heart and was able to respond in obedience. ‘Who will go? Here am I, send me!’ It’s not so much the place where you are, as your presence in that place. Not the actual situation you find yourself in but whether you are alive to that situation. Availability is obedience. Working hard where you are, whether helpful or horrendous, instead of always wanting to work wonders elsewhere.
So then listening means being alert, observant, and perceptive to what is going on within us and around us. It is not a passive thing but a conscious, willed action to focus attention. We listen – to learn – to live!
Retreat is about listening to God through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, reading the Scriptures and attentiveness to God revealed in the ordinary of the now. Awareness of God in life as it is, recognising that life is simply the next thing that happens. It is a recognition of balancing the over activity that says ‘Don’t just sit there, do something’ with ‘don’t just do something, sit there’. Historically this call to listen to God has meant different things to different streams – terminology not always understood breeding suspicion and doctrinal differences, often leading to division.
In the early Irish Church, the Celtic people drew great inspiration from the Apostle John, the beloved disciple. They particularly remembered him as the one who leaned against Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper. He became an image of the practise of listening for the heartbeat of God in the whole of life’s experiences by quiet, silent, contemplative prayer.
The early Roman Church drew great inspiration from the Apostle Peter, the undoubted leader of the first disciples. They particularly remembered him as the one to whom Jesus gave ‘the keys of the kingdom’ and who powerfully preached the Word of God to those who would hear. He became an example of the practise of listening for God in the ordained teaching of the Word and in the life of the Church.
Over the centuries these two aspects of listening to God – the reflective, contemplative inner journey of the heart and the analytical, rational hearing of the Word became separated with the result being a cause for division.
However, in recent times we have been seeing a coming together – a clear recognition that we need both streams and traditions. That listening to God within, at the heart of life and experience; and listening to God through the scriptures, the Church, the means of grace, the gifts of the Spirit are not mutually exclusive. They complement rather than contradict one another.
We need both MEDITATION and CONTEMPLATION as both are important aspects of the spiritual life. However they are not quite the same and it is generally taught that meditation leads to contemplation. However, there is some confusion in terminology as the simple dictionary definition of contemplation is ‘to meditate’ – ’to consider thoughtfully’ both of which are unhelpful especially in today’s climate of hugely renewed interest in different forms of meditation, many of which are not Christian.
a] Meditation is the active use of the mind to analyze, reflect on and discern truth from a passage of scripture or a life situation. In this it is we who actively pursue knowledge of God in relation to his Word and his world. And that’s good, we need to do this. We will be doing this!
b] Contemplation is not allowing anything to get in the way of God’s heart, not even the Bible. We are simply waiting on God, open and available to His Person and His Presence, even if that is perceived as Absence. The mind is not in a concentrative ‘pursuit of knowledge’ mode but in a receptive mode. It is allowing the Truth that is God to come to it and not the other way around.
The literal root meaning of contemplation is ‘to be in a sacred space’ or ‘to stand in a sacred place’ from ‘con’ = to gaze intently and ‘templum’ = in a sacred place.
This is a good definition – not simply to be in the presence of God but to stand in His space. Not only giving God a space in your life (like the evangelical Quiet Time concept of 10min am, 10 min pm with the rest of the day to yourself) but God being central to the whole of your life. Standing in His space, waiting in His presence for His presence whenever, whatever! Incarnation!!
Bishop Theophan the Recluse, a 19thC Russian Mystic, ‘In prayer the principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart’ not one or the other but united in the centre of our Being as human persons indwelt by the Spirit of God.
It is in dividing these aspects of listening to God that problems arise. Henri Nouwen writes about this in one of his books when he says that one of the demonic deceptions prevalent today is to make us think that prayer is primarily an activity of the mind that involves above all else our intellectual abilities. So that prayer becomes OUR speaking with God; OUR thinking about God; OUR talking to God. This results in one-sided monologues, presenting to God problems that need solutions; questions that need answers from a God who can be analysed and scrutinised as to why those solutions and answers are not forthcoming. The reason for this he says is the view that everything can be understood and what can be understood can be controlled, including God. We need, he concludes, to learn to pray with and from the heart. To pray with the mind in the heart.
In both meditation and contemplation we are seeking God heart to heart, person to Person; seeking to establish and deepen our relationship through discerning the gentle voice of God in ordinariness and humanness, so as to grow in faith, hope and love.
It is a participation in the Mystery of God. The Apostle Paul wrote ‘Great is the mystery of godliness’ but this whole concept of Mystery has been greatly misunderstood, often totally ignored by some church traditions.
God is a Mystery in that we will never understand his Beyondness, never fully grasp his Otherness. In this sense God is unknowable. Some are content with this; others try to solve the mystery through communicating with lesser gods and supernatural spirits. This leads to confusion and mystification rather than true mysticism. (= Reality beyond perception)
The Biblical understanding of the Mystery of God is that we are dealing with two parts simultaneously – that which is REVEALED and that which is CONCEALED
Deut 29:29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us & to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
We want to acknowledge, I’m sure, the wonderful truth that God is REVEALED to us, in Creation but supremely in Christ. And that what He said and did, who He was has been recorded for us in Scripture, so that OT history, Psalms, Wisdom, Prophets along with the Gospels, Acts, letters, Revelation of John are God’s REVELATION to us. They tell us about the Name and character of God. That he is Father, I AM and that He became Incarnate in Christ.
Now on the one hand, the Protestant, evangelical Church has tended to emphasise the REVELATION part of the Mystery and all but ignores the other. It states that God has revealed himself in Christ. ‘That which we have seen, heard, know, we declare to you’ I John 1. To which we all say a hearty and grateful Amen! BUT this is presented as all there is! This is all we need to know – Mystery solved! God is in the Book, fully, finally. Mmm – Close it!? That’s God dealt with.
On the other hand, the Catholic, Orthodox Church has tended to emphasise the CONCEALED aspect of the Mystery. So that through liturgy, ornate symbolism, sacraments, something of the transcendance, Otherness, Beyondness and awesome Mystery of God is expressed.
We need both. Speaking personally (from a Baptist background) I’ve come to appreciate, even need chapels, liturgy, candles, symbols but I know we also need a Lectern because if God had not spoken we wouldn’t have known anything about Him at all.
The major difficulty is that for many, revelation has been linked with rationalism and ‘we have it all’ has often degenerated into ‘we know it all.’ This in turn has resulted in the spiritual quest for many being confined to gaining more and more knowledge about God, about doctrine, about the Bible rather than God Himself. People in this school of thought are suspicious of contemplation, interior silence and liturgy – dismissed as Catholic superstition and New Age practise. Happily, this is changing as Christians from all denominations and streams are now embracing the contemplative call to the inward journey.
Christian MEDITATION is to enter into that which is REVEALED through Scripture, Liturgy, and Worship. But we can’t stay there, revelation leads to contemplation and contemplation is entering into that which is CONCEALED, entering the Mystery of God Himself.
When John the Beloved said ‘We have seen His glory’ he was talking about an ocean, a limitless ocean with no boundaries. The whole weight of the Godhead, the manifested glory of the Invisible God, his Presence and activity in the world were incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.
St John wasn’t saying ‘we’ve cracked it, we know it, seen it, got the T shirt.’ He is saying the very opposite, that we’re just at the beginning of the limitless knowledge of God and always will be. John 20:30-31 puts this well ‘Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in his name.’
‘Could we with ink the oceans fill and were the skies of parchment made; were every stalk on earth a quill and every man a scribe by trade. To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry, nor could the scroll contain the whole though stretched from sky to sky’
The contemplative life is to enter into the Mystery concealed but it is not a case of receiving further Revelation. We don’t receive new truth but now truth. There is no other revelation. This is a great concern about the renewed interest in contemplation. If we remove the revelation there is no discernment, no foundation and very, very dangerous as deception and getting captured becomes a distinct possibility.
People can get captured by going into the concealed spiritual world without having been taught how to live there. It’s like the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when the children enter Narnia. It is a whole new world of experience and Edmund meets the Witch and is deceived; Peter finds inner strength and Lucy hears the voice of Aslan.
In seeking God in contemplation, in knowing Him better, the things he has revealed to us as important can be proclaimed with greater clarity in the nitty-gritty of the real life of human experience. This is what contemplative prayer/life is all about – living with the paradox, living with the questions, while being preoccupied with the quest to live. Life as it is, no compartments called Family, Social, Work. Life is just whatever is happening now. ‘Where you are, is where you belong. This is it’ Merton. It means awareness and openness to the immediate, directly perceiving and lovingly responding to things as they really are. Perhaps the simplest definition of contemplative is “presence to what is.” Living in the Now!
Which is why all this is worked out in the pain and struggle of growth; in the paradoxes of the journey without maps. The good, the bad and the ugly experiences of life, the light and shadow side of who we are, the paradox of protest and trust, hope and disappointment, joy and despair.
God desires to speak to us about himself, about ourselves, about humankind, about his world. God shares his secrets with those who will listen; we won’t know all the answers but we will be in a position to be willing to live with the questions. Paradox is ‘lived truth’ which is understood by the heart if not by the mind. J.Vanier speaks of ‘entering into the mystery where misery and mercy embrace and wholeness rises from brokenness.’
Retreat is an opportunity to reflect on the fact that this can only begin from who you are, where you are, as you are. We can only operate from our part of the world, from our perspective in the place where God has placed us. Listening to God is vitally important in the process of being and becoming persons. This requires Retreat – Reflection – Resolve.
The Desert Fathers used to illustrate the need for stillness of heart by taking a jar and filling it with water and then pouring in a little sand. As the jar was shook the sand murkied the water, but as the jar was allowed to rest the sand settled to the bottom and the water became clear again. The pace of life and the driven-ness of the social, domestic, even church agendas can cloud our perspective. We need to settle ourselves into God’s stillness so that the water of perception becomes clear again, and we can follow God’s agenda.
When we listen to him, through his Word or in the silence, we begin to discover his perspective on things, think his thoughts, and know his heart. The discipline of going to our cell where our heart can be alone with God opens up for us the gifts of discernment, knowledge and wisdom, which in turn give us new perspectives, fresh insights that God can use to touch everyday lives. We are given a sense of purpose, identity and value as persons as we listen for direction, correction and exhortation.
Henri Nouwen, ‘Thro the discipline of contemplative (listening) prayer, Christians have to learn to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them…. when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the Source of Life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.’
We can conclude with two practical suggestions:
1] Kneel down and shut up. Be humble enough to acknowledge that the busyness and hyperactivity of modern life is a hindrance to listening. ‘Be still and know that I am God’ Ps 46:10. There is nothing wrong with working hard but if there is no freedom to pause, no punctuation/no opportunity to reflect on and write new paragraphs in our lives then we will wear out. A major characteristic of our age is high activity, rushing to get things done – an ‘every second counts’ mentality. Activity without receptivity, doing without being, taking priority. If we don’t come apart we will come apart! We need to recapture ‘sacred idleness’.
2] Practise focussing our attention. Listening to God by focussing our attention on all the channels open to us as Christians, namely, the Scriptures, the Divine Office and Liturgy, silence and solitude, the circumstances of life, as in WilliamTemple’s statement ‘When I pray coincidences happen, when I don’t pray they don’t’; the wisdom of others. All channels used by the Holy Spirit to communicate the life and love of God to us. Ps 95:7 NEB ‘You shall know his power today if you listen to his voice.’