We hear God’s “voice” mediated for us in Sacred Scripture, in the book of nature, and in our sacramental lives of communion with others that include the happenings of our daily lives. Within an ecclesial community seeking to do God’s will, we have a surety that we hear God’s “word for our salvation” in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
In traditions of prayer, God also speaks to our souls personally but contingently in a mode of private prayer that expresses our desire to hear God’s voice within the recesses of our inner experiences. Interior communion with Christ through the Holy Spirit demands habits of contemplative silence and waiting. Contemplation is a wordless surrender to God’s will in one’s life; it is a pointed consciousness that listens for God’s most intimate communications within one’s soul.
Thomas Merton wrote that “waiting in silence” was the doorway into these unitive moments of a wordless dialogue with God. In Contemplative Prayer (1969: pp. 122-123), he described contemplatives as those who forego emphasis on speaking their own minds to become other-directed in silent attention to another voice that might, but not necessarily, be “heard” in their hearts.
Contemplative prayer is a waiting without expecting any kind of “transformation:” not even a “transformation of darkness into light.” Nothing is “anticipated” or “prayed for.” One “waits on the Word of God in silence” and, if a “word” is heard, it is heard within the silence itself. The silence, Merton wrote, “suddenly and inexplicably reveals itself as a word of great power, full of the Voice of God.”
There are no set times in a life of prayer for inner dialogues with God. The Spirit speaks directly within our hearts when God wills. Our silence is our response, a willingness to be permeable to God’s word for our personal salvation. Silence signifies our obedience to the hidden inner presence of the “Lord and Giver of Life.” Silence exposes us to gratitude and love for the Spirit whose presence always permeates our being. Silence is loving God “through a glass darkly.” It is probably best to doubt that the Holy Spirit has anything personal to say to us.
Infused contemplation is a gift. The response is grateful acceptance and a conscious willing to love God more in everything that happens to us. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of his own moments of consciously sensing God’s real presence within him as infrequent: “How rare the visits, how brief the stay.”
Our ordinary, daily spiritual habits for listening to God’s word remain concentrated on lectio divina, on being simple and direct in disciplined, moral behavior, and on consistently receiving the sacraments of ecclesial communion “in Christ” with all our world’s neighbors. All these works are graced and induce an inner climate of gratitude.
In her poem “Praying,” Mary Oliver advises that we not seek the “blue iris” of profound insights in poetry or prayer. She suggests we pay attention to simple things like “weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones.” Waiting upon the smaller things is another mode of attention to the Holy Spirit’s visitations. Our simple, personal prayers become the “doorway into thanks, and a silence in which / another voice may speak (see Thirst, p. 38).
By Jonathan Montaldo