Need a useful prayer tip? Listen with the ear of your heart

Listen. Stop reading this article for a moment and just listen. What do you hear? Birds singing in the trees? Rain pattering on the window? A cooing baby? A barking dog? The hum of city traffic? Silence?

Now, dig a little deeper. Can you quiet the whirl of thoughts spinning through your mind and focus firmly on God alone? That, at least for me, is a little harder. But only when we are fully present with God’s presence in our lives can we truly listen to him.

Listening has become a lost art in our culture. Everywhere, we are bombarded with distractions — cell phones, tight schedules, noisy transportation vehicles, personal worries and anxieties — that keep us from truly listening to another person speaking with us. Therefore, it is no wonder that listening to the still, small voice of God can be difficult!

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However, that is what prayer is — attentiveness to the presence of God in our midst. Whether we are at Mass, in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, reciting the Rosary, reflecting on Scripture, or simply just talking to God, we are acknowledging his presence. But a conversation with God is not one-sided. He is speaking to us too, if only we had the ears to truly listen.

St. Benedict begins his famous Rule of Life with an admonishment to listen attentively: “Listen, my child, to the Master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart” (Prologue). St. Benedict is not just referring to the abbot’s instructions here. The “Master” he is referring to is God, of whom we are all children. Furthermore, listening to God is not the same as hearing with our physical ears. We need to listen with our hearts. That requires patience and perseverance in prayer, as well as an openness to whatever God might be telling us.

God often uses the circumstances of our lives to speak to us. A chance encounter with another person may be an opportunity to recognize Christ in another human being. A striking passage in a book may be an invitation to pause and reflect on what it means in our lives. Even an illness or loss can be an axis of transformation or renewal. God uses all things to communicate with us and draw us closer to him. When we practice being attentive to his presence, we also become more aware of what he is trying to tell us. Cultivating this attentiveness is not easy, but it can bear beautiful fruit when we recognize how God is guiding us in his will.

I was first introduced to St. Benedict while I was a student at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, and during those four years, I got to know him very well. St. Benedict knew how to cultivate a listening heart. Disgusted by the immorality he saw in Rome, the young Benedict spent time as a hermit in a cave before later forming a community of monks. St. Anselm College is run by Benedictine monks, and the campus is on the monastery grounds. In true Benedictine fashion, the monks welcome the students as if Christ had come to share their home. They are involved in every aspect of campus life — professors in various fields, administration, campus ministry, sports teams and clubs. Students are welcome to join them in the Abbey Church for daily Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, so they can grow in their faith too.

The Liturgy of the Hours is an old form of praying with the psalms at set times throughout the day. St. Benedict dedicates much of his Rule to this form of prayer, and it continues to be followed by monks, nuns, clergy and lay people today. When I was a homesick freshman, I wandered into the church early one morning while the monks were at Morning Prayer. I sat in the back and listened to their chanting with awe. The following morning, I did the same thing. Eventually, one of the monks gestured for me to join them and showed me how to follow along. It was not long before one of my friends began coming too. Morning Prayer became part of my daily routine when I was in college, and I still practice it today at home. Over time, the familiarity of the psalms, like the Mysteries of the Rosary, have become opportunities to both express my feelings to God and hear his response. I am grateful for the St. Anselm monks’ hospitality to join them in this rich form of prayer that has become part of my life.

After Morning Prayer, many of the monks would sit quietly in the dark, silent church. I eventually learned that they were practicing another profound form of Benedictine prayer called lectio divina or “divine reading.” First reading a short passage of Scripture, then meditating on it and speaking to God about it, we are led into silent contemplation of God’s presence and response. Lectio divina is meant to assist in listening to God with the ear of the heart. Of course, we are human and imperfect, and we cannot always practice contemplation well. Even some of the monks would joke that sometimes lectio divina would turn into “restio divina” as they dozed off in their choir stalls! However, even then, we are still resting in God’s presence. It is perseverance in prayer that draws us closer to him, not necessarily what we think should be our spiritual goals.

When we are attentive to God’s presence in our midst, we become more open to his guidance. We see how he is working in our lives, what he has already done, and what he desires of us now. As we listen to him with the ear of our hearts, we are drawn ever closer to Our Lord, which, despite the hustle and bustle of this world, is what our lives are truly about.

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