Our 1st Reading and our Gospel today (Isaiah 35:4-7 and Mark 7:31-37) are all about the way God can open the ears of the deaf, but this is not just about those who are physically deaf, for most of us are more than a bit deaf when it comes to communicating with God, and so the first thing we need to do when we pray is to ask God to do just that, to open our ears, our spiritual ears, to what he is saying to us. Then we need to avoid a hasty response, to be prepared instead to sit and listen and ponder, rather like Our Lady, who having heard from God that she was to bear Jesus in her womb “pondered these things in her heart”(Luke 2:19)
The problem is that we tend to think that prayer is talking to God, even talking at God, as if God were someone we want to complain to on the phone, only it takes ages to get through and then we are not sure that the person at the other end is really listening. But, of course, prayer is not like that at all. Prayer is much more like being with a very good friend. We don’t need to talk much, because our friend -God knows what we need before we ask; but we do need to listen, or we’re like a bad friend going on and on about ourselves and not being prepared to listen to what the friend wants to say to us.
I would however go further than this, because although thinking of God as a friend is very important – Jesus said “I have called you friends”.(John 15:15) – it still leaves us thinking about God simply as a person, and nothing more. It’s because of this that I get people asking me “How can God possibly listen to the millions of people who are praying to him at the same time?” The answer is that God is not like us, even though we are in some ways like him. He allows us, indeed wants us, to call him Father, to think of him as someone who cares, rather than some thing; but if we leave our thinking about God at that point, we are stuck when it comes to prayer, and particularly silent prayer – what we call meditation or meditative prayer.
This is why so many people find the idea of spending half an hour in silent prayer so hard. Let me put it this way. If I asked you if you found it hard on a sunny day to sit looking out at the sea for half an hour, or to sit in a beautiful garden for half an hour, or to go for a walk for half an hour, you would think me crazy. You might even exaggerate and say “I could spend all day sitting on a beach, looking at the sea” – meaning that this kind of relaxation is something that you look forward to as a holiday treat, rather than as a burden. You might even say, especially if you have a busy life, that it gives you time to think through things.
As I was preparing this Homily on this theme, a song came into my head from the musical “Salad Days”. Perhaps God was speaking to me through these words? The phrase I want to share goes like this (SINGS) “I sit in the sun, and one by one, I collect my thoughts and I think them over…” That, I thought to myself, is what prayer is like. So, as I said at the beginning, prayer isn’t thinking of endless words to say to God, but nor is it trying desperately to hear words from God. It is simply being with God, as one might sit in the sun and think things over. But what then should we do with these thoughts? How can we hear God speaking in the great mixture of thoughts that you and I have spinning around in our heads?
We need to be careful here not to turn prayer into a sort of terribly serious self-examination. Sometimes, just to sit and think and know that God is with me can be enough. Sometimes just letting my mind wander is the thing to do. I call it waiting on God, but waiting without desperately straining for some answer. The answer, the thought from God in the midst of all my thoughts that helps in some way, is probably much more likely to come when I am not desperately trying to hear it. But sometimes there are situations where we do need an answer, so what do we do then? How do we hear then what God might be saying to us?
Well If I am having a walk in the sun and see someone fall over, that’s easy. I might have two thoughts. One might be “I am too busy I will just walk on” and the other would be simply to run across to see if I can help. We all know which one is from God, don’t we? On the other hand, If I am annoyed with someone and feel like really being rude to them next time I see them – and that happens doesn’t it – then I know that thought is not from God. But now it begins to get difficult, doesn’t it. I may know what God does NOT want me to do, but what does God want me to do in this or any other similar situation? How can I hear what he wants? Should I just be meek and mild and put up with their stupid behaviour and say nothing? Sometimes that might be best. Or should I challenge their behaviour but just with a joke or some light remark? Maybe. Or should I actually show how angry or upset they are making me, without actually losing my temper? That can be a hard choice to make, but sometimes might be the right one – the one from God.
There is so much more I could say on how we can be helped to work out which answer is right, and some of this I will share next week, for this has only just touched the surface of how we may more easily listen to God ad hear what God is saying to us. There are ways to help us be more relaxed in the presence of God – from saying the Rosary to using practices that are now called “mindfulness”, as well as many other different recommended processes in which we practise the presence of God. The Church does not have one model of how to pray, for many Christians have prayed in different ways down through the Centuries and shared their ways with others. Above all, I would say. Just sit in the sun with God. That is a good place to start.