It’s quieter than I could have possibly imagined, and surprisingly it sounds nothing like my own.
I have a confession that will surprise no one: I am not very good at prayer. Yet.
Or rather, I am not very good at making time for it, continuing to work at it, and accepting the decidedly unromantic reality that it mainly consists of persistent, repeated acts of the will over time.
For many, many years following my reversion to the Faith, I simply assumed that mine was not an overly emotional relationship with my Creator. In fact, I’ve been known to refer to my relationship with God as “businesslike,” which, frankly, doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Anemic would be more accurate, or even tepid. But businesslike? It was honestly anything but. If He’d have been my client, He’d have kicked me to the curb and taken His business elsewhere long ago since I rarely kept our scheduled appointments, frequently missed deadlines, and only phoned in the bare minimum of our agreed upon contract: Sunday Mass, bedtime prayers, maybe a rosary here or there.
In short, if an active faith life were a business transaction, then I’ve been an epically bad hire, failing to hit pretty much all of my quarterly goals for going on 15+ years.
Of course, there are other factors at play. That we live in a thoroughly post Christian culture is news to no one, but it bears acknowledging that we are a post Protestant Christian culture, meaning much of the Christianity we absorb organically does not contain the fullness of the faith. Because American Christianity in particular so profoundly emphasizes the felt personal relationship with Jesus, and the accompanying emotional satisfaction, it can become mightily difficult for a person of limited emotional intelligence, possessing emotional wounds, or afflicted by a mental illness which impacts the emotions, to “feel close” to God.
And since we’re told that feeling close to God, feeling His presence, and feeling that Bethel Music high are essential components of being in a relationship with Him, well, if the feelings don’t come…it’s fairly reasonable to conclude some pretty dysfunctional things about God. (p.s. I love Bethel music for the record.)
What I’ve discovered through leaning into my own innately “intellectual” experience of God, is that it is through fidelity and persistence in prayer that one finds intimacy and familiarity. And it’s less romantic than I’d been led to believe.
Now, I don’t mean that God isn’t a lover, and that He doesn’t routinely blow me away with His thoughtful attention to detail and lavish provision. But to feel His presence is much more like acknowledging the presence of the sun, the forces of physics at work, or the mechanical miracles of the function of the human body.
God’s presence is incredible and perceivable, but it feels less like a Hallmark movie and more like watching a really incredible sunset.
His constancy and the intricacy of His design is what is breathtaking; not the occasional shocking breaks from the natural order where He dazzles with miracles. Miracles are hard on the human mind and heart. There’s a reason Jesus doled them out sparingly and individually, not simply blitzing all of Galilee with instantaneous healings for whatever ailed them.
Some of us – maybe most of us – are sorely tempted to worship the miracle rather than the giver of miracles.
He knows what He is doing in each of our souls. “He knows what He is about,” as St. John Henry Newman recognized. He knows the quirks, the design “flaws,” the imperfections and the baggage, the tender spots. And He has every intention of working through them, not of being limited by them.
What I mistook for factory defects in my own makeup are actually the unique avenues He uses to speak to me. And now that I’m growing in the discipline of spending time with Him on a regular and, God help me, daily basis, I’m becoming much more attuned to the sound of His voice.
The final thing I want to say about prayer is that it is a lot like exercise which I am also not, um, that interested in doing on a regular basis.
Sometimes there are endorphins. Sometimes the scale moves in a seismic shift and it’s exciting! Sometimes you bench press way more than you did a month ago and it’s a thrill, or you run 5 miles at once for the first time ever and you can’t believe it.
But mostly it’s about consistency. Mostly it involves lots of mental prodding and much putting of one foot in front of the other, etc. There are few days where I look forward to it, but there are no days when I look back and regret having done it.
Make a 30 day wager with yourself. Say that for a month, starting this Friday, you’ll spend 10 minutes in personal prayer each day. It doesn’t need to be tied to a specific time of day or anything, and you don’t need to plan anything apart from putting yourself in the presence of God, and seeing what He has to say. Maybe it’ll be the first experience of actually being able to “hear” His voice. Maybe it’ll be really dry and boring and totally unproductive. But commit to it, like a new workout regimen, for a minimum of 30 days. Don’t go 4 days and quit because you don’t see results. You won’t! Trust me, I’m the queen of the false start.
Just try it. You might be shocked by what you discover about Him – and about yourself – by the end.
And you’ll know His voice when you hear it. You’ll just know. “My sheep hear my voice.” Well, we’re the sheep. And, for real, His voice is imprinted on you. You’ll know it. There’s no trick or tip I can offer except that if you’re pursuing a life of virtue, actively working to turn away from sin, and making time to just sit in silence and open your heart to Him, you will hear His voice, and you will recognize it, and it will utterly transform your life.