Hearing God in the Practice of Silence

In late October, some two dozen-plus people retreated to Corhaven, a farm in the Shenandoah Valley. The home of Bill and Tara Haley, it was designed as a “place to meet God…a place to be met by God.” Many of us, myself included, came longing to hear God’s voice as we contemplated our vocation and potential work-related transitions. My friend and I were considering going into business together.

Bill Haley guided us through thoughtful discussions on several topics. He started with “Being Present to the Presence of God.” I chuckle as I recall how often I’ve opened prayers asking God to be present with me, or how frequently I have closed group prayer sessions asking God to go with us. He articulated how hasn’t God always been present? This subtle change in asking God to help me be present to his presence represented the beginning of a radical shift in perspective for me.

Moving on to the topic of “Silence,” Bill offered us time to practice silence. He encouraged us to sit up and close our eyes or find something to focus on. At first, it took effort to quiet the thoughts racing through my mind and to filter out distractions in order to be able to focus on God. But then, I felt welcomed into stillness.

After Bill introduced the topic “Becoming Familiar with God’s Voice to You,” he invited us to wander the woods of Corhaven, to walk along the creek, or to sit by the fire. As a mother of two young children, those two hours of solitude were luxurious. Two hours to listen to flowing water and chirps above as a reminder of God’s presence; two hours to practice silence; two hours to journal and reflect upon the ways in which God has spoken to me; two hours to quietly enjoy a cup of tea

As I drove home from the retreat, I wondered how I might be able to practice the discipline of silence. Honestly, most mornings I wake up intending to spend time listening and talking to God. But, many mornings one of our children wakes up early. So, I end up scurrying to fix breakfast for them and make lunches and scoot them off to school. I plan on taking a few moments to pray before delving into work, but then I check email on my smartphone and feel pressed to finish up the report I’ve been working on. “Oh well – there’s always tomorrow,” I sigh to myself.

Mother Teresa said “There is no life of prayer without silence.  If we really want to pray, we must first learn to listen, for in the silence of the heart God speaks. If you really want to learn to pray, keep silence.”

A recent New York Times article “The Science and Art of Listening” by Seth Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University, opened with a question “What do you hear right now?” By asking the reader what he/she was hearing, the reader’s brain was prompted to take control of the sensory experience making us listen rather than just hear. Horowitz suggests that the key difference between the sense of hearing, and the skill of listening is attention. Listening requires our brains to actively focus on what we’re hearing and tune out sights and sounds that are not immediately important. Horowitz makes the case that listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload.

Listening is a skill that can be cultivated. This type of silent or contemplative prayer, according to Richard Foster, is “loving attentiveness to God. We are attending to him who loves us, who is near to us, and who draws us to himself.” A short five minutes of silence seems accessible, even with kids who have awakened too early.

In my specific case, this retreat on Hearing God helped align my friend and me on the importance of silence and listening to God’s voice as we discerned calling in relation to a joint venture. In the subsequent two weeks, we each have spent time praying and working the discipline of silence into our lives. Separately, we concluded that it would be best for us not to embark upon this venture together at this juncture.

Our confidence comes from God, rather than from our flesh. The Spirit governed our minds, and in the vein of Romans 8:6 we each experienced life and peace after our conversation reflecting on our learnings from past two weeks. We were able to affirm our commitment to our friendship, extend goodwill to one another, and bless one another. This is not the conclusion that either of us expected.

One day, I hope that the practice of silence will become a natural habit. In the meantime, I am grateful for Corhaven – aptly named a “shelter and sanctuary of the heart” and a place where indeed my friend and I met God and were met by God – and books like Prayer by Richard Foster which remind us that God longs for our presence and invites us home to him.

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