If you recall 1975’s pet rock fad, you won’t be surprised to learn of the fellow – Larry was his name – who lived alone with a stone he was trying to teach to talk. He rescued the palm-size oval stone from a beach and kept it on a shelf, covered it with a piece of leather apparently to keep it warm, and brought it out several times a day for a language lesson. Larry must have thought it would take a long time to teach the stone to talk; he was teaching his son to carry on the lessons after he was gone. (From Annie Dillard’s essay, “Teaching a Stone to Talk”)
Once, a long time ago, an extended family of wandering nomads heard God speak to them through a couple of stones, stone tablets, giving them some rules to live by. The speaking was accompanied by such fierce thunder and lightning and such a loud trumpet blast, the people couldn’t stand to hear any more, so they enlisted Moses to do their listening for them, and they begged God not to speak to them again. God agreed (Exodus 19:16–20:21).
We’ve regretted it ever since. “O God,” the psalmist cried when God’s help was needed, cried for all of us, “do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still.” (Ps. 83:1)! But I wonder – in asking God not to speak to us all those years ago, did we silence God? Or did we stop using our ability to hear? “One does not live by bread alone,” Jesus said, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Comes, not came; present tense, not past. God is still speaking, still calling at the crossroads; are we still listening?
So I’ve been thinking about how to open my ears, or open what St. Benedict called the “ear of my heart.” If you know much church music, you know the words of Maltbie Babcock: “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears / all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.” Was that merely a poetic figure of speech, or can we really hear the music God set reverberating through the cosmos? Can we find what Shakespeare called “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything” (As You Like It, II.i.16-17)? Can we teach a stone to talk? Or can we learn to hear again? We can, and I’ve got an idea about how to do it.
Before we can hear, we’ve got to be silent. We must learn to love not only the outward silence of a quiet room or other sanctuary from the busyness of life; we must learn to cultivate inward silence and retreat from the noise in our own heads as much as from the noise of the world. As Will Rogers advised, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”
When I listen for the music of the spheres or for a word from God, most of what I hear is a whisper, the “sound of sheer silence” that Elijah heard (1 Kings 19:12 NRSV). God is so quiet and subtle, I suspect the sounds of earthquake and fire and wind, of thunder and lightning and trumpet blast, are more likely to be in my own head. I’ve got to allow those distractions to simmer down. I’ve got to welcome silence with silence.
How do you listen? Do you listen with your ambition and expectations? Do you listen for only what you want to hear, only what will satisfy you, give you comfort, alleviate your suffering? If so, you’re likely to hear only the sound of your own voice echoing your own desires. To truly listen is to let something not yourself in on its own terms. To truly listen is to lower the filters of expectation and desire and receive things as they truly are, on their own terms, as God presents them, unadulterated and pure, whether we like them or not.
In his book The Chosen, Chaim Potok wrote:
I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it. . . . You have to want to listen to it, and then you can hear it. It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn’t always talk. Sometimes – sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it. It hurts to listen to it then. But you have to.
Before we can learn to hear, we must learn to be silent. Then we’ve got to be patient and keep showing up in silence until what is holy shows up, too, invited or not. According to author Mirabai Starr, this showing up is
. . . about becoming as fully present as possible to the realities of the human experience. In showing up for what is, no matter how pedestrian or tedious, how aggravating or shameful, the what is begins to reveal itself as imbued with holiness. . . . When we purposely build periods of reverence or stillness into our days, we practice gazing through the eyes of love, and we get better and better at seeing love everywhere we look. Your practice may take the shape of twenty minutes a day on a cushion or aimless solitary walks on the beach. It can look like kneeling in a church or a mosque or simply like following the flow of one breath to the next with your full attention. (Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics [Sounds True: 2019])
There are many ways into silence to hear God speak or to hear the music of the spheres. Here’s one called “prayerscaping.”
prayerscape (v.) : To seek to modify or enhance one’s surroundings in harmony with God’s perceived will for the place and its inhabitants.
When Jesus was asked why he did what he did, he replied, “I’m just doing what I see God doing” (John 5:19). Learning to view creation through God’s eyes, to live in harmony with God’s will, and to do what God is doing – this is the real purpose of prayer. We don’t pray to inform God of our hopes or needs or to bend God’s will to ours. Prayer’s aim is to bring us and our actions into conformity with the will of God that is unfolding all around us. If we ask to see the world as God sees it, God will draw us into doing what God is doing. Prayer changes us. (Adapted from Reggie McNeal, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009])
- Go to a coffee shop, a public park or recreation area, a shopping district or mall, a busy street corner, or some other public place in your community. Find a comfortable place to sit, and pray this simple prayer from your heart: “Lord, help me see what you see.” (You may need to repeat this prayer several or many times to silence your inner desires and expectations.)
Alternative: If you’re unable to get to a suitable location, do this in a quiet place, from your window or with the newspaper instead. You may also do it in a forest or garden, surrounded by nature.
- For one hour, listen for the voice of God.
- Take notes. This may be as simple as jotting down a few words or phrases to describe your thoughts or feelings as they come to you. Or it may involve more extensive journaling as you try to record your impressions of what you hear. Follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
- With others who have been prayerscaping, discuss what you saw and heard.
It seems fitting to end with a poem by Mary Oliver, who was so good at listening to what was unheard by most.
“What Can I Say”
What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.
Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.