Boisterous teenagers crammed into the room and it buzzed. Their attention focused when the session started. It was their turn to ask questions. There were four of us: a young married couple, UMD’s Fr. Mike Schmitz, and me.
Questions flowed freely. “What’s a typical day like?” “What’s different about teaching as a Sister compared to a regular person?” “What’s the best/worst part about being a priest/spouse/sister?”
Someone asked, “Everyone tells me to listen to God… But how do I learn to listen? How do I know who I’m listening to? Couldn’t my mind fool me?” Heads nodded: this question resonated with many. Who wants to base a major life choice on a false premise?
Many books, videos, articles and retreats teach us to listen. They suggest several practices. Cultivate silence. Prayerfully read scripture; pay attention to the phrase that stands out and ask God what it means for you. Review your day, looking for God’s presence. Rest in God’s presence. Do this often. Cultivate the habit of listening for God’s message to be manifest in your mind or your heart.
The second part of the question is harder: How do I know if I’m listening to God or just my own mind? WOW! Everyone has experienced their monkey mind taking over. It might be anxiety about a test, eagerness for vacation, anger after a tense meeting. It might be an earworm. But what about those stirrings I have during prayer. Could they be from my own mind, and not from God?
“Definitely,” says the atheist, “there is no God to hear.” Some believers say, “No. If you ask, God answers.” Israeli psychologist Moshe Spero gives a more complex answer. Our thoughts, emotions, and desires are sure to be mixed up with whatever we hear from God. The trick is recognizing one from the other.
We’re back to the teenager’s question: How can I tell God’s voice from my own? St. Benedict, along with most spiritual writers, recommends spending time where we know God is. He tells us to read scripture, participate in the sacraments, pray the psalms, and study the lives of holy women and men. We recognize our friends’ voices by their tone, accents, and personality. Jesus said something similar. Calling himself the good shepherd, he notes that sheep follow their shepherd because they know his voice. They ignore a thief because his is an unfamiliar voice. To follow me, he is saying, you need to get to know me.
The Benedictine tradition suggests conversation as another way to listen for God’s voice. Find a trusted friend or spiritual guide. Find out what they think of your stirrings. They might even speak first. “You’d make a great dad.” Sister Margie said to me, “I think you’d be happy as a sister.”
For believers, hearing God’s voice is a key part of making any decision, large or small. Benedictines have been listening this way for centuries. Are you wondering what to do with your life? Try listening for God’s voice.