This is the second part of the Quiet Garden presentation.
When we are silent we make ourselves be still and listen to God. If we can stop all the thoughts leaping around in our mind then we might be able to hear if God speaks, but listening is difficult and it involves effort and requires much more than just external silence.
As one religious writer put it: ‘listening is a conscious, willed action, requiring alertness and vigilance… The obstacles to positive listening are numerous… The external noises of the world are as nothing compared with the din we make within ourselves.’
At home I have an area where I meditate, and besides a crucifix and an icon I have had a message to myself which reads ‘be quiet’. It’s there to help me quieten and still my own voice within my head.
One way to help this is to initially listen to the external noises – if we are outside it may be the rustling of the trees or the sound of the birds; if we are inside it may be the noise of a tap dripping or the house creaking or the sound of other activities going on away from us. Rather than feel that these interrupt our search for quiet and silence they can be absorbed and indeed listened to in their own right. If we listen even more deeply we might hear the sounds within our own bodies – the heartbeat, stomach gurgles and so on and deeper still than that there is the sound of creation a deep hum that links us to all of the created world…this is the sacred sound of ‘om’.
Some people when they really listen seem to hear God speak not literally and physically but in ways which make them feel that God is communicating with them. They can find themselves comforted, directed and challenged. This can be a rich experience, which gives a sense of the nearness of God. There are dangers of course in this because in our listening we can sometimes hear the voice of our own dreams and fantasies, or of our over-socialised conscious and built-in sense of duty, or even the subtle insinuations of evil, and call it the voice of God. Nevertheless, there are some who, by a true and self-critical listening, can discern God’s true utterance.
For others despite open-hearted listening over long periods they seem to be made differently and don’t hear any voice and are not able to discern any communication. Perhaps the explanation of this is that God’s usual ‘speech’ is not directed to our conscious mind but to our inner hidden selves. God’s conversation is with the secret heart. Listening, then, means ‘listening in’ and eavesdropping on the whispering of God to the heart, being aware that God is in communication with this deep inner self, though we may not know it. We may from time to time catch some echoes of this conversation but, more often, we’re just aware of the profound silence beneath which God is speaking in God’s own secret way.
So when we are silent and in prayerful silence we have to trust and have faith that this conversation is going on and that God will maintain it so that we go on listening whether we can overhear it or not. This is then a calm quiet waiting upon God trusting that God comes to us in God’s own way and time.
Julian of Norwich wrote: ‘pray inwardly; even if you do not enjoy it. It does good, though you feel nothing, see nothing.’ And we might add ‘hear nothing’.
And of course if we learn and practise our listening with God we will become better listeners with each other. This is the spiritual practice of the listening heart – speak only half as much as you listen; as Paul Tillich puts it: ‘The first duty of love is to listen.’
Various religious traditions have developed practices of deep spiritual listening focused on certain music. So for example the Islamic Middle-Eastern Sufi tradition has long established at its core the concept of attentive spiritual listening, or samāʿ, which involves training the mind to understand music and movement as manifestations of divine presence—and as paths to spiritual union with the divine Beloved.
The poet Rumi wrote in The Song of the Reed
Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
how it sings of separation …
Whoever has been parted from his source
longs to return to that state of union.
Medieval European singers created plainchant to reflect on divine glory for the Christian ritual, and later developed multi-voiced compositions so that music could lead the listener into deeper connection and communion with God.