Q: Dear Father John, I keep hearing (and reading) that Christian prayer is a conversation with God. But, to be totally honest, when I pray I don’t really hear God speaking to me. At least, how do I know it’s God and not just my own thoughts? Am I doing something wrong?
A: You are right: the phrase “conversation with God” describes Christian prayer beautifully. Christ has revealed that God is a real person, and that he is interested – passionately interested – in our lives, our friendship, our closeness. For Christians then, prayer, as Pope Benedict explained when he visited Yonkers, NY in 2007, is an expression of our “personal relationship with God.” And that relationship, the Holy Father went on to say, “is what matters most.”
Parameters of Faith
When we pray, God speaks to us in three ways. But to understand these three ways, we need a reminder. Our relationship with God is based on faith. Faith gives us access to knowledge that goes beyond what we can perceive by our senses. By faith, for example, we know that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, even though our senses only perceive the appearances of bread and wine. Whenever a Christian prays, the prayer takes place within this atmosphere of faith. When I address God in vocal prayer, I know that he is listening to me, even if I don’t feel his presence with my senses or emotions. When I praise him, ask things of him, adore him, thank him, tell him I am sorry… In all these expressions of prayer, I know by faith (not necessarily by my senses or my feelings) that God is listening, interested, and that he cares. If we try to understand Christian prayer outside of this atmosphere of faith, we will get nowhere.
Keeping that in mind, we can look briefly at the three ways God speaks to us in prayer.
The Gift of Consolation
In the first place, God can speak to us by giving us what spiritual writers call consolation. Through consolation, he touches the soul and allows it to be comforted and strengthened by a felt awareness of his love, his presence, his goodness, his power, his beauty…
This consolation can flow directly from the meaning of the words of a vocal prayer. For instance, when I pray Blessed Cardinal Newman’s famous “Lead, Kindly Light..” prayer, God may boost my hope and my confidence, simply because the meaning of the words nourish and revitalize my awareness of God’s power and goodness.
The consolation can also flow from the reflection and pondering involved in mental prayer. As I read and reflect slowly, prayerfully on the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, I can feel my soul being comforted by that picture of the Father embracing the repentant younger brother. That picture of God’s love comes to my mind, and gives me a renewed awareness of God’s mercy and his goodness: “God is so merciful!” I think to myself, and I feel the warmth of his mercy in my heart. That image and those ideas are mine, insofar as they arise in my mind, but they are from God, insofar as they arose in response to my consideration of God’s revelation, in an atmosphere of faith. Or, on another occasion, I could meditate on the same biblical passage and be moved to a deep experience of sorrow for my own sins: in the ungrateful rebellion of the Prodigal Son, I see an image of my own sins and rebellions, and I am repelled by them. Again, the idea of the ugliness of sin and the feeling of sorrow for my personal sins are my own ideas and feelings, but they are a response to God’s action in my mind as he guides my mind’s eye to perceive certain aspects of his truth while I listen to him speaking through his revealed Word in the Bible.
In any of these cases, my soul is touched anew, and thus nourished and consoled, by the truth of who God is for me, and who I am for him – a truth which God speaks to my soul. But the distinction between God’s speaking and my own ideas is not so clear as we would sometimes like. He actually speaks through the ideas that come as I turn my attention towards him in prayer. He speaks within my heart, within the words that form in my heart as I gaze at the Word.
Nourishing the Gifts of the Holy Spirit
In the second place, God can respond to us in prayer by increasing in our souls the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, understanding, piety, fear of the Lord, fortitude, and counsel. Each of these gifts nourishes our spiritual muscles, so to speak; they build up our spiritual faculties. They make it easier for us to discover God’s will in our lives, to appreciate and want his will, and to carry out that will. In short, they enhance our ability to believe, to hope, and to love God and neighbor. During a time of prayer, then, when I am addressing God in vocal prayer, or seeking to know him more deeply through mental prayer, or adoring him through liturgical prayer, God’s grace touches my soul, nourishing it through increasing the power of these gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Since these gifts are spiritual, and not material, and since God’s grace is spiritual, I will not always feel the nourishing take place. I may spend fifteen minutes reading and reflecting on the parable of the God Shepherd, and no consoling ideas or feelings are stirred up; my prayer feels dry. But that doesn’t mean that God’s grace is not nourishing my soul, that he is not strengthening within me the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
When I take vitamins (or eat broccoli), I don’t feel my muscles grow, but I know that those vitamins are indeed enabling that growth. Likewise, when we pray, we know we are entering into contact with God’s grace, with a God who loves us and is making us holy. When I don’t experience consolation, I can be certain that God is still working in my soul, strengthening it with his gifts by means of the spiritual vitamins that my soul takes in whenever I have faith-filled contact with God. But I only know this by faith, because God doesn’t always send sensible consolation with this spiritual nourishment. This is why spiritual growth depends so significantly on our perseverance in prayer, regardless of whether we feel consolation.
Thirdly, God can speak to our souls through words, ideas, or inspirations that we recognize clearly as coming right from him. Personally, I have a vivid memory of the first time the thought of the priesthood came into my mind. I wasn’t even Catholic yet. No one had told me that I should become a priest. And yet, in the aftermath of a powerful spiritual experience, the thought simply appeared in my mind, fully formed, with compelling clarity. I knew without any doubt that the thought had come directly from God, that he had spoken to me directly, giving me an inspiration.
Most of us have had some, even if only a few, experiences like this, when we knew God was saying something specific to us, even though we heard the words only in our hearts, and not with our physical ears. God can speak in this way even when we are not at prayer. But a mature prayer life will make our souls more sensitive to these direct inspirations, and create more room for God to speak directly more often, if he wishes to do so.
Jesus assured us that any effort we make in prayer will bring grace into our souls, whether we feel it or not: “Seek, and you shall find; ask, and it shall be given to you; knock, and the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). But at the same time, we have to always remember that we must live our entire lives, including our prayer lives, in the light of our faith, not only in accordance with what we perceive and with what we feel. As St. Paul said so powerfully, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).