Many people never listen to God because they are not aware that He speaks to them. Yet, God does speak. One way to live in His presence is to acquire the habit of recognizing His voice when He speaks. If we do not know that God wishes to communicate with us, or the ways He has chosen, then our passage through life will be devoid of the most perfect of guides.
When does God speak to us? He speaks at all times, especially in prayer. Prayer is a conversation with God. But it is not a monologue. When we pray, then, we should also listen, because a good conversationalist is also a good listener. We do not pray well when we recite ready-made formulas quickly and distractedly. We act as if God has only to listen to us, and that we have no need to listen to the thoughts and desires that He wishes to communicate to us. He has promised, “If thou wilt hear the voice of the Lord thy God, and do what is right before Him, and obey His commandments, and keep all His precepts, none of the evils that I laid upon Egypt will I bring upon thee.”
Unfortunately, many of us have never trained ourselves to listen to His voice. But, if we are to know God’s will, we must listen to Him and obey Him when we recognize His commandments.
But how does God speak to us? God is a pure spirit. Unlike man, He has no voice. If He wishes to speak to us, He must use some means outside of Himself, adapted to our nature, by which He can communicate ideas. He may use things we can see and hear in order to stir our imagination, or He may enter directly into our thoughts.
God speaks to you personally
Does God, then, speak to man? How can we ever doubt it? How foolish it is to read all types of books and neglect the word of God! The Scriptures were not meant only for particular groups of people; they were meant for all men at all times. God is eternal; His words are eternal. Although He speaks to all men, He speaks to us personally.
St. Ignatius of Loyola felt that God was speaking directly to him, when, on his sick bed, he read the words:
“For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?”
But, we ask, is this prayer? It is at least the beginning of prayer. We listen to these words of Christ; we ponder over them; they awaken thoughts and desires within us. We begin to believe, to hope, to love. Our will becomes inspired, and we break forth in ardent affections, calling on Christ to help us, begging forgiveness, expressing gratitude, performing little acts of adoration — and surely this is prayer.
We often read of visions, apparitions, and revelations in which God spoke to the saints. St. Paul on the road to Damascus is a classic example. And we read in the life of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque that, while she was engaged in prayer, Jesus often spoke to her of the devotion to His Sacred Heart.
Such conversations with God are not rare in the lives of the canonized. But must we in our conversation with God await the appearance of Jesus, of some heavenly voice or extraordinary apparition, some heavenly manifestation from God? Absolutely not. It is true that God does single out some chosen souls to whom He speaks directly and who actually experience the divine power working in them, but these are very few; it is not the way that God ordinarily uses. We should not even desire that God speak to us in this extraordinary manner. We should not expect it. Visions and revelations are not necessary for us to grow in deep love for God. We may fall deeply in love with Him and practice faithfully the presence of God, yet never receive any extraordinary manifestations from Him. These are special gifts, and God gives them to whom He wills, and when He wills.
God speaks to your mind and to your heart
Nevertheless, God does speak to all of us without exception in a more direct way than we have yet mentioned. It is a hidden way, by which He enters directly into our thoughts and desires. Our most hidden secrets are not secrets to Him. He comes right into our mind. Our thoughts are not only our thoughts; our desires are not only our desires — they may also be God’s thoughts and desires. We know we can do nothing without God. Even such ordinary things as eating, breathing, and walking cannot be done without the ordinary help that God gives us. But, in this instance, we are presupposing this natural help of God and are referring to a greater and more noble assistance from Him.
Does God help us in a special way to think good thoughts and to desire holy things? He most assuredly does. For we are living in a supernatural order and destined to a supernatural end, the Beatific Vision. To attain this end, God not only gives us the principle of supernatural life, sanctifying grace, but He also gives us actual graces that help us to perform supernatural actions and thus to grow in the grace of God. These actual graces are, especially, the holy thoughts and desires that God creates in us.
God does not have to use external words and signs to attract our attention and convey ideas to us. He enters our minds directly. He speaks secretly, noiselessly, as befits the Divinity. It is only by faith that we know He is working in us. For example, God once spoke in a special, hidden way to St. Peter, who then confessed Jesus to be the Son of God. “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona,” said our Lord. “For flesh and blood hath not revealed this to thee, but my Father in Heaven.”
St. John tells us that we will know all things from the Holy Spirit: “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things.”St. Paul says that God enters our very thoughts: “Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God.”
God also enters our hearts and inspires us to holy desires. “And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God, was listening; and the Lord touched her heart to give heed to what was being said by Paul.”
Thus, the Scriptures and the Church tell us that God speaks to us in the silence of our minds and hearts. He speaks to all men, but all men do not hear Him. God speaks to our mind and heart when we kneel to meditate or to adore Him in the Blessed Sacrament. He enters our mind when the passing things of time excite our thoughts. It is He who gives us holy thoughts to conquer our temptations. It is He who stirs up within us the desire to persevere against all adversaries.
Perhaps we have never realized that God is illuminating our intellect and inspiring our will. Yet He does just that. That is why we are told not to do all the talking in prayer. For, if we continually recite vocal prayers without pausing now and then to think, we will stifle the thoughts and desires that God wishes to excite in us.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux tells us how she listened to the voice of God. “I know and have experienced that ‘the Kingdom of God is within us,’ that our Master has no need of books or teacher to instruct a soul. The Teacher of teachers instructs without sound of words, and though I have never heard Him speak, yet I know He is within me, always guiding and inspiring me; and just when I need them, lights, hitherto unseen, break in upon me. As a rule, it is not during prayer that this happens, but in the midst of my daily duties.”
But we are not only to listen; it would be folly to remain in a state of mental blankness, waiting for God to speak. No, prayer is a loving conversation, and, when the Holy Spirit moves us, it is time to begin our part of the colloquy.
One way, then, to practice the exercise of the presence of God is to listen to God, to be aware that He speaks to us, to be ever conscious that God can use all things to communicate with us.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Healy’s classic book, Awakening Your Soul to the Presence of God. It is available from your local Catholic bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.