Fr. Larry Richards tells a story that I'd like to embellish a bit. Two guys are visiting and the phone rings. One answers and says: "Oh ... hello ... am I ever glad that you called. You see I could really use your help. My job isn't going so well right now. My supervisor is always on my case. And one of my kids is failing chemistry and needs good grades this semester for his college application. I'm really worried about my dad. He seems to be losing it. He's very confused and my mom is afraid he's got dementia and she doesn't know what to do. And, well, you know, there's a big game this afternoon and the Packers are 7 1/2 points underdogs. So I'd really appreciate your help. Thanks. Bye." The other guy then asks, "Who was that?" "God." "Well, what did God want?" "Uh ... well ... I don't know."
Isn't that often the case in prayer? It can be pretty one-sided with us doing the talking and never really listening.
A good relationship requires good communication which involves listening.
In the first reading at Mass today (2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, 1 Samuel 3: 3-10, 19) Samuel hears God speak but isn't listening. It can happen that sometimes a person hears but doesn't listen because one's mind is a million miles away, focused on one's own agenda or concerns. Samuel hears but doesn't recognize who it is that is calling him because he is "not familiar with the Lord." Finally, on the third time, Eli, his spiritual director, understands that it's God who is calling Samuel and he instructs him to say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." With these words, Samuel tunes in to God. He goes beyond hearing to listening and receiving God's word to him.
We all need to be like Samuel. We need quiet time and space in order to tune in to God, to listen. God speaks to us through the Scriptures. God also speaks to us through the thoughts that arise in our hearts when we are engaged in good spiritual reading. In Chapter 4 of The Book of Her Life, St. Teresa of Avila wrote that during eighteen years of terrible dryness in prayer, she "never dared to begin prayer without a book," which she called "a partner or a shield by which to sustain the blows of my many thoughts." "With a book," she writes, "I began to collect them, and my soul was drawn to recollection. And many times just opening the book was enough; at other times I read a little, and at others a great deal, according to the favor the Lord granted me."
Another way that we can listen to God is to prayerfully review our day asking what God was trying to tell us through its people and events. The Bible is the record of God's presence and activity in the lives of individuals and the community. Each of us could write our own record of God's activity in our lives, how God spoke to us through the people we met and challenged or blessed us through the events of the day.
Sometimes our prayer of listening is simply being in God's presence with nothing seemingly going on. In the Gospel (John 1: 35-42), Andrew responds to Jesus' question "What are you looking for?" with "Teacher, where are you staying?" He wants to be with Jesus. It is enough simply to be in his presence. Our contemporary culture's emphasis on productivity goes against this attitude of simply being. Yet, when one truly loves another, words don't matter. It's enough to simply be in the presence of the beloved. And how powerful it is to be in God's presence! If the sun radiates with an energy that warms and burns, how much more the Creator of the sun! It is enough to be in his Eucharistic presence and to receive the rays of his radiating and transforming love.
In his presence, Jesus reveals to us who we are. When Jesus looked upon Andrew's brother "Simon the son of John," he saw him not only as he was but as he would become. He saw more than his impetuous nature which would declare in a single night that he would love him to the death and then would deny that he even knew him. He saw all of Simon's potential and he named it, telling Simon, "you will be called Cephas" or Peter. Rock. The Rock on which he would build his Church (Matthew 16: 18).
The Scripture scholar William Barclay tells the story that the great artist Michelangelo was once working on a shapeless piece of marble. A visitor asked him what he was doing. He responded, "I am releasing the angel imprisoned in this marble."
Jesus, the Master Artist, looks at us in prayer and sees not only the present reality but also the future. He sees the potential that will be realized through the power of his grace at work in us, shaping and molding us like an artist.
If we persevere, stay close to Jesus, listen to him, and allow him to shape us through our prayer and the activities of our day, he will not, like Michelangelo, release a hidden angel, but a hidden saint. We will become holy as God is holy. We will become whole, fully human and alive as Jesus was and is. All it takes is to stay close to the Lord and listen to him. He will do the rest.