Some years back, I was privileged to hear a tape of some original music recorded by several friends of mine. Singing on the tape were four women with well-trained voices and an astonishing gift for harmony. And though it was done on a shoestring (the whole thing was put together in someone’s basement), the music nonetheless had moments of real power. Of these moments, the ones that will always stand out for me were the passages in which an “angel” lent a hand.
As I recall, no one noticed anything extraordinary while the actual recording was being made. Perhaps everyone was just too busy. However, when the tape was played back, all the people involved in the project were fascinated to hear, when the four singers’ voices blended just so, a fifth voice joining them. It was high, clear, and bell-like; a sweet and piercing harmony that sent chills up the spine and brought tears to the eyes. They knew, of course, that there was nothing supernatural here — the phenomenon is known as “overtone” and is often used to great effect in music composition. But that did not stop them from jokingly asserting that an angel had helped them make the tape.
‘Him Who Has Ears, Let Him Hear . . .’
St. Augustine once said that the one who sings well prays twice. I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I think (as we shall see) that prayer can well be thought of as a sort of music. However, many of us feel we have tin ears. Indeed, all of us at one time or another get stumped by prayer. How do you hear God’s voice? Is it really possible to pray with the kind of authority I sometimes hear about? Am I all alone in this? Does God hear me? And if He does, will He really respond to me? How on earth does heaven speak?
If you have ever asked yourself any of these questions, join the club! So have all the saints from Abraham on down. Such doubt about our worthiness and inability to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit is a sign of both our sickness (since partial deafness to the Spirit is a consequence of original sin) and our health (since awareness of that deafness is a safeguard against pride and megalomania). Indeed, so accustomed are we to our estrangement from God that some actually seem to think deafness to the Spirit’s voice somehow necessary or a normal part of the common coin of our humanity.
Nonetheless, on the other side of that coin, we find Christ and His Apostles answering this notion by taking up the ceaseless refrain of the prophets: “Listen to me, my people, and live!” They repeatedly urge us to discern the voice of God, and they set us examples by doing so themselves. Indeed, Our Lord, Our Lady, the Apostles, Scripture, and Sacred Tradition all talk as if ordinary men, women, and children can and should discern and obey God’s will. And indeed, throughout the history of the Church, we find this has in fact been done. Thus, the question is not whether but how we as modern Catholic Christians can tap into that reality.
Learning the Music of Prayer
The work of discerning God’s voice is like the work of rehearsal my friends had to do before they ever stood to their microphones. The four of them did not spontaneously invent the song, harmonies and all, as they were recording it — they learned the song as a whole and their separate parts in it by reading and listening. In the same way, we do not, of ourselves, know either the will of God or our part in it without the Father’s revelation. Therefore, when we pray, we also must begin not by talking, but by listening.
Someone might say, “Uh-oh, I’m no mystic. What does he mean by ‘listen’?” Don’t worry. You don’t have to be Padre Pio or Teresa of Avila. “Listening” simply means we must start by making the same request of Jesus that His disciples did: “Lord, teach us to pray.” This is an exciting opportunity, since it allows us to enter in a living way into the ongoing work of Christ in the earth. It is also a bit scary, since it puts us in the position of really needing God to do something to us and through us rather than leave us comfortably chugging through the paces of some abstract religious duty. To listen is to open ourselves to the fact that a very real supernatural world surrounds us. And uncanny as it seems, God will show us how to pray — teach us His song and our part in that song — just as He did the disciples.
How? First, of course, through the primary avenues He has made available for centuries. That is, through the revelation Jesus Christ made to us through Scripture and the liturgy, teaching, traditions, and sacraments of the Church. But He also frequently speaks in concert with these primary avenues in myriad ways — through a chance comment, a gift of the Holy Spirit, a natural event, angels, coincidence, our conscience, etc. In short, He comes to us in the daily occurrences of life. Yet He never comes to us in isolated and confusing signs — omens that violate the teaching of Scripture and the Church, which demand obedience without discernment or rupture the Spirit’s bond of peace. Indeed, you can be certain that such “signs” (which can often tempt us to be prideful “Lone Ranger” Christians or violently shove us toward a certain course of action) are not from God. God does not urge the tuba player to belt out a Sousa march while He leads the rest of the orchestra soaring through the “Moonlight Sonata.” The Spirit leads us in peace even when He calls us to difficult things. That is why St. Paul tells the Colossians, “Let the peace of Christ rule [act as umpire] in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace” (Col 3:15).
God has an uncommon fondness for speaking to us through many voices in chorus and confirming His will to us though the hearts of other brothers and sisters. As theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar has said, truth is symphonic. This does not, of course, mean that God never works through signs. Rather, it means that He does so as part of the overall “big picture” that encompasses His work through Creation, the person and ministry of Christ, the work of the Spirit, the life of the Church, the revelation of Scripture, and so on.
Thus, if we seriously listen for guidance from God, we should not be surprised if our Bible readings, our spouse, our pastor, our prayer group, our conscience, even our enemies, all seem to be saying the same thing in a kind of unwitting conspiracy. Suppose, for example, that during the Lenten season Isaiah 58 (the great passage about fasting and caring for the poor) really comes alive for you. That’s a clue. Then later that week your spouse mentions out of a clear blue sky that she/he would like to start bringing canned goodies for the offertory basket at church. Another clue. Then the sermon that Sunday focuses on our obligation to the poor. Clue No. 3. Get the picture? By this time, the one who has opened him or herself to the guidance of the Spirit smells more than simple coincidence here. You begin to probe, through prayer and acts of obedience (like taking the canned goodies to church), whether God may be calling you into a deeper involvement with the poor. Then, taking this puzzle piece to other prayerful Christians, you toss it into the general fund of insights held in common by your particular prayer community. Before long, you find that several other people in your community are saying, “You too? This has been on my mind as well all last week! Maybe God is trying to show us something.”
Does this (or something like it) sound a bit familiar? That’s because God, who is quite taken with rather emphatic notions of love and unity, is simply tickled to orchestrate this sort of cooperation whenever He gets the chance. Thus He virtually always gives us the “sheet music” or general theme for our prayers in some corporate fashion, through several means at once.
Once we have a sense of the overall “tune” we are about to “sing” as we sit down to prayer, each individual must be about the business of learning his or her part in the choir of prayer. This means that each individual in the Church Universal (and in our local community) has a unique role to play in the work God sends us to do. As St. Paul makes clear throughout his epistles, there is one Spirit with one purpose, but He has a quirky penchant for accomplishing His goals through many people simultaneously. What this boils down to is that, like my four friends, God leads us to blend our prayers, insights, gifts, and talents as tenors, baritones, altos, and sopranos unite to form one single piece of music.
How does this translate into practical terms? Quite simply, it means that once your community has asked “Lord, teach us to pray,” each member must continue by asking, “Lord, teach me my role in that prayer.” Sound complicated? Relax. Very likely, His will concerns something quite commonsensical and mundane — even obvious. Thus, if your prayer group is praying that the cold weather might not aggravate Aunt Sadie’s rheumatism and you are suddenly reminded of the pile of old sweaters and the heating pad in your closet . . . well, need I say more? (And you thought listening to the Spirit was only for the saints!) Similarly, sometimes God may lead you to stop praying altogether for the moment and command you in the power and authority of His Eternal Name to rise and go do the dishes. Later on, you may find that doing so freed another person to be about their part in God’s plan rather than toiling in the suds. But whether we heal a leper or dig a ditch in response to the Spirit’s leading (and just as importantly, whether we see results from our prayers or not), our obedience is as highly prized by God and as profoundly important to the fate of the world as if we had preached the Sermon on the Mount.
Some Other Examples
At other times you may receive a very strong leading to address some particular aspect of your community’s prayers. For example, John’s new boss is a tyrant, his pay is lousy, and his work is unsatisfying. John has borne this with patience for months but is nearing the end of his rope when your prayer group encounters the situation, so you all meet to pray for John and his job. After asking the Lord how to pray, your community discerns together and concludes that the Lord is calling John into another job. Therefore, certain members of the group, acting on this discernment, ask God for a new job for John. You, however, though you agree with their discernment, nonetheless feel a strong concern for John’s boss. So you pray that John’s boss will be changed or touched by John’s departure. You ask that the boss may see what his behavior is causing and be brought to repentance by the Holy Spirit. In other words, your prayer is a kind of Spirit-wrought harmony on the main melody the prayer group is singing — not contradictory, just different.
Still other times, you may have no clear direction on how you personally should pray. That’s okay. Sometimes members of the choir just hum while someone else sings the lead. So if you get stumped, just support the prayers of others or rely on the prayer that, without question, Jesus has taught us — the Our Father. The point is, to listen is to expect (because Jesus said to expect) that He will, in some way, show His people (even if He doesn’t always show us as individuals) how to pray. We can “pray with confidence to the Father in the words Our Savior taught us” not because we are rare and discerning spirits, but because He has pledged to teach us if we ask Him.
A Philharmonic of Prayer
When we open ourselves to the life and power of God in Jesus Christ, we automatically open ourselves to the mystery of Christ in His people. For Christians — all Christians — are part of the Body of Christ and are inseparably knit to His glory and His work in heaven and earth.
This means, very simply, that there is no such thing as solitary prayer, just as there is no such thing in nature as a living, solitary human cell. Whether we realize it or not (and whether we like it or not), wherever and whenever we pray — whether in a prayer group, or at church with a thousand people, or alone in our prayer closet — we are solidly fixed in the vast reality of the Body of Christ spread out through time and eternity, flung across the face of the world, terrible as an army with banners.
Thus we not only have recourse to Jesus as He is expressed in the local gathering of His people (our particular church or prayer group); we also have access to the entire treasury of riches that are in His saints, both living and dead (Eph 1:18-19). This “communion of saints” stems from the fact that there is but one body and, as Jesus said, all are alive to God (Lk 20:38). Grafted into the life and power of the Risen Christ and sharing perfectly in that glory, the church in heaven is part of a swelling symphony of prayer and praise that will culminate one day in the crescendo of the Second Coming. The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us of this fact when it states that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” that we have come “to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn . . . to the spirits of righteous men and women made perfect.” Whenever and wherever we pray, we stand in this vast landscape of joy and power.
That is why the Church has always encouraged us, both at Mass and in our private prayers, to seek the intercession of the angels and Christians in glory as well as our brothers and sisters who are still on earth. This, of course, does not mean engaging in seance or channeling or “consulting spirits” or summoning the dead. All such activities are, as we know, absolutely forbidden by God and are of use only to those who wish either to be bubbled out of their cash by quacks or deceived by demons. Further, we must not imagine we are asking the prayers of the heavenly host because Christ can’t get the job done by Himself. No, we ask the help of the saints and angels not because they add to Christ’s work, but because they share in it as we do. As Paul says, “Through Him the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself up in love.”
We pray to God therefore with Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, the Apostles, martyrs, and saints, with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven — with the entire people God’s Son has gained for Him. That’s quite a crowd! In fact, Scripture describes heaven as absolutely jammed with the redeemed: a multitude beyond number from every nation and race, people and tongue (Rv 7:9). Each is the perfect individual God intended from the beginning; each is an unimaginable splendor of love and peace and happiness; each is utterly united with the power that fires a trillion trillion galaxies. And each is radically connected to us through (and only through) Jesus Christ.
Such radical connectedness means, among other things, that two or three Christians praying together have enormous resources at their fingertips for learning and enacting the will of God. The smallest community not only has the gifts and insights its members possess, it also has (if it but asks for them) the prayers and unique gifts God has bestowed on each of the saints and angels. This is no small thing, since, as St. Maximilian Kolbe put it, the saints have both hands free. They are no longer half-occupied (as we are) with battling their own temptations. They are utterly free to do the will of God on our behalf with all their might and main — if we are willing to let them. None of us sings a capella; each of us is backed by the London Philharmonic.
Through Him, With Him, In Him — the Fifth Voice
So we have begun in some small way (whether we can feel it or not) to tap into the corporate love that bathes our communion with God and one another. Or, more accurately, we have begun to allow the corporate life and power of God to break into our small world. And such a taste of communal love is a sort of sign or sacrament of His own nature.
For in the depths of the Godhead, the utter fullness of that communal love is rooted in a kind of dance or drama that is played out eternally between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father loves the Son and pours Himself into Him; the Son adores the Father and gives Himself and all He possesses (including us) to Him. And out of the core of that blinding fusion proceeds the Holy Spirit — Himself God as much as the other two Persons. All this is the very life of the Blessed Trinity, and it was in order to be taken up and made a part of this pageant that the whole universe was created.
It is, then, in the heart of this colossal mystery that all prayer must find its root, stem, and blossom. The Triune God desires to sweep us up in the Music of His own eternal life. And to do so, He has entered our world (through the Incarnation of Jesus) and our hearts (through baptism). Without warning, the God whom we searched for and sought in the high and holy place tapped us on the shoulder with a human hand. Unsatisfied with what He has done for us so far, God now performs His crowning work: He comes alongside us in a real, live, flesh-and-bone body. In Jesus of Nazareth — a man who sweats real sweat, laughs in real human joy, and bleeds real blood — God Himself joins the ranks of those Who seek and pray and groan for the coming of His Kingdom.
But Jesus does not just join us, He leads by offering Himself as both Lamb and Priest for us all. For as He is first in suffering and death for our sins, so He is the firstborn among the dead, the Head of a whole new Creation. In His death, He takes all of us with Him; in His rising, He plucks all of us from the grave. And to those who believe in Him, He promises that when He goes away, He will send a gift greater than His earthly presence — the gift of Himself utterly united with His people in the person of the Holy Spirit. Thus, He says, He will be with us and remain with us forever.
So Jesus is not just sitting in heaven listening. Nor is He content merely to teach us to pray. Instead, He is praying along with us and (crowning wonder) through us. For Paul says that the Holy Spirit prays through us, not only when we have clearly discerned His voice, but even when we do not have the foggiest notion of how to pray, “making intercessions for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom 8:26). In other words, Jesus not only teaches us to pray and prays with us; but by the Holy Spirit He even becomes our prayer. My friends’ experience as they sang turns out to be a kind of glimpse or taste of the Truth that breathes life into the whole world. “For where two or three are gathered in my Name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:19-20). Jesus is the true Fifth Voice.
The Unfinished Symphony
The simplicity and practicality of listening prayer is, in a sense, startling. Surely, we think, discerning God’s voice ought to be a peak experience reserved only for the solitary mystic. That the Creator of the Universe, the God of Israel, the One Who sits upon the Sapphire Throne from everlasting to everlasting — that such a God desires to reveal Himself not just to Moses or St. Catherine of Siena but to Barney the mechanic and my irritating cousin Zelda and to me, for crying out loud — well, it seems somehow indecorous. Nonetheless, the offer stands. No cleverness, no mystical powers, no psychic abilities are necessary; only the faith to believe Jesus when He says that He will never leave us or forsake us as He guides His people, as a people, in their prayers.
“As a people” since, as we have seen, all prayer is fundamentally corporate — is in fact our participation in God’s long conversation with Himself and the world. The roots of this astonishing reality entwine the length and breadth of Christian Scripture, theology, history, and practice. And as the Church’s grasp of that reality has deepened under the guidance of the Spirit, so has our awareness — both of the present living encounter of prayer and of the vast treasury of spiritual riches mined by previous generations. That is why corporate, listening prayer is being rediscovered in our day with fresh force and power. For prayer, when understood in this light, is suddenly transformed from an abstract task for lone heroes to an enormous opportunity for intimacy with both God and one another. We begin to see that it is possible for us to enter the precincts of a Mystery older than the Andromeda galaxy; yet we also find that we are not alone in doing so. Many have gone before; many are standing, even now, at our side.
And we find, lastly, that all this is possible because the One Whom we seek has sought us from the beginning and drawn us to Himself, even when we may have thought He was hiding. As Lady Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century contemplative, captured beautifully in her Revelations of Divine Love:
I [God] am the ground of your praying. First, it is My will that you have it; then, I enable you to will it; and then I enable you to pray and you pray for it. How should it then be that you should not have what you pray for?
Prayer is an adventure, a quest, a kind of romance. And as with many great romances, we find we chase Him till He catches us. The Triune God — Composer, Singer, and Song — is Himself a community, though He remains One God. Yet discontent with this, He labors to share His life with us out of sheer love and hilarious generosity. Therefore, He makes us a carnival of diversity even while He knits us together into one miraculously unified choir. And He stands with the stage door held open for anyone who wants to join their voice or instrument to the divine work (inseparable from play) of bringing His Unfinished Symphony to its climax. The offer is ours for the taking. Why not have a seat in the ensemble? It promises to be quite a show.