By Laurel Coolbaugh
A friend of mine and I were having an email discussion about listening to God. She raised some good questions. My responses below are a beginning attempt to answer these questions. I think you will be able to surmise the questions without difficulty.
One thing listening to the Living God is not, which is emptying our minds as put forth in Eastern meditation/religion. Practicing contemplation/silence/solitude intentionally to encounter the Living God is about connecting with and engaging in more fully with the Fullness of God. In a nutshell, it is about experiencing the Presence of God.
What's happening in the slowing down and entering silence/solitude? I think, mostly, it is increasing our awareness to being attentive to what is going on around us and inside of us. As we become more aware, we realize both our need for God and God's Presence more acutely, in ways that may not come to our attention or may just remain in the background if we hadn't entered into silence. As an example from my life in the present, I have come to learn that I have a low lying spiritual anxiety present in me often. This anxiety keeps my soul chattering with and to God, asking, asking, asking...which has caused me to see that I am not trusting fully His perfect Presence and care. I am not truly resting when I chatter on like this. As people of God, we are to be like God and live into Sabbath rest...that is to be the state of our souls, because God lives into that rest and secured it for us in Christ. Of course, many might say, "Well, Laurel, isn't that great that you are in prayer, asking, asking, asking? At least you are seeking to communicate with God and 'pray continually'." I would answer in the affirmative to that, to some degree. But what I have seen, by God's grace, is that underneath my asking, asking, asking (almost like a mantra sometimes, the same thing over and over "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner", for example) is a disquieted soul. So, I have been noticing this and bringing it before God through journaling and prayer. I interpret this newer awareness in my relationship with God as a Parent helping their child notice a nervous tick that they exhibit but don't realize they have, and the Parent lovingly probes about the root cause. I believe that God wants us to first see our own inhibitions/obstacles so that we can bring them to God and, together with God, watch what God will do with them. Of course, as we realize our current state and bring it to God, and God mysteriously works, our faith is increased and trust deepens, and all the more, we see how "out of control" we truly are in the process.
We can become more acutely aware of ourselves and God through different mediums. I realize different things about God and myself as I walk and pray than I see when I am in God's word or with a friend or being creative or noticing nature, etc. The beauty is, God (in my experience) often connects what God is showing me through each of them, or uses them to inform the other, ultimately informing my soul about myself and God. A way that I have experienced this is through being struck by a word or phrase through Lectio Divina, then soon thereafter, hearing a friend speak to me about something in their life which brings up the same theme, then hearing a prayer which encompasses the same theme, and becoming aware of something in nature which points to a similar truth. This all occurs without my seeking it, rather noticing what God is bringing to my attention. When this happens, it is as though God is creating for me a new awareness of a thread of truth in my life in order to help me apply it. This goes back to the primary link of knowing God - knowing yourself -knowing God (David Benner writes so beautifully about this in The Gift of Being Yourself). Indeed, there are SO many layers to us, and each is significant in the knowing and relinquishing and purifying, etc. It is as though each layer provides ever deepening opportunity for us to experience greater intimacy with our Creator God.
As for physical posture and what we use to help us listen or focus, I think that is determined more by the seasonal rhythm we are experiencing at the time. There are three or four seasons of the soul (4 in one structure, 3 in another) 4 - Rest/Relinquishment/Growth/Celebration and 3 -Purgation/Illumination/Union (the latter is more of a classical interpretation). Sometimes our souls are squarely experiencing one of these seasons or rhythms, and other times, there may be overlap between seasons. All this is to say that our physical position or "icons" which help us receive/connect with God will vary with where we are in our soul-scape. As a spiritual director, I will often ask the question of a directee, "What spiritual discipline seems to be invited right now in your life through what you are experiencing with God?" One spiritual discipline might be kneeling prayer, or sitting with an icon in silence/prayer. Often, we find this out through trial and error, or through what we are desiring. A lot of times, I follow my desires, which vary quite a bit. If I land on something that seems to help me connect more deeply with God in that season, I stick with it for awhile. Sometimes, we stick with disciplines, doing the same thing in the same way in our relationship with God, for too long and they become stale. I enjoy exploring with a directee, out of what they may have just shared, what disciplines might be life-giving to them in their particular spiritual season. This is where the discipline of play has come into my life and others. I never thought of play as a spiritual discipline until I clearly sensed God inviting me into it one day in 2008-2009. Of course, play can take all different forms and mean different things to each of us. The discipline of play is akin to that of celebration, but may be a shorter time period. Play is a way to experience God's Presence intentionally while engaging in something considered more child-like or fun or freeing. I experienced a delightful time of play once during a gorgeous winter day while walking in a neighborhood by the ocean. It was as though I sensed God wanting to show me many wonderful things in the Creation surrounding me. I watched for a long time a pair of swans gliding across a pond and dipping below for food, I spent a long time gathering interesting stones and shells, like gems, to remind me of the experience. I watched the surf from several venues, and I soaked in the relative silence. That was a day that was six or seven years ago now, and I can remember it like it was just yesterday. What a gift, a soul-filling gift of time spent in God's Presence!
Because Jesus is with us wherever we are, we can learn to listen to Him wherever we are, but usually that takes training in silence and becomes, in our lifetime, a balance, a rhythm of withdrawl/engagement with people and the world around us. I think we have to learn to actively listen by just starting to be aware of what is going on inside of us and around us when we are alone and in silence. I have learned to be more actively engaged in listening to God as I have grown in my experience and trust that God is in those times of listening and awareness.
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