The question that I had discerned to take with me on retreat was to listen to God and reflect on the ways in which I hear God speaking. It came out of having had some difficult decisions to make and wanting to know that I was doing God’s will.
I had six days at Mucknell Abbey. I immersed myself in the offices and daily Eucharists, I kept silent and I listened. Along with the Bible, the community had left a copy of The Wisdom of the Monastery, with the Rule of St Benedict and short essays on the Benedictine way. And I had brought with me Graham Tomlin’s The Widening Circle. I went for walks each afternoon. For my “work”, I wrote a sermon for the Sunday after my return and read some of the papers for General Synod.
My way of life for those six days was important to being able to hear God more effectively, becoming embedded in the means by which God’s Word becomes known: the silence, the offices, psalms, Scripture, Eucharist, the wholesome life of the church. Surrounding ourselves with the things of God means that we are more likely to hear God. We also need to listen to these things, to pay attention to them, and, as St Benedict says, to listen with the ears of the heart.
There is also work to be done in dealing with the things that get in the way of hearing God’s voice, all the other things that preoccupy us, especially our own over-busyness. I found that another barrier to listening was my own fears about myself.
Discernment is also needed to find Christ’s voice amongst all the other movements of the heart and mind. In all the whispers we hear, which is of God?
But we also need to listen to our lives, the people we meet, and the world around us, and to the way our inner self responds to these, because Christ dwells in the inner self. God may be speaking to us through the things that happen around us.
On one of my walks, I set out to listen. I listened to the symphony of the hedgerows, the music of the wind blowing through bare twigs and branches, the squeak of the twigs as they rubbed against each other, the rustle of old ivy leaves and the different tone of old oak leaves, the calls of different kinds of birds, the splashing of water in the stream. And from far away, the sounds of a passing train and up above, an aeroplane. And down below, the noise of my own boots, squelching in the sodden grass. It was all one great symphony, different sounds coming from a huge orchestra spread over a wide distance. And God could hear it all at once, while I could catch a little bit at a time. And the song was a paeon of praise and thanksgiving, the whole creation giving glory to God. And I was part of it. I listened and noted and acknowledged and gave thanks for each element of the great music. Glory be to God on high.
In learning to listen to the voice of God, what I heard was the voice of praise and thanksgiving. It is what I heard in the psalms, in the reading during mealtimes, in my own reading. During Terce on the Saturday, I felt that my calling is to enable others to praise God. It was quite clear. I heard it with the ears of my heart.
God hadn’t finished with me. One more surprise was in store. On Sunday, at the Eucharist, the last service I attended before I set off home, the visiting celebrant and preacher* announced that God wants to speak to us. Over the centuries, God tells us of his love for us. God calls us back from apathy and waywardness. God points us to the coming of the anointed Messiah and the time to come when “we will be united in love and tenderness” (Hosea) He said, “We hear these words – but often we don’t listen. We must want to listen, we must intend to listen; we need to ponder the Word inwardly, to savour it, and long to be changed by it. But at the heart of any deep listening will always be silence.”
*The Reverend Raymond Avent, Oblate of Order of St Benedict