A man drives away from a roadside gas station, absent-mindedly leaving his wife there after a bathroom stop. A police car retrieves his irate wife and eventually catches up with the husband. Exclaims the grateful husband to the policeman, “Thank God! I thought I was going deaf!”
To a person who is really deaf, a hearing impairment is seldom a joking matter. But of all forms of deafness, the most serious is spiritual deafness—the inability to hear the voice of God in the many ways he communicates with us, especially through his incarnate Word, Jesus. The author Of Hebrews opens his letter by giving an update on this very latest in Creator-creature communication—a more dramatic communication breakthrough than the invention of printing: "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all and through whom he made the universe" (Heb 1:1-2).
Euripides felt that silence was a wise man's answer, and Plutarch said it was an answer to fools. Both these views of silence could be applied to God's exercise of punitive noncommunication during Israel's long period of judges. "In those days the word of the Lord was rare" (1 Sm 3:1). Throughout that time, he spoke through only two prophets and one prophetess (Deborah). "For a long time, Israel was without a priest to teach and without the law. But in their distress they turned to the Lord and he was found by them" (2 Chr 15:3-4). Shakespeare might have been describing strategy when he wrote the intuitive words: "Silence often persuades when speaking fails."
Apparently spiritual hearing was also poor during the age of Israel's prophets. They were persecuted for their utterances, as Jesus reminds us (see Matthew 5:12; Luke 6:23). And Jesus himself seems to have fared little better than those beleaguered prophets in making himself heard against the hissing and howling discordance of his own persecutors (see John 15:20).
Most of mankind doesn't want to listen to God, it seems— and yet when God grows silent, "the natives grow restless." There's an instinctive need we all have to hear from God occasionally, even if we don't really listen to him. Hearing is not necessarily listening, and listening is not necessarily heeding. But when God is silent too long we feel a certain distress and also tend to become morally lax.
In the coming end times, God's non-revelation will seem to be a severe silence, certainly more punitive than in the days of Israel's judges. prophet Amos gave a gripping description of such times:
"The days are coming," declares the Lord, "when I will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. Men will stagger, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it." Amos 8:11-12
To immunize ourselves against that dreaded time as much as possible, we might well review one of the Bible's best lessons on the art of listening to God—the story of the boy Samuel, whose ability to hear the voice of God later made him a strong prophetic voice among his people.
He started with a triple handicap: first, he lived at a time when "the word of the Lord was rare" (1 Sm 3:1); second, "Samuel did not yet know the lord" (1 Sm 3:7); and third, three times he mistook the very voice of God for the human voice of his mentor, Eli. With those three strikes, he should have struck out. But patiently God tried still another pitch, and this time Samuel made a hit. Why? Because little Samuel was finally coached by Eli to respond with the right words to God's word: "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening" (1 Sam 3:9). With lowly simplicity he identified himself as the Lord's servant (the very word bespeaks humble obedience, and parallels Mary’s "handmaid" response in receiving her divine message). He then openly invited the Lord to proceed with his message, while showing maximum receptivity—listening attentively with a readiness to obey and accept God's articulated will. Samuel uttered a "speaking" prayer that opened into a "listening" prayer—a paradigm on which to pattern our prayer life.
The problem is that very few souls engage habitually in listening prayer at all; even worse, even in their speaking prayer, it's more frequently a matter of chattering than of chatting—a kind of talking to God instead of talking with him. But prayer should be a dialogue, not a monologue! And in this dialogue, God has far more to say to us than we have to say to him. We usually don't give him a chance to have his say because we're poor listeners. The poet Emerson's advice, though paganized in its expression, is sound: "let us be silent that we may hear the whispers of the gods.”
This excerpt is from the book The Art of Loving God by John H. Hampsch, C.M.F., originally published by Servant Publications, 1995. This and other of Fr. Hampsch's books and audio/visual materials can be purchased from Claretian Teaching Ministry, 20610 Manhattan Pl, #120, Torrance, CA 90501-1863. Phone 1-310-782-6408.