On a recent retreat I facilitated, a woman approached me at the break and asked, “How do I hear God’s voice when the world is so loud and busy these days?” Knowing the challenge of hearing God’s voice in the busyness of life all too well myself, I chuckled and asked her, “Well, how much time do you have?” My question came from knowing the robust wisdom that St. Ignatius offers us on the topic of prayer and discernment. While I could not go into great detail due to the time constraints, I did offer the questioner three thoughts.
One of the best ways we can tune our ears to God’s voice is through prayer. While there are an abundant number of prayer tools available to us, I believe praying with Scripture is one of the best places to start. As we read and steep ourselves in the Living Word of God, not only our ears, but also our hearts became familiar with what God sounds like and how God acts and moves in human lives and hearts.
Here are a few examples from my own prayer life when I know it is God’s voice:
- When an idea or thought or word or phrase comes out of nowhere during prayer, and then it continues to return over and over again, I find that it is typically something God is trying to tell me.
- When I have an overwhelming feeling when reading Scripture or praying—whether it be of great joy, peace, anger, or it moves me to tears—I know it is something I need to pay attention to and most likely coming from God.
- When a short phrase or word captures my attention, or something internal feels a nudge or stirring while reading Scripture, I know it is something to pause, sit with, and continue to pray on, because this is typically God speaking to me.
Much of hearing God’s voice begins with noticing. It begins with naming the reality that life is busy and full and that there are many distractions and voices in our lives. St. Ignatius offers us tools that help us notice what God’s voice sounds like and what voices that are not God sound like. This is the core of discernment wisdom, named in the Ignatian terms of consolation and desolation.
Consolation is an experience of feeling on fire with God’s love that impels us to love and serve God and others. Consolation often inspires gratitude toward God for all God’s gifts of love, mercy, friendship, and faithfulness. When we are in consolation, we might feel more alive, connected to God, and to other people.
Desolation can feel like the exact opposite. We might feel a tiredness or heaviness in us. We might feel disconnected not only from God, but others. Our energy and passion decrease.
We can notice if it’s God voice or not by the feeling it evokes within us when we hear it. Does it bring us toward God or away from God?
St. Ignatius compares receiving God’s voice to a drop of water coming into a sponge, whereas the voices not of God feel like water hitting a stone. One of the things we can pay attention to when we are discerning God’s voice is how the voice enters our hearts. Does this voice enter into us gently and lightly? Or is it loud and clanging? The Holy Spirit comes into our hearts gently so we can easily receive what God is offering us. The evil or false spirit comes in and makes a ruckus and can leave us feeling startled, confused, fearful, or full of doubt.
While there is so much more I could have shared with that woman on the retreat, I knew I could at least offer her the advice to begin with “pray, notice, and receive.”