‘Hearing God’s Voice in Prayer’
March 24, 2022
“So I had this prayer,” said Jesuit Father Jeff Sullivan. “It’s a weird prayer.
“I was praying with Jesus, and we were tossing eggs.”
The 41-year-old priest, who was ordained in June, had asked God for guidance about his job as retreat director at Creighton University in Omaha, where he lives with his Jesuit community.
He relayed his prayer experience at a pre-Lenten gathering at St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion. The topic of his talk: “Hearing God’s Voice in Prayer.”
At the time of his prayer, Father Sullivan said, he had been considering taking another job because he didn’t seem suited for some of the detailed tasks of leading retreats, which included arranging food and transportation for students with a wide variety of needs.
“A lot of eggs were hitting the wall,” Father Sullivan said of his egg toss with Jesus. “Some eggs were hitting the floor. At first I was like, ‘I’m dropping all these eggs. I’m not buying the granola. I didn’t get the vans reserved.’
“And Jesus is just laughing at me – and not even at me, but at us,” he said. “We’re just throwing eggs back and forth. We’re having fun. And that’s what it felt like in my job, like, OK, I wasn’t doing all the right things, but I was being able to be present with the students.
“I felt Jesus’ love, that Jesus was taking all those ‘You’re not doing your job good enough’ … and just saying maybe you did drop the egg about reserving the van, but you caught the egg when it came to this kid that came to you because he was really struggling with depression, and you were able to sit with him. That’s the egg you caught.”
“So that was God speaking to me.”
Father Sullivan used that prayer as an example of the many ways God speaks – to people in Scripture, to his saints throughout the ages and to his people today. During Lent and always, praying and recognizing God’s voice is crucial.
In his particular prayer, he said, he could feel “the encouragement, the refreshing, the calming, (God) showing me my own belovedness. Even in the midst of my mistakes, God was reaffirming and being in relationship with me.”
‘GOD GETS ME TO LAUGH’
In big and small moments, God breaks into people’s lives, the priest said. His voice can be difficult to hear, sometimes only as “echoes.”
Father Sullivan said he recognizes God’s voice as one that makes him laugh.
“I trust the voice of God when I’m brought into laughter, because I can be a really serious person,” he said. “So whenever God gets me to laugh, that feels like the good Spirit.”
The retreat director invites people to think about what God’s voice sounds like to them.
“I do a lot of spiritual direction with young people,” he said, “and I actually like to defer to them, to listen to them.”
Some might think that young people don’t know how to pray or aren’t religious.
“I would actually argue, in my experience at Creighton University, that a lot of our young people have wildly beautiful prayer lives,” he said. “They just don’t trust their own prayer. They don’t trust what God is doing in their lives. They’re afraid to take risks in their own prayer.
“And I think that’s actually true of most people,” he said. “You sit with people and listen to their prayer and give them permission to say ‘That really is God.’
“It’s amazing,” he said, “how close they are to the living God,” or have the potential to be.
Every person can hear God’s voice, but it helps to be predisposed to listening, Father Sullivan said.
FEELING GOD’S VOICE
When asked how they hear God, participants at St. Columbkille’s pre-Lenten gathering described their experiences as a nudge, a sense of peace, a call to do something even when the path ahead may be unclear, a feeling of hope, of being drawn to God, perhaps in the voice of another person or felt suddenly, like turning on a light bulb.
When hearing God, people might also feel his words physically and emotionally.
When people sense God, they tend to feel something emanating from their chest as a “warmth, radiating a light,” Father Sullivan said, or a feeling from their gut, that they know what they’re hearing is right.
In contrast, stress, anxiety, and possibly the presence of an evil spirit, are sometimes felt in the front or back of the head, he said.
Not all tension is bad, though.
“We’re humans and we all have tension,” Father Sullivan said. “Sometimes God’s voice is in the tension to get us to a new place.”
“Had Moses listened to the rest of the Israelites, they would’ve never gotten to Canaan. They would’ve just sat in the middle of the desert or remained in Egypt.”
A lack of prayer also can send signals.
When people don’t pray they often don’t “feel right,” Father Sullivan said. They might describe that sense as feeling out of sorts, as instability or not being rooted or grounded.
Prayer, on the other hand, keeps believers in balance.
Experiences of hearing God can range from “little nudges” to “big shoves,” Father Sullivan said.
The big shoves can be described as significant, life-changing moments.
“Have you heard, felt or seen anything that felt like God’s breaking in … when you clearly heard a voice or saw an image or felt some transcendental power, when God was breaking in and saying something to you?” Father Sullivan asked his audience at St. Columbkille.
He described the experience of a friend from high school who was set to be a high-profile lawyer, but that changed when she had a child with autism.
“So she gave up her career in law to be an advocate for autism. She felt like caring for her son and caring for the rights of those with autism was her call.”
“For her it was that moment of raising a son with autism that changed the whole trajectory of her life,” he said. “We all have different ways of God shoving us.”
“We certainly have a spiritual tradition of God’s voice breaking in,” Father Sullivan continued. “There are numerous stories throughout Scripture” – including those of Moses encountering God in the burning bush; Elijah hearing him not in an earthquake, fire or storm, but in a whisper; the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; St. Paul being knocked to the ground; and Mary’s encounter with an angel at the Annunciation.
FROM KNIGHT TO SAINT
Many saints in the years to come had life-changing encounters, too.
“The one for me is Ignatius of Loyola,” Father Sullivan said. “Being a Jesuit, I’ve become very fond of Ignatius (the Jesuits’ founder).
“All he ever wanted to do was to defend his nation, defend his queen. In battle, he gets his leg destroyed, and he goes into convalescence for months.”
As he healed St. Ignatius read books about Christ and the saints. He grew and learned to listen. But his life truly changed when he had a mystical experience of God. “He can’t even explain it, but it was then that he knew the truth of God inviting him into something deeper. And it radically changed the trajectory of his life, going from a knight fighting for Spain to somebody who founded the Society of Jesus, this educational system of the Jesuits that we’ve had for 500 years.
“It was in listening to God, but it came from tragedy,” Father Sullivan said. “It came from having to learn how to dispose himself to God.”
“I like to think of these as the ‘big voice’ prayer experiences,” the priest said. “They don’t happen all the time. They might happen a couple times in our lifetime, these foundational moments where God just smashes the ceiling, or smashes into our life experience, whether we want it or not. And they can radically change our lives – for the negative if we don’t listen to Him or dispose ourselves to receiving God. But in the positive, they can orient us to something bigger than ourselves.”
Many people try to hear the Lord every day, to deepen their relationship with him.
The Holy Spirit is constantly at work, Father Sullivan said, and when people are close to Him they have the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
When they receive the gift of awe, they hear God speak through the grandeur of nature. Even if people don’t hear the voice distinctly, they may hear “echoes.”
Those echoes can also be heard in everyday life, too.
Father Sullivan suggested some practices that will heighten people’s senses to hear God:
– Daily Mass.
– Lectio divina, a form of prayer which Father Sullivan described as reading Scripture and listening for and praying about a word or phrase that “kind of rolls around. You savor it.”
– Examen. The Ignatian tradition of “going through your day and looking, sifting through for where God is present.”
– The Rosary, “putting us in touch with Mary,” hearing her laments, joys and praises through the events of her life with Christ.
– Walking. “Walking is a prayer,” Father Sullivan said. “Seeing nature, looking up, looking outside of ourselves, getting into the community.”
– Praying the Liturgy of the Hours, the daily prayers of the Church prayed by those in religious life, which are encouraged for lay people, too.
– Spiritual reading.
Sometimes God’s voice can be heard in unexpected places, and people should pay attention, Father Sullivan said. God can speak through songs, movies and television shows, for example.
“Sometimes there’s just an earworm and you can’t get it out of your head,” he said of certain lyrics or lines. Maybe God is telling you a message about love or forgiveness or hurt.”
He also recommends being alert for things that evoke an emotion or for images that might be a metaphor, like an eagle or a frog, “things that strike you and get your imagination.”
If people feel drawn to a particular saint or person in Scripture, they might ponder why.
St. Ignatius had rules to help discern whether the voice a person hears is truly God’s. Father Sullivan summed up those rules, saying God’s voice is one that leads, reassures, refreshes, calms, comforts, strengthens, heals, encourages and gives hope.
Other voices, including those of the evil one, will produce feelings of fear, exhaustion, worry, aggravation and discouragement, he said.
Those other voices would have people feel driven or compelled to accomplish something, like when a college student says “I’ve got to succeed. I’ve got to be a doctor. I’ve got to make my parents proud. I’ve got to make a lot of money,” said Father Sullivan. A voice that is not God’s might make people question themselves and steal their peace and joy.
The only time an evil spirit would console people is to lead them toward or keep them in sin, Father Sullivan said.
He gave an example: “Go ahead, Jeff, just have another beer. No big deal. Nobody’s going to care. Nobody’s going to care if you smoke a little pot. Don’t worry. It’s OK if you gossip a little bit.’”
An evil spirit will “keep consoling you, telling you you deserve it. The good Spirit will be like your conscience, like ‘I don’t know if you should have another beer. I don’t know if you should be gossiping,” so as to disrupt the evil spirit and the sin.
Structure is important for prayer and hearing God. Father Sullivan recommends “5 Ps of Prayer”:
– Preparation: “Daily preparation means you don’t just show up. You actually think about a time when you’re going to do it.”
– Place: “I put my chair in front of my window” to pray, Father Sullivan said, while others prefer praying before the Blessed Sacrament at church, in a corner in their home, or even in the bathroom if it’s the one place they can be alone and have quiet.
– Posture: Breathe, be in a good posture, one that is ready to receive.
– Passage: “Always have a passage of poem, Scripture, something that can tether you,” Father Sullivan said. “You can bring to God your prayer, but sometimes it just helps to have a third source that can give you a place to be present.”
– Presence: How one prays is important, he said. “Being intentional is really helpful.”