Today we celebrate the great Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mt. Tabor. Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter “On the Most Holy Rosary” in which he gave the Church five new, beautiful mysteries of the Rosary on which to meditate, called the Transfiguration “the mystery of light par excellence.” The Transfiguration is a glimpse of the Glory of God. This event in the life of our Lord occurred shortly before Jesus went to Jerusalem to be crucified. Pope John Paul II said that Jesus allowed Peter, James and John to experience His Transfiguration so “to prepare to experience with him the agony of the passion, so as to come with him to the joy of the resurrection and a life transfigured by the Holy Spirit” (John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Daughters of St. Paul, 2002, pp. 29-30).
In addition to seeing Moses and Elijah, and the Glory of God shining throw the face of Jesus, something else of great importance occurred on Mt. Tabor that day. The three Apostles heard the voice of God the Father say, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Listen to him. It seems like such an easy, straight-forward command, yet it seems so very difficult for so many of us much of the time. Listening seems like one of the easiest things for us to do. After all, God gave most of us two good ears, so as my father used to point out, we should listen twice as much as we speak since we only have one mouth. However, truth be told, many of us are not very good listeners; and not because we are hard of hearing or deaf. Before becoming a priest I studied for 6 years to become a psychologist, and much of that training was so that I could become an “effective listener,” and any therapist will tell you that listening effectively can be a lot of hard work.
Why are many of us not good listeners? One reason might be because we are too busy doing all the talking. When I was in the seminary I once visited a woman just flooded me with talking from the moment I walked in. She did not allow me to get a word in, and was so unaware of my real presence that she did not pick up on the fact that I was having some serious problems breathing because of all her cats. Despite my many comments of wanting to give her Holy Communion, and saying that I was allergic to cats, she just continued on. I was breaking out in hives and really wheezing, but on she went. Finally her husband just screamed, “Shut up! He is going to die from the cats if you don’t.”
While she was a pretty extreme case, often in our prayer life we are like that woman. We just talk and talk to God, or maybe at God, without letting God get a word in. God is not the ultimate “customer service department” whom we call whenever we are in need. God is the Creator of all, and our loving Father. He wants a relationship with us. He knows what is for our best, even when it looks not so good to us. We need to listen to Him, for doing so will lead to both psychological and spiritual growth, which will allow us to become more aware of reality and to deal with it more effectively. “Listening makes us open to Christ, the Word of God, spoken in all things: in the material world, the Scriptures, the Church and sacraments and, sometimes most threateningly, in our fellow human beings” (Benedict Groeschel, Listening at Prayer, Paulist Press, 1984, p. 3).
Listening, however, is more than just the perception of sound with our ears. Have you seen the commercial in which a woman comes into the kitchen where her husband is reading the paper. She asks him, “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” and without even looking at her he says, “Absolutely!” He heard his wife talking to him, but he failed to listen to her, and from the look on her face, he was in big trouble for that failure.
There are so many sounds in our world that while we may perceive them, we do not listen to all of them. Most we simply ignore. True listening requires a response. This does not mean we need to say something. Rather it means attending to what was said, recognizing its meaning, and making it part of our inner, conscious experience.
The same applies to the listening that does not come to us via our ears. God speaks to us in so many ways. One person may barely notice a patch of blue sky, whereas the person of prayer, who listens to God, sees in it the dome of heaven. Or how often do we come to Mass and are more aware of the person coughing, the kid banging their toy on the pew in front of us, and just wishing it would be over soon. The person of prayer, however, is aware of all these same things, and is not only attending to what is happening in the liturgy, but is also aware of something much more important. They are aware of participating in the Divine Liturgy celebrated in the Kingdom of Heaven with all the saints. For one, they are surrounded by distractions, while for the other they are surrounded by saints and angels.
St. John of the Cross once pointed out that many of the people who think they are listening to God are actually only listening to themselves. There is so much that could be said about listening, especially in prayer, so let’s keep it simple. I am borrowing these ideas from a wonderful little book by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, called Listening at Prayer.
First, we need to learn to listen to what life is saying in the present moment before trying to shape our prayer. Too often we make the world just a projection of our own desires and fears. We can get so wrapped up in deciding what advice to give God about how to run the world, especially to meet our “needs,” that we are unable to listen to any of life’s real messages. To grow in the Christian life we must have an openness to the true and living God. We need to divest ourselves of preconceived expectations of life, and take life as it comes.
Second, when life gives us its message, we should make the understanding of that message the first object of our prayer. At the foundation of the prayer of life is the virtue of hope, and “hope is the grace to believe that whatever events occur, they will contain the necessary ingredients of our salvation” (Benedict Groeschel, Listening at Prayer, Paulist Press, 1984, p. 18). This is often the really difficult part in listening at prayer, because often the most important lessons in life come from listening to God speaking to us in the tragic circumstances of our lives. God does not want evil in the world; it is the result of sin, of our refusing to let God’s love into certain parts of our lives. It is because of the disobedience of our first parents that a strain of disorder has infected, like a virus, all of creation. Yet God offers us the grace to see His order of love even in the disorder. Fr. Groeschel, in his books, tells of meeting a man terribly afflicted with leprosy which had destroyed his hands and most of his face, yet the man was grateful to have contracted the disease because prior to his illness he lived a wild, godless life. His disease allowed him to see the real emptiness of his life without God, so now he was at peace because he was seeking God. Jesus tells us in the Gospel that it is better to enter the Kingdom of God maimed or lame than to have all our limbs and be cast into the fires of Hell.
Third, once we have received the message of life we must attempt to integrate it with our efforts to live by the Gospel. The Gospel must be the focal point of our lives, and not just something relegated to an hour a week at Mass. It is often rather shocking for people as they become more effective listeners at prayer to discover that many of our values and desires are quite pagan in light of the Gospel. “The prayer of listening will help us confront precisely those areas needing conversion if we do not allow discouragement and worldly values to take over” (Benedict Groeschel, Listening at Prayer, Paulist Press, 1984, p. 21). As our prayer life improves so will how we live life.
Finally we need to pray that we may pray. God has no need of our prayer, in fact the very desire to pray is a gift from God. St. Paul noted in one of his epistles that often we do not know how to pray as we should, thus it is important to ask the Holy Spirit for the grace of prayer.
All of this requires effort on our part. We need to make time and space for prayer. Fr. Groeschel suggests that we start by first offering to the Lord some prayer that we know by heart – say the Our Father or Hail Mary – and include a petition, either for ourself or a loved one. But then we should just relax and ponder what we have just done. We, a finite being, have just spoken to the infinite and living God. Wow!
The Adoration Chapel that we have in our parish, located in the old convent chapel at Our Lady of Sorrows, is a valuable gift that we have. It is a quiet place where we can go and just listen to God speaking in our lives. It is a place where we can pray without words. Where we, finite creatures that we are, can marvel at the infinite love that God has for us, “for God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). And Jesus loves us so much that He not only suffered and died for us, but He further humbled Himself to remain with us, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity in the appearance of bread and wine. How awesome is that! We can sit in the presence of the Lord pretty much whenever we want.
LISTEN TO HIM! Really listen to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – speaking to us in the Scriptures and the sacraments, and in the ordinary moments of our lives. Listen to Him, and God will help us “surrender our preconceived notions and fantasies, to go beyond our defenses and shallow expectations, to be lifted on the eagle wings of grace” (Benedict Groeschel, Listening at Prayer, Paulist Press, 1984, p. 24). Jesus promises that “the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matt. 7:8), and for the disciple who makes the effort to listen, the Kingdom of God will be revealed. Listen to Him!