I am always rather in awe of the spiritual lives of others, as they have been related to me. To hear some people tell it, they speak with God on a regular basis and are constantly being given direction on what they should do. God is quite busy in their lives, and they are extraordinarily open to receiving his consoling word. Here is a representative example of some of the reports I've heard (details merged, changed, and embellished to ensure anonymity):
God laid it on my heart that this job just wasn't right for me. He gently led me to understand that I was not using the talents he had entrusted me with so as to bring him greater glory and store up treasure in his kingdom. The transition has been difficult—my husband wishes I was home more, the children are having to take on greater responsibilities—but God has sent his angels to minister to me so that I may be strengthened in the path he has set for me.
Please understand that I do not intend to pass judgment on God's conversations with other people. If someone reports such a conversation with God, I do not doubt that person's word. God reveals his will to the human heart in the ways that the individual human person has the best chance to receive his message and act upon it. Even if there is some misunderstanding on the human end of the conversation, God honors the desire to do his will.
I can only say that, in my case, God just doesn't talk to me like that. I would count myself fortunate for a divine slap upside the head and a snarling, "Hey! Pay attention!" but he doesn't talk to me like that, either. Much of the time, my prayers may as well be directed to the great stone faces on Mount Rushmore for all the personal interaction that goes on.
But we have to trust in faith that God does reveal himself to us, even those of us not favored with divine heart burdens and ministering angels. So, I got to thinking. How does God talk to me? I came up with a couple of possibilities, and I share them only in hopes that it may help others, struggling with what seems to be The Great Silence in their prayer lives, to discern the ways in which God talks to them.
God Speaks Through Dates
In the months before my father's death from an illness we had known for some time would be terminal, I found myself thinking it would be lovely that—when the time came—he might pass into eternity on a Carmelite feast day. I have an interest in Carmelite spirituality, a love for St. Therese of Lisieux, and my mother had passed away the previous December on the feast of St. John of the Cross. It did not look likely, though, since I could think of no upcoming Carmelite feasts, and it appeared that my father would die soon.
Dad died on April 2, 2005, within twenty minutes of Bl. John Paul II. Not only is John Paul II believed to have been a secular Carmelite, he wrote a doctoral thesis on the spirituality of St. John of the Cross. No, Dad did not die on an official Carmelite feast day, but he entered eternity with a spiritual father who will soon be canonized a saint—a saint with close ties to the Discalced Carmelite order. In this case, I didn't get exactly what I asked for, but it seems obvious in retrospect that God heard and answered the prayer.
Has something happened in your life that you just cannot make sense of? Perhaps an untimely death, or a sudden loss. I remember how awed I was the week of 9/11 when I realized it fell the same week in 2001 as the Triumph of the Cross and the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days (a time of seeking forgiveness, extending mercy, and averting judgment). But we don't just need perspective on tragedies. The timing of a birth or stroke of good fortune also might be explained by a look at the liturgical calendar.
God Speaks Through Impulses
Have you noticed that lately there seems to be a lot more homeless people on street corners, begging for assistance? When I was growing up, I never noticed panhandlers in suburbia. They tended to stay downtown, near the municipal services and charitable organizations that serve the indigent in my hometown. Now they are everywhere, usually planted at street lights, hoping that the people in cars will have time to offer something.
I usually don't carry cash with me, so I haven't often had money to give. Sometimes I would remember to keep a few dollars handy in my car, and I would pass those out. I also know that many people keep granola bars, water bottles, and fast-food coupons on hand. Mostly though, I just offered a Hail Mary every time I spotted one and could not give anything. If nothing else, I thought, God might send someone else who had something to spare.
The other day it started raining in the afternoon, and I was caught at work without my jacket. But I had a spare jacket at the office, a nice, heavy, quilted one that had been offered free to a good home by a staff member. It was a man-sized jacket, but it would work for keeping dry. I pulled it on and raced to my car. Once in the car, the jacket was hot and bulky, so I pulled it off and tossed it in the backseat.
As I drove home, I stopped at a light and noticed a homeless person. He caught my eye, smiled, and pointed to the rainbow that was arcing overhead. (Yes, I realize how clichéd that must sound now, but I swear that is just what happened.) I smiled back, said a silent prayer. Then I noticed he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and shorts. He wasn't shivering, but the rain had to be uncomfortable. Without really thinking about it, I rolled down my window and offered the jacket. Would he want it? He seemed startled, but replied that, yes, he could use it because he was not ready for winter. I handed him the jacket just as the light turned green.
In retrospect, I know that the impulse I had was unusual for me. I'm the kind of person who is extremely uncomfortable with strangers, and initiating a conversation (as distinguished from just handing out assistance) is not something I am often able to do. I can only conclude that the impulse and the grace to follow through was an answer to all those Hail Marys. I could have drawn back from the impulse, driven on, and I would not have sinned in doing so. But God answered my prayer by making it possible for me to do something bigger than I usually could have done.
Listening to God in Silence
These are ways I've found in my own life that are divine responses to prayer. I hope they will inspire you to consider the circumstances in your own life and discern the patterns in what could be passed off as random events. But there's one thing I'd ask of you. Unless you have serious reason to do so—such as my purpose here in encouraging others who are struggling with divine "silence"—please be discreet, for the most part, about your conversations with God.
Talking about your conversations with God, especially in ways that imply that you and God have cozy chats over tea on a regular basis, can be discouraging for others who don't experience God's presence in their lives in the same way you do. Believe it or not, it is not encouraging to many people to hear how God leads you, ministers to your heart, and sends down his blessings on everything you choose to do. The cynics will roll their eyes at what they consider to be pious platitudes. And those suffering from divine "silence" will hear their own hearts crack with the disappointment at not being similarly favored.
Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. . . . And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt. 6:1, 5–6).