God is always speaking to us at different times and different ways. That’s the basic premise of the book Discernment by the late Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest, author of 39 books, and religious teacher at Yale, Harvard and Notre Dame. Of course, the idea that God is in constant contact with us may cause you to ask:
“If God is talking, why don’t I hear him?”
Nouwen says the way to hear God is through the process of discernment which put simply is spiritual judgement and understanding. It’s a way of making decisions that relies not on the intellect alone but involves “a regular discipline of listening to the still, small voice beneath the rush of the whirlwind, a prayerful practice of reading the subtle signs in daily life.”
Before we go further, you might be wondering about Nouwen’s definition of God and whether it is biblically based. Nouwen tells us that he shares the views of his fellow Catholic Thomas Merton, the notion that “God is the foundation of all life and source of all existence, not just a grandfatherly figure in the sky.” God is the substance of life or as Paul Tillich put it, not a being, but being itself.
Nouwen writes that the key to discernment is “responding to that place deep within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desire.” When we make that connection deep within, it allows us to “sift through our impulses, motives and opinions,” so we can make decisions that bring us closer to God. In turn, we are able to bring more love, joy and peace into our lives and our ability to show love and compassion to those around us in enhanced.
The key to discernment is “listening to a deeper sound.”
According to Nouwen, “when we are truly listening, we come to know that God is speaking to us, pointing the way, showing the direction.” When we can detect how God is guiding us, we “know when to act, when to wait and when to be led.” As the musician and author Robert A. Jonas points out in the forward to the book:
When we use discernment, we notice our lives become less chaotic and less filled with drama. We notice that we are less anxious and fearful. We notice that we feel more comfortable with solitude and with accepting mystery and uncertainty. We discover a deep inner peace.
How do we hear God? How do we become versed at “listening to a deeper sound and marching to a different beat,” engaging in a life in which we become “all ears”? Nouwen has several suggestions, ways in which “God’s presence can be detected in the ordinary activities and routines of the every day.” Here are my favorites.
5 Ways to Hear What God is Telling You
- Prayer and Contemplation
Nouwen believes that our spiritual lens is sharpened when we engage in daily prayer and contemplation. He mentions no specific prayer, only that we ask God for guidance, an act that can be combined with quiet contemplation. Nouwen says that “the most interesting things in life often remain invisible to our ordinary senses yet are visible to our spiritual perception.” Prayer and contemplation bring them to the surface.
- “Reading the Book of Nature”
The phrase above is Nouwen’s who tells us that “God’s first language is nature.” (An interesting parallel to the idea that God’s primary language is silence.) Nouwen believes that “nature makes you more attentive to divine guidance.” He mentions taking long walks amongst tall trees and how they spoke of “peace, stability, harmony, rest, life and death, coming and going, staying and leaving.” Natural surroundings put us in a mental space in which the divine can be heard.
- Paying Attention to People in Your Path
Nouwen counsels us that God speaks through the people we meet in daily life, primarily through “family members and close friends with whom we have a primary relationship” though even complete strangers can sometimes deliver important messages. According to Nouwen, people are “human vehicles of divine presence and direction” and “living signs pointing the way to home, vocation, or a new direction.” By paying attention to the people God puts on your path, you can discern God’s direction for your life.
- Analyzing the Events of the Day
Nouwen sees God as present in the activities and encounters that happen each day and that these events represent “signposts” and “continuing occasions to change the heart.” These signs and signals offer us daily guidance. In his words, “Whatever happens—good things or bad, pleasant or problematic—ask, “What might God be doing here?”
- Looking at What You are Drawn to Read
This is an interesting idea, that what we are drawn to read during any given period can be another way God is offering us guidance. Nouwen makes it clear that he is not talking about just the Bible, but any spiritual reading and all types of “good books and human literature.” They become “vehicles of divine communication” joining our will and the will of God as one.