How to Listen to God:
The Oxford Group’s Two-way Prayer

prayer, discernment

And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here,   Elijah? —1 Kings 19:11-13 (KJV)

WHY WE SHOULD LISTEN TO GOD

In his homily for the Solemnity, “Mary, Mother of God” (1 January, 2020), our priest enjoined us to enter into a personal relation with Jesus and to do this in prayer.   Now, If you’re friends with a person, conversations are a two-way street: talking AND listening. Prayer should not, then, be a one-way conversation: we need to listen to God as well as to address Him.

How to listen to God?  That’s a difficult question to answer, but I’ll give some of my thoughts below.

HOW WE SHOULD LISTEN TO GOD: HISTORY

From Adam, listening to God chastise him after he had eaten the forbidden fruit, through Moses and the Old Testament prophets, St. Joseph in his dreams, Saul on the road to Damascus, the Carmelite reformers (St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross), and Mother Teresa, the voice of God has spoken to His holy people.

“But,” you reply, “this is how He speaks to saints and prophets.  I am neither.  Why should I expect our Lord to talk to me?”

That might be an expected response, even though God, the Omniscient, loves us all.   But, sinner or saint, you must acknowledge that to hear someone speak to you, you first have to be silent:

“It is best to learn to silence the faculties and to cause them to be still, so that God may speak.” —St. John of the Cross

Easy to say, hard to do!  Also, you have to be loose about how God might speak to you.  God, in His manifestation as the Holy Spirit, might well speak in ways other than a deep voice saying “Hey you, I’m God and here’s what I want  you to do.”

In the sections below I’ll summarize advice the Oxford Group gives on achieving fruitful two-way prayer (listening to and addressing our Lord).  Before doing that, just note the four stages of prayer St. Teresa of Avila discussed in her autobiography: Meditation, The Prayer of Quiet, Union, Rapture.   Presumably in the first two stages, where one engages in what St. Teresa would call “Mental Prayer,” one begins to converse with our Lord.

Let me emphasize that I agree with some of the Oxford Group’s program, but not all.  I’ll say more about this below.

WHAT IS THE OXFORD GROUP?

The Oxford Group¹ originated in the early 20th Century in Philadelphia and then Oxford.  (For a short history see here.)  Although the group had non-denominational Protestant roots, what they say about how to pray does not, I believe, conflict with Catholic teaching. However, as I’ll point out below, their prescription for prayer is incomplete. Nevertheless, some of their advice echoes that of many Catholic saints and scholars (albeit in a different form).

The program I’ll outline below is taken largely from a four page pamphlet by John Batterson, a member of the Oxford Group in the 1930’s.   It was then in Akron, Ohio, that Bill W and Dr Bob (Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith) used Oxford Group precepts as a springboard to develop the 12 Step program, Alcoholics Anonymous.   Rather than discussing the Four Steps (“Four Absolutes”) of the Oxford Group program, I’ll focus on what Batterson has to say about enabling two-way prayer, prayer in which we both speak and listen to our Lord.

PREPARATION FOR LISTENING PRAYER—PLACE AND TIME

The following quotes are taken from Batterson’s pamphlet, “How to Listen to God,” linked above.

Find some place and time where you can be alone, quiet and undisturbed.  Most people have found that early morning is the best  time.  Have with you some paper and pen or pencil.

(I don’t agree with the advice about pen and paper; I’ll have more to say about that below.)  In many articles on “How to pray,” I’ve read that a regularly scheduled time sets up a good habit.  Early morning is good for some persons, late evening for others.  I myself find the Adoration Chapel an ideal location.

PREPARATION FOR LISTENING PRAYER—RELAXING

Batterson advises us to  relax before we engage in meditation and prayer.  Fr. Benedict Groeschel has given much the same advice, a detailed program for how to relax before prayer.²

Sit in a comfortable position. Consciously relax all your muscles. Be loose.  There is no hurry. There needs to be no strain during these minutes.  God cannot get through to us if we are tense and anxious about later responsibilities.

PREPARATION FOR LISTENING PRAYER—YOUR ADDRESS TO GOD

This is Batterson’s method for how to be receptive to God’s conversation.

Open your heart to God. Either silently or aloud, just say to God in a natural voice that you would like to find His plan for your life—you want His answer to the problem or situation you are facing just now.  Be definite and specific in your request.

I don’t agree entirely with this approach.  Sometimes just silence is appropriate. God does know what you truly need.

LISTENING PRAYER

And here is the essential part: how we should listen.

Just be still. quiet, relaxed and open.  Let your mind go “loose.”  Let God do the talking.  Thoughts, ideas, and impressions will begin to come into your mind and heart.  Be alert and aware and open to every one [of these].

Although this advice seems straightforward, it’s not all that easy to achieve in practice, or at least that is the case for me.   When I pray, do the Liturgy of the Hours or the Nightly Examen, distracting thoughts occur and I don’t always know how to get back to the important stuff.  And these distractions are what Batterson wants to include as possible communications from God (see below).

Fr. John Esper has recounted ways the saints have dealt with distractions during prayer and what the Catholic Catechism recommends.  His conclusion: distractions are inevitable, but we should return to prayer and offer love to God as a barrier to them.

ON WRITING YOUR PRAYER THOUGHTS DOWN

In the rest of his prescription for two-way prayer Batterson strongly urges us to write every thought down, no matter how irrelevant or evil it might seem.  Discernment—which thoughts come from God—is to be achieved when you examine this written list and apply the following criteria:

  • Are these thoughts completely honest, pure, unselfish?
  • Are these thoughts in line with our duties to our family, to our country?
  • Are these thoughts in line with our understanding of the teachings found in our spiritual literature?

Batterson advises you to share these thoughts with another person if you’re not able to decide whether or not they come from God. He says

Talk over together what you have written. Many people do this. They tell each other what guidance has come. This is the secret of unity. There are always three sides to every question-your side, my side, and the right side. Guidance shows us which is the right side-not who is right, but what is right.

Such an examination of written down thoughts is not, I believe, useful or appropriate for prayer.  It removes spontaneity from praying, makes it into an intellectual exercise.

A CATHOLIC CRITIQUE OF BATTERSON’S PRESCRIPTION

As a Catholic I believe that communication comes to me both from God and from the Enemy.  Screwtape is real, as is the Holy Spirit.   St. Teresa gives, perhaps, the best advice on how to converse with God:

Firstly, he who reasons less and tries to do least, does most in spiritual matters. We should make our petitions like beggars before a powerful and rich Emperor; then, with downcast eyes, humbly wait.  [emphasis added] When He secretly shows us He hears our prayers, it is well to be silent, as He has drawn us into His presence; there would then be no harm in trying to keep our minds at rest (that is to say, if we can)..

…I believe that human efforts avail nothing in these matters, which His Majesty appears to reserve to Himself, setting this limit to our powers. In many other things, such as penances, good works, and prayers, with His aid we can help ourselves as far as human weakness will allow. The second reason is, that these interior operations being sweet and peaceful, any painful effort does us more harm than good. —St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, Fourth Mansion, Chapter 3.

Or, in short, as St. Teresa has it: “Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed.”   Hearing what God has to say is not to be achieved by our will, but by God’s grace.  Accordingly, patience is the virtue most required.  God will speak to us in His own words, in His own time.  And remember: Elijah heard, not the earthquake or the thunder, but a still, small voice.

NOTES

¹When I first read about the Oxford Group’s connection with Twelve Steps, I confused it with the “Oxford Movement.”  The latter was a late 19th Century program initiated by High Church Anglicans In Great Britain to reinstall elements of Catholic liturgy.  Cardinal Newman was one of those involved.

²I apologize for not being able to give a specific reference.  I heard this eight years ago listening to an audio tape of one Fr. Groeschel’s Retreat Conferences.

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