What to Look for in the Silence

How do you know if you are really hearing the Spirit? How do you discern between your own agitation or enthusiasm, and a movement of the Spirit? One Quaker author suggests that it is a matter of being a “connoisseur of the Spirit.” The way one becomes a connoisseur is to become so attentive and familiar with the object of your desire that it becomes second nature to anticipate what each nuance in the relationship means. Thomas Greene gives the example of a married couple who over the years come to know what works and what does not work with his or her spouse. She buys him ties. He wears some and does not wear others. For whom are the ties? Eventually she starts buying what he wants. She learns.

For a Trinitarian Christian, this learning necessitates careful and constant attention to the God revealed in sacred Scripture, and to the person of Jesus Christ revealed in the Gospels, and to the movement of the Spirit in the Church, in human history and experience. This “expertise” requires steady attending to the movements within our own hearts in prayer and reflection on our lives. This examination of consciousness leaves no experience un-“mined” for gratitude and awe, for sorrow and reconciliation, for a deepening of love and desire.

Imagine the last time you desired to do the right, the true and the good. Imagine a time you somehow knew that that God was leading, and you followed through. What was the fruit of that experience? What were the movements in your own heart? How did you respond to them? Just in this one instance you have a treasure of self-knowledge and of how God works specifically with you: your talents, your wounds, and your sensibilities. This is the kind of experience worth journaling or drawing or somehow marking so you remember how God speaks to you in particular, so that the next time, you can hear the language of your heart and respond to it even more quickly.

What are your favorite Scripture passages? What quickens your heart? Where have you heard God’s voice before and come to some deep understanding that surprised or challenged or comforted you? Who in the story do you relate to? It is worth going back to those stories that continue to give “fruit,” that continue to unpack the mystery for you of how God “speaks.”

These gifts that keep on giving become touchstones, keys to your own relationship with God and how you experience God in yourself and in this world. As you listen in personal prayer or communal discernment, does any story or insight from Scripture that has meant something to you before flit into your imagination? This image or story or insight may be a “leading” (the Quaker term for inspiration from God), especially since it comes from the privileged channel of Scripture. This is not a cerebral experience of teaching another what you have learned, but a witnessing of a sacred encounter that has remembered itself to you in this place of prayer and discernment.

From where does the image come in that moment, and might it be fruitful for the group?

We often ask ourselves if the “movement” we experience is from ourselves or from God. Yes. God speaks to us through our humanness. But we must focus our intention not just on ourselves but on the person of God, much as that married couple attends to one another, eventually out of a well-developed and sometimes hard-earned habit. Weighing the concern or issue presented for discernment before God may lead to a sense, a feeling, an image, a word. Paying attention to one’s body, to tensions, dis-ease, restlessness, peace and relaxation can also be helpful. Dream images can sometimes float by, or the tail of a thought not quite fully formed. Sometimes these are just “floaters” but sometimes, especially if they are insistent, they can help a discerner know what a source of resistance is, and consequently give this intention to God in prayer.

The image or word may also be for the presenter in group discernment. In the silence, it is important to gently sort through whether this image or thought ought to be shared for the building up of the Church and/or the individual. Getting to the point where one chooses in full freedom to share the movement is the ideal. If one is feeling a compulsion to share, it is best to wait until the compulsion passes. One can also have a compulsion not to share, which needs to be equally overcome. Asking for that freedom in the moment to know the wisdom of sharing or not, is a powerful prayer, as it is a specific response to the grace of self-knowledge.


“Your story reminds me of the story in Scripture…”

“What came to mind was a beautiful meadow and a sense of rightness…”

“This reminded me of this bit of dialogue from this movie that helped me make sense of a similar experience in my life…”

“I thought of the quote from St. Thomas Aquinas…”

“This made me really uncomfortable, like something was not right…it could be my own discomfort, but I couldn’t shake it…”

“I had a sense of peace throughout your sharing, as though you were right on track…”

An example of ongoing preparation for being a “connoisseur of the Spirit” is found in the Ignatian tradition of the Spiritual Exercises. By engaging in daily imaginative Scriptural prayer, one comes to know the person of Jesus more intimately, and so recognize him in the everyday. One comes to know God’s love for him or her, and is thus able to face the fears, limitations and sinfulness that limit freedom and the Spirit’s ability to move. This freedom allows one to follow and serve the Beloved. Because this journey toward freedom and into unconditional loving response is a life-long endeavor, each person must live a discerning life moment by moment, moving ever more toward freedom and into loving response. The point is to come to love the Shepherd intimately, to know the sound of his voice through the daily human experiences and desires, as well as through the specific time of personal prayer.

Ignatius proposed that the person seeking this relationship

  • be attentive to the reality of the “other” (God, characters in the story, the brothers and sisters gathered in prayer), open to whatever comes;
  • be reverent, receptive rather than imposing one’s own interpretation, aware of one’s own biases and fears, for instance;
  • attentiveness and reverence lead to devotion, a giving over of oneself to the Beloved, a moment of encounter, for the sake of the Beloved, an expression of “disinterested” worship.

In the Quaker tradition, this expression of communal discernment, listening together in the Spirit – whether there is a voiced “leading” or not – is called worship. There is no other reason to gather than to give glory to God as brothers and sisters. So “testing” the “leadings” that arise in our consciousness as we attend to the Spirit in one another, becomes an act of worship as well:

  • Does this action (contribution to the group discernment) spring from, express or increase the Love of God in the world?
  • Is there life in it? (Remember the exhortation to “Choose life!”)

From Ignatian tradition:

  • Does this lead to greater freedom and love?
  • Does it serve the Mission of the Church? The common good? The reign of God?
  • Is it for God’s greater honor and glory?

Practice and Group Reflection:

Go through your journals and your memory. Jot down the common ways that God “speaks” to your heart. How do your insights (“God touches”) usually come to you? Often it is not in the official time of prayer, but when you are busy about other things. Is it through people, reading, nature, art, music, just being?

Go through your Bible and note the underlines and notes over the years. What are the common themes or patterns that capture your attention?

Practice attending to the silence in prayer, letting “floating” distractions go, but noticing when these “movements” may actually be God’s voice answering your intention. Practice making an intention at the beginning of each prayer, and then noting at the end of the time how God has “answered.” Since God does not tend to jump through our hoops (by answering when and how we would like), journaling helps us to track these “answers” over time. Share these experiences of grace with others. Witness increases faith.

Click here for a PDF version of this article: What to Look for in the Silence

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