How to be Quiet and Listen on this Journey

Reflections from Dr. Howell

At the heart of the spiritual life is quiet. Prayer is pivotal, too – although prayer can be more noise in my head. We might follow the lead of our Jewish friends, whose constantly repeated opening to prayer or study is “Hear O Israel.” We hear. We listen. We let it sink in. We process. We understand. We embody.

Listening requires humility. There’s so much more I don’t know or understand. Such joy in fresh realizations! It’s why God gave us 2 ears but just 1 mouth, just 1 brain – a line from Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water. Your spirituality grows when your prayers are less “Hear my prayer,” and more “Speak Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).

For me, and maybe for you, a nemesis shoehorns its way in to my attempts at quiet – or maybe there are two, or more. I sit down to think, pray, meditate, or just sit, but before I know it, some distraction has flitted into my head and I feel like a schmuck for not being able to concentrate. Reinhold Niebuhr made the most liberating, grace-filled suggestion about this: whatever it is that your mind rambles toward, let that be your prayer. Clearly it’s something requiring some attention, and hopefully in God’s merciful presence. Distractions: good!

Another thing: when I get really still, I feel what I can dodge when I’m busy – namely the poverty in my soul, darkness and fears, regrets, worries, and the vapid thinness of the soul I’m baring to God. It feels empty in there – although this feeling reminds me of Maggie Ross’s insight: if you feel empty, it’s not because you are empty; you’re just full of the wrong stuff. The spiritual life is sorting through what’s in there, tossing a few things now and then until there’s more space for God, and a gradual gathering of wisdom and goodness to take up the space that was vacated. Thomas Merton prayed saying “I am full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You live there.”

Indeed. The spiritual life doesn’t avert its gaze from whatever in there is not of God. We go there, we invite God there, and ask for healing, for mercy, for that painful surgery of the soul by which something that might kill us is excised.

All this takes time. You show up. You have yourself shown up. And it’s all grace and mercy. We may feel like victims of our clocks, calendars and lives. But we do have choices. We are responsible.

TRY THIS: Write SSHHHHH on 3 or 4 sticky notes and place them where you’ll notice them. Even in a noisy, busy place, even where you’re interacting, you can SSHHHHH your soul and find some quiet in the thick of the racket.


You can find Sunday’s sermon on YouTube – or you can download a podcast!

My “How to be Spiritual” video, episode 3, is now out!

You can catch up on previous emails and videos, or review here!

And, you can still encourage friends or family to sign up here to receive these emails automatically (although if you already get his biweekly installments, you’re already in).

Check out my just-out Maybe I’m Amazed podcast with Jeremy Coffey – all about shoes and his terrific Good Soles ministry! Great stuff about how to make a difference, and how God’s call comes to us all the time.