How God Speaks: Parents can help children learn how to listen to God.
No parents want to receive an unexpected call from their child’s school. When a guidance counselor called to report that our daughter Nina, who is in second grade, said some hurtful things to her friend Annie, my wife and I became concerned. That night, as we finished dinner, my wife turned to Nina: “Do you want to talk about what happened between you and Annie today?”
Nina sat straight up, her face turned ashen and her head dropped down. She slowly got up from her chair and made her way over to her monther, sat on her lap, placed her head on my wife’s chest and whispered in her ear. My wife put her arms around Nina and pulled her close as she listened to her. The confession ended, and Nina looked up at her mother. My wife explained that Nina knew what she had said was wrong. She asked Nina to write a letter of apology, which she promptly did, to be delivered to her friend the next day.
Nina went downstairs to play with her sister until bedtime. As I listened to her laugh, shout and happily shriek, I knew she was back to her old self. At bedtime Nina said her prayers with me and told me how much better she felt after talking to us about what happened between her and Annie.
The Practice of Speaking to God
The next day, Nina came home from school with a pamphlet on prayer entitled, Catholic Prayer for Catholic Families. It happily coincided with our desire to be a family of prayer. We say grace at meals and an Our Father or prayer of thanks at bedtime, but we want prayer to become a disposition that shapes how our family relates to the world. We want our children to develop a relationship with God and to become more attentive to God’s presence throughout their day. In short, we want to cultivate a contemplative posture of finding God in all things.
During dinner, we read and discussed the introductory section of the pamphlet. It stressed that all prayer begins with the initiative of God, who invites us to know him in a personal manner. The triune mystery, the energizing presence in all things, is constantly reaching out to us through the indwelling Spirit. What appears to be our initiative is actually our response to God’s Spirit prompting us to pray. Often we go about the day unaware of God’s gracious presence calling us to new life. When we pray, we wake up to God’s call and loving embrace. This is why St. Paul advises, “Pray without ceasing.”
The pamphlet encouraged us to speak to God in prayer as one friend to another. I asked my kids what they could say to God in prayer. Much to my surprise, Julia, our 5-year-old, began to offer concrete examples: thanking God for food, our house, our teachers; asking God to bring Mommy safely home from work or saying sorry when we hurt each other. Her suggestions corresponded to those in the pamphlet: prayer of thanks, petition and forgiveness.
After dinner and a little violin practice, I read a chapter from a Harry Potter book to Nina. Julia asked me to read the Noah story from her children’s Bible. After reading about the flood and the rainbow, Nina asked me, “Why doesn’t God speak to us the way he spoke to Noah?” It was a profound question in light of our recent discussion about prayer. I assured my daughters that God does speak to us, especially when we pray.
Christian tradition teaches that God speaks to us in many ways, especially through Jesus Christ, but many struggle to hear God speak at all. The psalmist warns, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” That is a big if. The psalmist thinks the problem is hard hearts, which is no doubt true, but we also have a hearing problem. Children are more direct about it, but adults, living in a fast-paced noisy world, struggle to hear the voice of God. Many Christians do not know how to listen for God’s voice because they do not know how God speaks. Many conclude, as my daughter did, that God does not speak to us as God spoke to Noah. If we do not expect God to speak to us, we will not listen for God’s voice.
How does God speak to us?
After what Nina had experienced the previous day with her mother, I was surprised that she did not believe God could speak to her “the way he spoke to Noah.”
“Nina, I thought God spoke to you loudly and powerfully the other night,” I said.
St. Ignatius Loyola teaches that parts of us have not been healed and freed by Christ. Sometimes we act against the work and mission of Christ and engage in destructive behavior. When these situations arise, the Holy Spirit works to change our behavior by filling us with remorse. Many Christians assume they only experience God in moments of peace and joy, but Ignatius reminds us that God speaks to us in other ways, particularly in experiences of remorse. This is an act of love on God’s part because God desires to free us from our distorted attitudes and actions. I explained to Nina that God spoke to her through her feelings of regret and sorrow over how she treated Annie.
The Lord also spoke to Nina as she lay in her mother’s arms and whispered her confession. Through my wife’s embrace, Nina heard and experienced the Lord’s mercy and compassion. After admitting what she did and agreeing to write an apology, she felt light, happy and filled with energy. She felt like herself again.
According to St. Ignatius, God encourages the person who seeks to do good by restoring relationships and by filling her with energy, courage, clarity and inspirations. God also gives spiritual consolation. The most common form is feelings of quiet and peace and experiences of interior joy that attract us to live like Christ. The Lord gave Nina a desire to write that letter, the courage to deliver it and the inspiration to act differently toward Annie in the future. Nina experienced how pleased God was with her decision, freeing her from guilt and filling her with joy. That was an experience of spiritual consolation, a result of her cooperation with the Lord.
Julia sat next to me listening as I explained to Nina how God had spoken to her in the last two days. “Dad, God doesn’t speak to me the way God spoke to Nina,” she said.
“But God speaks to you every day,” I replied. Julia immediately tested my claim by getting on her knees in front of me, folding her little hands and bowing her head in prayer. When she sat back on the couch, she looked at me and said, “Dad, I just listened for God’s voice, and he didn’t speak to me as he did to Nina or Noah!”
St. Ignatius believed that all the good we receive in our lives comes from God, like light streaming toward us from the sun. I asked Julia, “What good things were you given today?” She immediately named her mom, her sister, one of her friends and our house. Of course, these were but a few of the many goods God gave her. I reminded her that all of them came from God to her. “Do you know what God is saying to you when he gives you such good things?”
“No,” she answered.
I looked her in the eye and said, “God is telling you how much he likes you and cares for you.” A big smile appeared on her face.
I paused for a moment and added: “Girls, there are many children who do not have all the good things you have. Many children around the world go hungry, live with violence and do not have a home.” They nodded their heads as I spoke. “God is also with them and loves them very much, but the people God sent to care for them do not always listen to God.”
“How is God with them?” asked Nina.
I thought for a moment and replied, “Remember Jesus was born poor and died a horrible death showing us that God is with the poor and the suffering. Just as Jesus walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus—and you know that story—he walks with all who suffer. He lives in their hearts giving them courage, strength, peace and hope.”
Does God speak to grown-ups?
Why doesn’t God speak to me as he spoke to the prophets or the disciples of Jesus? This is a common question for many Christians, adults as well as children. Nina’s experience, interpreted in the light of fundamental Ignatian principles, reminds me that the Lord Jesus is always speaking to us through our relationships and choices, through our feelings, desires, imagination and thoughts. He speaks through creation, through the gift of our lives, through other people and through our own abilities, opportunities and struggles. The Lord desires to be in a relationship with us, to free and transform us into his image. Our task is to listen and respond.