Listening in the Silence

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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Given the gospel reading this Sunday (Mt 14:22-33), it is tempting to focus on the faith of Peter. The disciples are sailing on the Sea of Galilee, a few miles off shore. During the fourth watch of the night (sometime between 3 and 6 AM), they see Jesus walking on the water toward them. They think it’s a ghost and so demand proof that it is Jesus. Peter says, “Lord, if it is You, command me to to come to You on the water.” So Jesus commands Peter, and Peter does indeed walk out on the water toward Jesus. But when Peter becomes frightened he immediately begins to sink. He cries, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reaches out and catches Peter, gently chastising him for his lack of faith.

There is much to say here about faith and doubt. Who among us would have the faith of Peter to walk on water, if that’s what Jesus asks us to do? Even Peter couldn’t sustain that faith. Even Peter doubted, though he was wise enough in his fear to cry out to the Lord for help. The truth is that God asks most of us to do things far less difficult than walking on water. Yet we shy away from even the small things God expects of us. Like Peter, we are afraid. There is this juxtaposition in our hearts between what seems possible and what God commands.

But how do we know what God is asking of us? Is it really that we are afraid of doing what God asks? Or is it rather that we are afraid to even ask what He wants? Do we even know how to listen for the answer?

I want to focus this week not on the example of Peter, but on the example of Jesus.  Why wasn’t Jesus with the disciples in the boat to begin with? It’s because Jesus had sent them away.

This Sunday’s gospel passage comes immediately after the miraculous feeding of five thousand men, plus an unknown number of women and children, with five loaves of bread and two fish. The crowd had followed Jesus out into the wilderness, and Jesus had been curing their sick. But Jesus didn’t go out into the desert to cure the sick and feed the hungry. He had gone into the desert to be alone after hearing of the death of His cousin, John the Baptist. The crowds followed Him there. Jesus was moved with pity and so He ministered to them.

It is after the miraculous feeding that our gospel reading picks up.  We are told that Jesus made the disciples sail out ahead of Him in the boat, while He dismissed the crowd. In other words, His original quest for alone time having been postponed by the needs of the crowd, Jesus finally sends everyone away, including even His close friends. After everyone at last was gone, “He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray” (Mt 14:23).

Pay attention when you read the gospels at just how often Jesus does this. He makes time to be alone. He will either send people away, or He will go out to an isolated place such as the desert or a mountain top, to be by Himself. Of course He is never truly by Himself. During these times of seeming isolation, Jesus is deep in prayer to His Father, as in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before He suffered. Or He is engaged in spiritual warfare, as when He faced the temptation of the devil at the end of His forty days of fasting in the desert. Jesus takes the time to be alone precisely so that He can be more present to these spiritual realities.

Our Lord gives us an important model to follow. If even the Son of God needs to remove Himself from the distractions of the world to pray, how much more do we need to do the same?

Our world is full of distractions of many kinds. Jesus had five thousand hungry people asking to be fed. My wife and I only have our six children to feed, and they are distraction enough! It is difficult for me to escape distraction in my home. My routine is to rise early and devote time to prayer in the morning, before anyone else wakes up, because it’s the only time my house is quiet. But even then I am distracted by the dishwasher that needs unloading, the floor that needs sweeping, the bills that need paying. It is hard to silence the constant “to do” list that runs through my mind. For college students it may be homework to turn in, papers to write, application deadlines, roommate issues and class schedules.

Then there are all the distractions we willingly subject ourselves to. How many hours have you spent watching Netflix this week? How many hours have you spent in the gym working out? These things are not bad to do. But how many hours have you spent in prayer? If we spend 15 hours in the gym this week getting our body in shape, but only 15 minutes in prayer getting our soul in shape, we cannot expect to have a healthy spiritual life. If we spend four hours watching Netflix today and don’t even think about spending time in prayer, then our priorities are out of order.

I haven’t even mentioned the constant distraction that most of us (including myself) carry around in our pockets all day long. My smart phone is an unbearable distraction for me, with its constant notification sounds and blinking lights, demanding my attention. This is what makes our cell phones, our hobbies, our habits, our schedules, and all those other distractions different from God. They all demand our attention. They scream for our attention. But God doesn’t.

God doesn’t demand our attention. He expects it. He deserves it. But He doesn’t shout to get it, like everything else in this world.

In the first reading this Sunday (1 Kgs 19:9-13), Elijah is alone in a cave on top of a mountain. If you look at the reading, it catalogs many loud things that Elijah heard. He heard a strong wind. He heard an earthquake. He heard a fire. Any of these things would demand our attention. But God’s voice is not in any of them. When Elijah finally hears the voice of God, it comes in “a tiny, whispering sound.”

God spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice, so that Elijah himself had to be still and small in order to hear. God doesn’t so much want to be heard as He wants to be listened to. So when we complain that we don’t hear God speaking to us, perhaps we should ask ourselves: are we really listening?

To listen to God we have to be still. As the psalmist says, Be still and know that I am God (Ps 46:10). We have to make ourselves small. We have to remove ourselves from the distractions of this world. Turn off your cell phone. Log off of Facebook. Turn off the TV and take out your ear buds. Walk away from your worldly concerns for a while. Here at WCU we are fortunate in that we can literally go into the wilderness and climb to a mountaintop! Whether you do that, or simply shut the door to your room for a while, I urge you to make time each day to be alone with God.

This is especially important to remember as we approach the start of a new academic year. Soon your calendar, like mine, will be filled with classes, work hours, and meetings. Teachers, bosses, friends (and even campus ministers) will all make demands of your time and attention. They all will shout louder than God. Don’t be afraid to do what Jesus does in this Sunday’s gospel. Don’t be afraid to send them all away for a while — in a special way on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, but for a few minutes at least every day.

Dismiss the crowds. Grab your bible. Put your rosary in your pocket. Go up to the mountaintop to pray.