Watch any home video of me between the ages of 4 and 7 and you’ll notice that my voice is hoarse and scratchy. Not because I suffered from some horrible throat disease for three years of my childhood, but because as soon as I learned how to string words together, I chattered nonstop. And loudly too. My mom claims it made me easy to entertain—she’d sit me down with some crayons and a coloring book and I’d sit for hours and talk out loud, to myself, about nothing in particular: “I wonder what we’ll have for lunch today, I’m glad the sun came out this morning, I think I’ll color the grass green.” As long as my vocal cords were activated, I was a happy girl.
My voice is no longer permanently hoarse, but I am definitely still a talker. These verbal tendencies have seeped into every aspect of my life, including my times of prayer. I was taught, as many of us were, that prayer is all about talking to God, telling Him about our ups and downs, our triumphs and struggles. Of course this is right up my alley; praying—in the sense of chatting with God—always came easy to me. In the morning or before bed I have no problem remembering to talk, to the point where some of my prayers are on the verge of babbling. As a person who thrives on communicating verbally, prayer is the ultimate outlet: I can talk as much as I want and feel confident that someone very powerful is listening.
This is all well and good when you have things to share with God—your praises, your worries, your struggles. But the thing about communicating with God is that it’s always a two-way street, even when it doesn’t feel like it. Prayer is a conversation. God doesn’t just hear you when you cry out; He also responds. The struggle for a chatterbox like me is to revamp my definition of prayer as more than just talking to God. It’s also about listening to Him.
I learned this important lesson when I faced the first major struggle of my spiritual life. I had the now rather cliché experience of going to college, experiencing a whole new world of knowledge and learning, and growing increasingly disillusioned with the faith I was raised with. While I never questioned my core belief in God or Jesus Christ, I did begin to experience Christianity as an academic pursuit more than a personal one. I viewed God as something to be studied, rather than a presence to be experienced, and I spent more time reading about Jesus in books than feeling Him in my heart. My religion became just another subject to learn along with history and statistics.
After a few years of clinging to such an impersonal understanding of God, however, I began to feel the lack. A longing to experience God—to feel the love, strength, and comfort of Jesus – began growing deep inside of me. And so one lonely afternoon, curled up on the futon in my one-bedroom apartment, I began to pray. Swiftly, urgently, furiously, even. “Come back into my heart, Lord,” I said. “Let me feel that you exist, rather than just know it.” I repeated these words over and over and over again. My voice spewed forth every detail of my life, every feeling I’d had over the past years, every little thing I could think of to share with God just came tumbling out of my mouth. I went on and on and on, more and more rapidly, yet feeling no closer to God than I had before I started. For the first time I didn’t feel like I was praying—more like I was just talking—and it didn’t seem like anyone was listening.
And so I did something revolutionary: I stopped talking. Abruptly. My rambling came to a screeching halt, and instead I merely sat, mouth shut, in total quiet. I cleared my mind of all my thoughts—of all my expectations about what praying is supposed to look and feel like—and focused my entire attention on being open to the great, enveloping silence surrounding me. The stillness felt so invigorating and new that before I knew it almost twenty minutes had passed. And yet I wanted more; somehow the quiet just felt right. Another few minutes ticked by before the silence was broken by a soft, steady voice. The voice said, ever so gently, “I am here.” That’s it, just “I am here.” Upon hearing that voice, a thick blanket of peace descended onto me, and I wrapped myself up in it, reveling in the knowledge that my personal relationship with God was about to begin.
The experience was not supernatural; the voice definitely did not come from the outside. It came from within the deepest parts of me, the parts that I’d been ignoring for years. It came from within that buried place in my heart where Jesus was still residing, even though I hadn’t bothered to stop by for a visit for so long. But I think the voice saying “I am here” was even more than the voice of God, allowing me to feel that He was there. It was also my own voice, saying that in the silence, devoid of mindless jibber jabbering, I could be truly present for God. By shutting my mouth and quieting my thoughts, I could reach a state of heightened awareness of God’s presence, His will, and His guidance.
So while there still aren’t too many lulls in the conversation when I’m around, I’ve learned that prayer can be so much more amazing when we stop thinking that it’s just about talking to God. Sitting quietly and silently, saying and thinking absolutely nothing, is a prayer in its own right, and a powerful one at that. Because in taking the time to be quiet, we are taking the time to listen to God, to allow our prayers to become a dialogue with the one who holds our lives in His hands. That’s important enough to quiet even the loudest of chatterboxes.