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Prayer as listening

30 November, 1999

I learned from a young Chinese woman Jing Ying, writes Desmond O’Donnell OMI, that prayer is more about receiving than giving. I learned that prayer is privilege, not obligation. It was in a slum parish in the city of Taipei that my prayer-life moved into much greater depth. My near-instant progress came from meeting a […]

I learned from a young Chinese woman Jing Ying, writes Desmond O’Donnell OMI, that prayer is more about receiving than giving. I learned that prayer is privilege, not obligation.

It was in a slum parish in the city of Taipei that my prayer-life moved into much greater depth. My near-instant progress came from meeting a young Chinese woman called Jing Ying whom in those days I would have categorized as a pagan. My graced moment took place when Jing Ying asked me to help in her step from Confucianism to Catholicism.

I asked her, ‘Do you ever pray?’ A little to my surprise her answer was that she prayed every day. Then I asked her to tell me a little about how she prayed. Jing Ying said that in order to answer my question she would have to tell me about her mother. I listened.

Her family was poor and as a child she had only two well-worn dresses. Each time her mother replaced a soiled dress with the clean one, she would ask her little daughter to stand out in front of her for what to a child seemed like a long few minutes. This was an exercise which Jing Ying said tested her three- or four-year-old patience greatly. One day in mild desperation she asked why she had to stand so long while her mother just looked at her. Her mother’s reply — `Jing Ying, I ask you to stand in front of me for a little while because I love looking at you; you are beautiful’. She said that her prayer is like that. She prays by letting God look at her and speak to her in the same way.

I asked her how she felt after she had heard her mother’s reason for asking her to stand silently before her. She said that she felt great, so loved, so happy and that it always increased her love for and confidence in herself. Her feeling was sometimes a deep feeling of love for her mother, sometimes of regret that she has disappointed her mother and sometimes it was just a desire to love her mother more. She said that at times she felt like gasping with joy. Then she told me that her prayer-feelings were like that because she knew that God was also saying ‘I love looking at you and you are beautiful’.

For me, this moment of enlightenment seemed such a long way from my daily tiring effort to ‘raise my heart and mind to God’. I, an Irish Catholic priest, learned from a young Chinese ‘pagan’ woman that prayer is more about the action of a loving God than about my efforts to love that God. I learned that prayer is more about receiving than giving. I learned that prayer is privilege, not obligation. I learned that prayer is more about receptive listening than about active talking. I learned that prayer is less about raising my heart and my mind to God than having an expectant attitude within me to
welcome the gaze and the words of God who loves me.

Of course, if I had been attentive enough to the New Testament I should have learned a long time ago that the big issue in life, and in prayer, is not my love for God, but God’s love for me first. Not my attempts to love God in prayer, but rather my willingness to receive that love. I recall that St. Therese was not bothered by falling asleep at prayer, since she knew that God loved her equally awake or when asleep. That put an end to my confessing distractions at prayer.

Prayer is basically listening to God, receiving and relishing his word. That word was spoken most powerfully when it became flesh and dwelt among us. That word is now speaking, especially in the New Testament, and when we hear it with open hearts, the Holy Spirit leads us into ever deeper acceptance of God’s love for us.

We read and listen to words at many levels. Some words go no further than our ears. Some enter our minds and make us think. Other words touch our surface feelings with shallow joy or momentary sadness.
The deepest form of listening takes place when we listen to words with the ear of the heart as Jing Ying did. We don’t listen in this way to television adverts, to functional conversation with work mates, or to the social noise popped out in office elevators. We usually listen in this way only to close friends because their words come to us wrapped in love. These words enhance our sense of self-worth and change the way we look at the world. God is such a friend, and the words of this friend are always ‘I love you’ expressed in different ways.

Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen a better way because, rather than speaking to him or serving his meal, she sat and listened. Recall also that on the road to Emmaus, the two disciples’ hearts were on fire listening to God’s word — ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’

Like Jing Ying’s feelings before her mother’s loving gaze, our deep feeling in prayer before the words of scripture may be one of love, joy, peace or freedom, one of need, of hope or of confidence, one of awe or wonder, one of being called with a desire to respond, or a feeling of regret for past failures. Whatever your individual and unique feeling is, this is your prayer from your heart.

This is how, like Jin Ying, I am learning to stand or sit under God’s loving gaze and joyfully receive the lifegiving word of the New Testament.

 

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