Can You Hear Me Now, God?

T.M. Luhrmann, author of "When God Talks Back"

In my prayer life, which waxes and wanes, I’ve paid a bit of heed to the old psychiatry joke that when you talk to God, you’re praying, but when God talks to you, you’re nuts. It’s not that I brush off the idea of human beings conversing in a meaningful way with ultimate reality. It’s that the communication lines are more static-ridden than many would like to believe. At times they’re down completely, it seems.

Admittedly, I have tendentious thoughts when I hear people say that God sent them a sign—to pull up stakes and move to Alaska, or turn left at the corner where they found an exceptional parking space. I’m prone to assign such belief to an incredible category that includes George W. Bush supposedly claiming that God told him to invade Iraq. (Was God also wrong about the WMDs?) Somehow I leave out of this dubious category the story of Martin Luther King Jr. on a sleepless night in the winter of 1956, nervously clutching a cup of coffee at his kitchen table, gripped by fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At that moment (as he often recalled), he heard the voice of Jesus promising: “I will be with you” in the struggle.

But I do think this whole question warrants a serious and thoughtful handling. That’s what T. M. Luhrmann offers in her recently published and highly readable book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Knopf).

A psychological anthropologist now at Stanford, Luhrmann spent two years attending services at an evangelical church in Chicago and interviewing members of that congregation. With admirable scholarly detachment, she tackles basic questions like how “sensible people” are able to experience the presence of a powerful yet invisible being. One of her hypotheses is that some people are able to train their minds in such a way that they “learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness.”

Saw God

Surprisingly for a book about evangelicals, Ignatian spirituality comes up frequently. A number of the congregants interviewed by Luhrmann borrowed freely from the prayer and discernment practices of Jesuits, who, as these men like to say, seek to “find God in all things.” This past spring, while on assignment for Boston College Magazine, I was privileged to sit in on two small groups of undergraduate students as they reflected in this fashion on their lives and encounters with the divine.

The students belong to a campus faith-sharing network called Cura, which derives its name from the Jesuit expression cura personalis (Latin for “care of the person”). One of their favorite exercises is the “Highs and Lows,” which involves conversation about their ups and downs of recent days. Each member of the group also talks about where he or she “saw God.” For one young woman, it was in the warm and relieved smile of a driver who might have gestured differently after having to slam the brakes near Boston Common as the student jogged inattentively into the street, plugged into her iPod.

The Highs and Lows echo an Ignatian exercise called “the Examen” (from the Latin word for examination). It’s a spiritual self-review that involves prayerfully recollecting moments during the day and reflecting on how God was present at those times, followed by a decision to act in some way. “You’re asking God for light, and letting your mind roam over your day. And you’re looking forward to tomorrow, planting that seed,” Jesuit Father Michael Boughton, SJ, who directs Boston College’s Center for Ignatian Spirituality, told me. “Planting that seed” might mean deepening a friendship, reaching out to the poor, or strengthening one’s prayer life, the priest noted.

This is the mode of prayer that I most readily embrace. It has its roots not only in the writings of St. Ignatius Loyola, but also in the spiritual practices of the ancient Stoics, according to a number of authorities. What I like about the five-step Examen is that it leads the pray-er to focus on segments of time (a day, preferably) and to recall how he or she felt during specific moments. Only then can people adequately reflect on the meaning of those experiences and perhaps what God (or the collective unconscious?) was communicating to them.

I also like one of the premises of the daily Examen, which is that such discernment requires continual reflection and reevaluation, because understanding the divine intent is an iffy business. You might get mixed signals or no signals at all. You could be just plain wrong about what God (or the Truth) is bidding you to do, but at least you’ll be engaged in a thoughtful spiritual exercise that is notably free of nuttiness.

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