Lisa and Jason had expected a joyful trip home after the birth of their first daughter, Amanda. But then one of the hospital nurses came to them with troubling news. “Amanda’s hearing is outside the normal range for newborns. It doesn’t necessarily mean she has hearing loss, but you’ll need to follow up with your pediatrician.” It was the first of many difficult medical conversations.
Amanda did, in fact, have severe hearing loss. She didn’t startle at loud noises or look toward the source of a sound. She would smile when she saw her parents’ faces but didn’t turn her head when they spoke to her from beyond her view. Crushed, Lisa and Jason pursued every available option to help their daughter. One appointment followed the next, until the day that Amanda was fitted with hearing aids.
Lisa held Amanda on her lap while the doctor inserted the devices. Jason looked intently into Amanda’s eyes. “Amanda, Amanda,” Lisa called from behind her daughter.
“Amanda, where’s Mom?” asked Jason. No reaction.
“Amanda, I’m right here,” Lisa said, choking back the tears. Silence.
Suddenly Amanda’s expression changed, and she turned to look back at her mother. “Amanda, here I am!” A smile flashed across Amanda’s face, and her whole body leaped with excitement.
“Amanda!” cried Jason. Amanda turned toward her dad with a gasp. Overcome with relief, the parents started laughing and crying all at once. Their daughter could hear them! Amanda, for her part, giggled and squirmed with delight.
This joy can be ours as we grow closer to God in our prayer.
An Encounter with God. There are many ways to pray. There are the traditional prayers that we learned as children. There are the heartfelt petitions that we offer to God. There are the prayers of the Mass. But as different as all these types of prayer are, they have one goal in common: an encounter with God.
Here’s how St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun from the nineteenth century, described prayer: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love.” That sounds a lot like what Amanda experienced when she first heard her parents’ voices. It’s the experience of our hearts connecting with our own heavenly Father: God himself.
This month we want to explore how we can experience God’s presence more deeply when we pray. We want to ask how we can encounter God as Thérèse did, how we can hear his voice as Amanda heard her parents, and how we can respond to that voice in a way that changes our lives.
We Thirst for God. Scripture tells us that God created us in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). It teaches that God has hardwired us to seek him and to find him. That means that deep in our hearts, we all long to be connected to God. Even in the midst of our sin, “man remains an image of his Creator, and retains the desire for the one who calls him into existence” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2566). Or as Ecclesiastes says, God has placed “the timeless into [our] hearts” so that we all sense that we belong to eternity and the eternal God (3:11).
Yet while we all long for God, we don’t always recognize that it is God we are yearning for. Often, we try to quench our thirst for the eternal God with fleeting things. Pleasure and power, prestige and possessions may attract us, but they provide only temporary relief.
While good attractions, like education, accomplishments at work, or success in our marriage and family, can help soothe us, even these can leave us unsatisfied. We long for something more. That’s because, as St. Augustine said, we were made for God and “our hearts are restless until they find rest” in him.
God Thirsts for Us. But we aren’t the only ones who are thirsting. God himself thirsts for us! He has always longed for us to encounter him. Psalm 139 tells us that he knows when we sit and when we stand; he sifts through our travel and our rest. He is always watching over us, offering us his guidance so that we can find our way to him (139:2, 3, 10).
From the moment our first parents fell into sin until today, our God has been calling out to us: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). “Return to me with your whole heart” (Joel 2:12). “Man may forget his Creator or hide far from his face,” the Catechism tells us. “He may run after idols or accuse the deity of having abandoned him; yet the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer” (CCC, 2567).
On the cross, Jesus gave us the clearest revelation of his longing for us. When he cried out “I thirst,” he was telling us how much he wanted us to be joined to him (John 19:28). He was also showing us the lengths to which he would go to bring us back to him. Even today, two thousand years after he made this declaration, Jesus continues to thirst for our love. He never stops longing to gather us into his arms of love and mercy. Jesus is longing for you.
Living Water for Thirsty Souls. Do you remember the story of Jesus’ conversation with “the woman at the well” (John 4:4-42)? He was resting by a well in the Samaritan town of Sychar when a woman came to draw water. Seeing her, he said, “Give me a drink” (4:7). Now, there’s more to this request than Jesus asking for a cup of water on a hot day. St. Augustine tells us, “Although Jesus asked for a drink, his real thirst was for this woman’s faith.” According to St. Thérèse, “When he said, ‘Give me a drink,’ it was the love of his poor creature that the Creator of the universe was seeking. He was thirsty for love.”
As the story unfolds, we learn that Jesus knew about this woman’s past. He knew that she had been married five times and that the man she was living with wasn’t her husband. He knew that she was avoiding scandal by coming to the well at the hottest part of the day, when no one else would be there. But Jesus wasn’t put off by her past sins or her current situation. “If you knew the gift of God,” he told her, “and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). His words laid bare the thirst that she had tried to quench with the other “loves” in her life.
Jesus then led the woman from shame and isolation to faith and a loving relationship with God. He showed her that she need never thirst again. For her part, the woman had tasted the living water of Jesus’ presence and his love. She was so excited, in fact, that she ran and told all the townsfolk about Jesus and the living water that he wanted to give them (John 4:39-41). Finally, she found what she had been longing for all along. And finally, there at the well, God’s thirst for her was satisfied.
Prayer: Where Both Thirsts Can Be Quenched. So how can you quench your thirst? How can your deepest longings be fulfilled? By encountering Jesus in prayer. And not just once, but every day—in your home, at Mass, during Adoration, as you pray the Rosary, and any other way you pray. Remember, Jesus thirsts for you too, so he doesn’t want to make it hard for you. Like the Samaritan woman, you can come and spend time with Jesus; you can have a conversation with him. By sitting at his feet in prayer day after day, you will put yourself in a place where you can experience his lavish love for you and the “living water” of his presence.
This is not to say that prayer is always going to be easy. Sometimes we feel dry or distracted or anxious. It can be difficult to find the time or even the desire to pray. Maybe you view prayer as a religious obligation, a demand that God is making on you. Maybe you feel guilty that you aren’t praying enough or that you go to God only when you need help from him. Of course, God is always happy to hear from you, even when it’s only a five-second plea for help. But he wants so much more, and he wants you to experience so much more. He longs for an exchange of love, that “surge of the heart” that St. Thérèse wrote about.
In our next two essays, we will explore ways that you can come to your heavenly Father and experience his love more deeply. We’ll look at how encountering him can quench your inner thirst and make you want to keep coming back for more. Like baby Amanda, you can grow closer to God by learning to hear him speak words of love, mercy, and encouragement to you.