The Word Among Us

Easter 2011 Issue

Open Ears, Open Hearts

A new book teaches us how to hear God's voice.

By: Bob French

Open Ears, Open Hearts: A new book teaches us how to hear God's voice. by Bob French

What does the title "How to Listen When God Is Speaking" suggest to you? Perhaps it sounds like a how-to book that gives us ten simple steps to know the will of God in every situation.

Or maybe it sounds like a complicated dissertation on receiving mystical revelations from God through deep prayer.

Fortunately for us, Fr. Mitch Pacwa’s book is neither of these. As he says in his introduction, “Listening to God is not as simple as listening to our MP3 players or cell phones.” But neither is God so far removed from our daily lives that the only way we can hear from him is to seclude ourselves in a monastery.

It’s precisely the point of Pacwa’s book to show us the balance between these two extremes. He tells us that God really does speak to believers “within the real history of their own lives.” But he also draws on the wisdom of the church and his own experience as a priest to help us understand just how God reveals himself and some of the ways we can be prepared to receive his revelation and to respond to it.

Whose Terms? I appreciate this book’s methodical approach because firsthand experience tells me that hearing God’s voice is not easy to explain. Instead of jumping right into the topic, Pacwa brings up a point that is easy to miss: If we want to find God’s will for us, we first have to come to “an acceptance of God on his terms” and not ours.

As Pacwa explains, it means accepting the fact that God has revealed himself in history and that he expects us to live according to his commandments. This calls for “a decision to love God as he wants, which means with our whole hearts, minds, and souls.” What’s more, he reminds us, it’s not just a matter of loving God; it’s about loving other people too.

That thought alone could keep us busy for a while, but that’s just the beginning. Once we have accepted God, we can move on to trying to discern what he’s telling us in specific situations. To help us, Pacwa goes into St. Ignatius of Loyola’s rules for discerning the movement of God within our hearts. He discusses the alternating “consolations” and “desolations” we experience in daily life. As one who still struggles with the discipline of a daily prayer time, I particularly appreciated his point that “missing our time with God is truly missing out on life’s joy, and its omission will contribute to a desolate state in our souls.”

Whose Glory? I was also inspired by the chapter on carrying out God’s will once we have discerned it. Here Pacwa tells us that seeking the greater glory of God can sometimes come at the cost of our own personal “glory.” He tells how he himself faced strong opposition from his father when he decided to become a priest and not a doctor, as his father had expected. Pacwa responded by saying that as a doctor, he could only heal people’s bodies, but as a priest, he could hear people’s confessions and help them get to heaven. Ironically, he ended up hearing his father’s dying confession— even after his father had disinherited him and said he would never confess to him!

Pacwa takes the discussion a step further by bringing in the most important part of discernment— prayer. Being heavily involved in the Charismatic Renewal with its emphasis on spontaneity, I admit to having an “aha!” moment when I read his statement that “traditional prayers need not be treated as something inferior to the spontaneous prayers that come from a person’s heart.&##8221; His example of saying the Act of Contrition slowly and meditating on each phrase was so intriguing that I put down the book and tried it myself, only to experience that traditional prayer in a new, beautiful way.

Of course, no discussion of prayer would be complete without Scripture, and Pacwa has some excellent tips on bringing God’s word into our daily prayer. For me, his most helpful suggestion is one I’ve heard before but one that always bears repeating: “Ask the Holy Spirit who inspired the words of Scripture to stir within our hearts and inspire us both to understand the Scriptures and hear him speak through them.” Having written meditations on the Scriptures, I can’t count the times that I have read and reread a passage without any inspiration— only to pray to the Holy Spirit and have something “click” in my heart and mind.

It’s for Everyone. If there’s one truth about God’s will that Pacwa captures most effectively, it’s that it is often messy: “Discerning God’s will is not an experience of warm and fuzzy feelings.” As Pacwa relates, not only do we have to learn to integrate our intellect, emotions, and will to make good choices, we often have to do so under very tough circumstances. But if we open ourselves to God’s larger plan, these circumstances can transform us. Pacwa’s description of his traumatic experience working with a Chicago street gang and how it changed his life brought this home to me in a profound way, as did his thoughts on suffering:

“Our own struggles may seem overwhelming, embarrassing, and painful at the time we are going through them. We may simply wish they would be over. Yet precisely because we have joined them to the passion of Christ . . . we may end up seeing them as the most significant moments of our lives. We come to find the meaning of life in them because, like the wounds in Christ’s hands and feet and side, our wounds become a witness to God’s goodness and a source of strength to ourselves and to other people.”

How to Listen When God Is Speaking not only renewed my confidence in prayer, it surprised me! It reminded me that discerning God’s will is neither purely spiritual nor purely intellectual—it’s practiced in our everyday lives. And hearing God’s voice isn’t just for the superspiritual or the scholars. It’s for everyone.

Bob French lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and has been writing for The Word Among Us for 7 years.

How to Listen When God Is Speaking, Mitch Pacwa, SJ (softcover, 176 pp.), is available from The Word Among Us at 1-800-775-9673 or online at Also available online is an excerpt and more information about the book.

How to Listen When God Is Speaking