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          How Do I Hear The Word?


All the passages below are taken from the book “Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith” by Henri Nouwen with Michael J Christensen and Rebecca J Laird. It was published in 2006.


HERE ARE three sayings of the Desert Fathers about hearing the word of God. Together they reveal the variant meanings of word.


-Word and Wisdom-

In Scetis, a brother went to see Abba Moses and begged him for a word. And the old man said: Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.


A brother asked Abba Hieracus: Give me a word. How can I be saved? The old man said to him: Sit in your cell; if you are hungry, eat; if you are thirsty, drink; and just do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved.


Abba Hyperichius, from the silence of his cell, said: The person who teaches others by actions, not by words, is truly wise.1



During the fourth and fifth centuries, among the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the Egyptian desert, it was not uncommon for a novice to find an older monk and ask: "Abba, do you have a word for me?" Often, the Abba would help the seeker listen for the word of God. These desert Christians seeking to find God in the word meant three things by word. First of all, they meant the Living Word (Logos), which is Jesus. Secondly, they meant the written word, which is Holy Scripture. And thirdly, they meant a spoken word (rhema), which flows forth from a prophet out of silence and humbleness of heart and which speaks to one's current condition. The Living Word, the written word, and a spoken word are three ways God speaks to us. And to these three I want to add a fourth: writing the word, thoughtfully and prayerfully, so as to encourage your own participation in hearing and recognizing the word in your own lives.




Listening to the eternal, creative Living Word, both hidden and revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus, is the first way we encounter Jesus. The Gospel of John begins this way:


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of human beings. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5)


This passage from John highlights a core truth about Jesus: he somehow existed before creation, enlivens human beings, and transcends time and all creation. This type of word isn't restricted to a page, it creates and acts. John uses the Greek word logos to capture this meaning.

My own words sometimes lose their creative power. In contrast to the many words that define our existence is this creative word of God. The Living Word is born out of the eternal silence of God, and it is to this creative word out of silence that we want to bear witness.

Before the word was incarnated in her womb, Mary bore witness to the word of God. Because of her obedient listening, the word could become flesh in her. Listening is a very vulnerable stance. Mary was so vulnerable, so open, and so receptive that she could listen with her whole being. Nothing in her resisted the word that was announced to her by the angel. She was "all ears" and heart. Thus, the promise could be fulfilled in her far beyond her own understanding and control. "I am the Lord's servant," Mary said. "May it be to me as you have said" (Luke 1:38).

Listening is the core attitude of the person who is open to God's living and creative word. Prayer is listening to God, being open and receptive to God's influence. True listening has become increasingly difficult in churches and institutions, where people remain on their guard, afraid to expose their weaker side, eager to be recognized as successful and bright. In our contemporary competitive society, listening often is a way of "checking the other person out." It is a defensive stance in which we do not really allow anything new to happen to us. It is a suspicious way of receiving that makes us wonder what serves our purposes and what does not. The psalmist warns against this hardening of the heart:


Today, listen to the voice of the Lord;

Do not grow stubborn, as your, fathers and

mothers did in the wilderness,

When at Meriba and Massah they challenged

me and provoked me,

Although they had seen all my works. (Psalm 95:7-9)


The word of God here is to listen to the voice of love and not to harden your hearts.

This kind of listening asks us to model our lives on Jesus and to commit to follow the way of life Jesus set forth. This listening assumes a personal prayer life and a belief in Jesus' activity in the world today as the Living Word of God.

Listening to the incarnate word of life is the heart of Christian faith. In Mary, we see the purest form of this listening. That is why she is called "blessed" by her cousin Elizabeth. It is through her obedience to the word that became flesh in her that she becomes not only the mother of God but also the mother of all the faithful. We who wish to be faithful are called to this same kind of obedience. When we listen faithfully to the word, the word becomes flesh in us and dwells among us.

Jesus, the Word of God, is hidden in humanity. In him, God became a human being among a small, oppressed people, under very difficult circumstances. There was nothing spectacular about his life. Even when you look at Jesus' miracles, you find that he did not heal or revive people in order to get publicity. He often forbade them even to talk about it. He was held in contempt by the rulers of his country and was put to a shameful death between two criminals. His resurrection was a hidden event. Only his disciples and a few of the women and men who had known him intimately before his death saw him as the risen Lord. Neither his life nor death nor resurrection was intended to astound us with the great power of God. God became a lowly, hidden, almost invisible God in bodily form. And this is the real power of the word.

Perhaps you think about the word of God as a divine exhortation to go out and change your life. But the full power of the word lies not in how you apply it to your life after you have heard it but in how its transforming power does its divine work in you as you listen.




A second way to encounter God is to listen to the living word in the written word of God. Reading, meditating, and listening to the word of God in the words of scripture opens our heart to God's presence. We listen to a sentence, a story, or a parable not simply to be instructed, informed, or inspired but to be formed into a truly obedient person of faith. Listening in this way, we are guided by the Bible. The gospels are filled with examples of God's disclosure in the word. Personally, I am always touched by the story of Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth. There he read from Isaiah, as it is recorded in Luke 4:18-19.


The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

for he has anointed me

to bring good news to the afflicted.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives,

sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord.


After having read these words, Jesus said, "This text is fulfilled today even while you are listening." Contemplating this text, we suddenly see that the afflicted, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed are not people somewhere outside of the synagogue who, someday, will be liberated. They are the people---poor and needy---who are listening to Jesus here and now. You and I are captives in need of liberation, spiritually blind, and we want to see. You and I are the ones who feel oppressed and hope that Jesus will set us free.

To take the scriptures and read them contemplatively is called lectio divina, or spiritual reading. The term lectio divina comes from the Benedictine tradition and refers primarily to the divine or sacred reading of the Bible. Lectio divina is the ancient monastic practice of reading scripture meditatively---not to master the word, not to criticize the word, but to be mastered by and challenged by the word. It means to read the Bible "on your knees," that is, reverently, attentively, and with the deep conviction that God has a unique word for you in your own situation. In short, spiritual reading is a reading in which we allow the word to read and interpret us. Spiritual reading is the discipline of meditation on the word of God. To meditate means to "let the word descend from our minds into our hearts." Meditation means chewing on the word and incorporating it into our lives. It is the discipline by which we let the written word of God become a personal word for us, anchored in the center of our being.

Spiritual reading is food for our souls. We receive the word into our silence where we can ruminate on it, mull on it, digest it, and let it become flesh in us. In this way, lectio divina is the ongoing incarnation of God in our world.

Spiritual reading is the sacrament of the word, a participation in God's real presence.

Through regular spiritual practice, we develop an inner ear that allows us to recognize the Living Word in the written word, speaking directly to our most intimate needs and aspirations. In the spiritual reading of scripture, we focus on God and on God's words. We seek a word and then concentrate on that word in prayer. It is in the listening to particular words in the scripture that God suddenly becomes present to heal and save.

Reading often means gathering information, acquiring new insight and knowledge, and mastering a new field. It can lead us to degrees, diplomas, and certificates. Spiritual reading, however, is different. It means not simply reading about spiritual things but also reading about spiritual things in a spiritual way. That requires a willingness not just to read but to be read, not just to master but to be mastered by words. As long as we read the Bible or a spiritual book simply to acquire knowledge, our reading does not help us in our spiritual lives. We can become very knowledgeable about spiritual matters without becoming truly spiritual people.

Reading the word of God should lead us first of all to contemplation and meditation. As we read spiritually about spiritual things, we open our hearts to God's voice. Sometimes we must be willing to put down the book we are reading and just listen to what God is saying to us through its words.

Spiritual reading is far from easy in our modern, intellectual world, where we tend to make anything and everything we read subject to analysis and discussion. Instead of taking the words apart, we should bring them together in our innermost being; instead of wondering if we agree or disagree with what we have read, we should wonder which words are spoken directly to us and connect directly with our most personal story. Instead of thinking about the words as potential subjects for an interesting dialogue or paper, we should be willing to let them penetrate into the most hidden corners of our heart, even to those places where no other word has yet found entrance. Then and only then can the word bear fruit as seed sown in rich soil.

It helps to realize that the Bible is not primarily a book of information about God but of formation of the heart. It is not merely a book to be analyzed, scrutinized, and discussed, but a book to nurture, unify, and serve as a constant source of contemplation. We must struggle constantly against the temptation to read the Bible instrumentally as a book full of good stories and illustrations that can help us make our point in sermons, lectures, papers, and articles. The Bible does not speak to us as long as we want to use it. As long as we deal with the word of God as an item with which we can do many useful things, we don't really read the Bible or let it read us. Only when we are willing to hear the written word as a word for us can the Living Word disclose himself and penetrate into the center of our heart.

Lectio divina, then, involves a trust that in the words we read there is always the word of God to find. It is an attentive waiting for the words that connect deeply with the word, and a careful discerning of where the word is leading us. It is a form of listening in which we keep wondering which words are written for us as food for our own spiritual journey. Most important, it is a way of reading the word that is received with our whole being, our present condition, our past experiences, and our future aspirations. When we expose all that we are before the written word, the Living Word can be revealed here and now in our reading. When we read the Bible in this way, the Living Word found in the encounter between God's story and our individual story becomes written on our heart, where it enlivens us spiritually.

As we slowly let the written words enter into our minds and descend into our hearts, we become different people. The word gradually becomes flesh in us and transforms our whole being. In and through the reading of God's word and reflection on it, God becomes flesh in us now and makes us into living Christs for today.




A third way to encounter God in the word is through the spoken word (rhema), born out of silence, offered or received, as the ripe fruit of solitude.

The prophet Elijah, in the silence of the cave on Mount Horeb, heard the "still, small voice" of God (1 Kings 19:13). Jesus warned his listeners to be careful about the words they speak, "for by your words you will be judged" (Matthew 12:36-37). Paul refers to the spoken word of God as the "sword of the Spirit" (Ephesians 6:17). In Mark's Gospel (1:32-37) we read:


Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you!"


Jesus replied, "Let us go somewhere else---to the nearby villages---so I can preach there also. That is why I have come."


There is little doubt that Jesus' life was a very busy life. He was busy teaching his disciples, preaching to the crowds, healing the sick, exorcising demons, responding to questions from foes and friends, and moving from one place to another. Jesus was so involved in activities that it became difficult to have any time alone. Yet he found a way to leave the crowd, withdraw from the pressing needs, and embrace solitude and silence. Alone with God in prayer, he could hear the spoken word directly from the heart of God. Solitary prayer was the source of his strength, the well of his wisdom, and the womb of his words. Having been in the presence of God, Jesus was able to discern God's will for the moment. After time set apart for solitude and silence, prayer and listening, he knew where to go, what to say, and what to do the rest of the day. "And he went all through Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons" (Mark


Consider the daily pattern and discipline of Jesus. "Early in the morning, while it was still dark, he got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed." When do we get up, and where do we go, to be alone with God and pray? How do we know what to do and say on a particular day? Where do we go to find daily strength, gain wisdom from above, and hear a word from God?

In the Gospel of Luke we read about how Jesus goes up the mountain---with Peter, James, and John---to pray. There they see the face of Jesus change while he prays. His clothing becomes as bright as the sun, and a cloud overshadows them. They are afraid of what they see but are able to listen to the voice they hear say: "This is my Son, the Chosen One, listen to him" (Luke 9:28-36).

When Peter, James, and John see Jesus full of light on the mountain, they want that moment of clear vision to last forever. They hear a voice that reminds them of who Jesus is, and are told to listen to him. Their experience or vision is one of fullness of time (kairos) and a moment of grace.

As we listen to the word, there are moments when we experience complete unity within us and around us. In such moments of refreshment we are clear about our identity and calling. In such experiences we are most open to hear the still, small voice of God speak a personal word of hope and blessing to us in our heightened listening.

Here we glimpse the great mystery in which we participate through silence and the word, the mystery of God's own speaking. These moments are given to us so that we can remember the word when God seems far away and everything appears empty and useless. It is in the valleys that we need to remember the mountaintop. It is during the dry spells, when we are lonely or afraid, that we most need to listen to the word.

After we have been silent and listened, the time may come for us to speak. Silence teaches us when and how to speak a word of truth or wisdom to another. A powerful word is a word that emerges from silence, bears fruit, and returns to silence. It is a word that reminds us and others of the silence from which it comes and leads us back to that eternal silence. A word that is not rooted in silence is a weak, powerless word that sounds like a "clashing cymbal or a booming gong" (1 Corinthians 13:1).

Speaking the word of God from a place of silence is participating in God's own spoken word. It is speaking what is heard out of eternity into time. It is a speaking that emerges out of silent love and thus creates new life. When our words are no longer connected with and nurtured by the silence from which they come, they lose their authority and degenerate into "mere words" that cannot bear fruit. But when our words carry within them God's eternal silence, then they can be truly life-giving.

Let me give you an example: If you too quickly say to a person in pain, "God loves you as the apple of his eye; God is always with you even when you feel most alone," such words can be little more than pious phrases that do more harm than good. But when these same words are spoken from a heart that has listened long to God's voice and has gradually been molded by it, then they can truly bring new life and healing. Then, words are sacramental---they carry within themselves the reality to which they point.

Sometimes we need to hear a life-giving word spoken by another and addressed to our current condition. God sometimes sends a prophet to speak a personal word to us in time of need. Often, for example, parishioners say to their pastors: "I felt you were speaking God's word directly to me today in your sermon." Sometimes the needed word comes straight to our heart directly from God. More often, it is in the loving words of others that we hear God's word for us.

There have been many occasions in my life during which I felt isolated and cut off from God and from my fellow human beings. It was during these times that I heard God speak to me through someone who spoke a word with great humility and love. When I received it, a safe space was opened in me where I could meet my God and my brothers and sisters in a new way. Every time this happened I felt a deep desire to let that word grow deeper by dwelling in its silence.

Silence is the royal road to spiritual formation. Without silence, the spoken word can never bear fruit. Moreover, only through silence can the word descend from the mind into the heart. As long as our hearts and minds are filled with words of our own making, there is no space for the word to enter deeply into our heart and take root.

All spoken words need to be born out of silence and constantly return to it. Silence gives strength and fruitfulness to the word. Out of silence the word within can be spoken. Our spoken words are meant to disclose the mystery of the silence from which they come. Once words complete their function, the silence remains. The Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu expresses this well:


The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of the word is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find someone who has forgotten words? That is the one I would like to talk to.2




For me, to find God in the word often requires writing. Spiritual writing has a very important place in spiritual formation. Even so, writing often is the source of great pain and anxiety. It is remarkable how hard it is to sit down quietly and trust our own creativity. There seems to be a deep-seated resistance to writing. I have experienced this resistance myself over and over again. Even after many years of writing, I experience real fear when I face the empty page. Why am I so afraid? Sometimes I have an imaginary reader in mind who is looking over my shoulder and rejecting every word I write down. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the countless books and articles that already have been written and I cannot imagine that I have anything to say that hasn't already been said better by someone else. Sometimes it seems that every sentence fails to express what I really want to say and that written words simply cannot hold what goes on in my mind and heart. These fears sometimes paralyze me and make me delay or even abandon my writing plans.

And still, every time I overcome these fears and trust not only my own unique way of being in the world but also my ability to give words to it, I experience a deep spiritual satisfaction. I have been trying to understand the nature of this satisfaction. What I am gradually discovering is that in the writing I come in touch with the Spirit of God within me and experience how I am led to new places.

Many think that writing means writing down ideas, insights, or visions. They are of the opinion that they first must have something to say before they can put it on paper. For them, writing is little more than recording preexistent thoughts. But with this approach, true writing is impossible. Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals to us what is alive in us. The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write. To write is to embark on a journey of which we do not know the final destination. Thus, writing requires a great act of trust. We have to say to ourselves: "I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust that it will emerge as I write." Writing is like giving away the few loaves and fishes we have, trusting that they will multiply in the giving. Once we dare to "give away" on paper the few thoughts that come to us, we start discovering how much is hidden underneath these thoughts and thus we gradually come in touch with our own riches and resources.

Spiritual formation requires a constant attempt to identify ways in which God is present among us. Regular writing is one important way to do this. I remember how, during a long stay in Latin America, daily writing helped me to discern how the Spirit of God was at work in all that I was experiencing. Underneath the seemingly fragmenting multitude of visual and mental stimulations, I was able to discover a "hidden wholeness." Writing made that possible. It brought me in touch with the unity underneath the diversity and the solid current beneath the restless waves. Writing became the way to stay in touch with the faithfulness of God in the midst of a chaotic existence.

In these circumstances I came to realize that writing was indeed a form of prayer. It also brought about community, since the written word helped me to create a space where different people, who found it hard to identify anything lasting among their passing impressions, could gather and come to trust their own experiences. These words became a proclamation of God's faithful presence even there where least expected.

Finally, let me share with you an example of how spiritual writing---a simple letter---revealed a word of hope to someone in need:

There was a Dutch soldier who was captured and made a prisoner of war. The enemies took him far away from his homeland, and he was completely isolated from his family and friends. He did not hear anything from home and felt very lonely and afraid. He did not know if anybody at home was alive or how his country was doing. He had a thousand questions but could not answer a single one. He felt he did not have anything left to live for and was in despair.

Then, he got an unexpected letter, crumpled and dirty because it had traveled so long and far to reach him. It was just a piece of paper, but precious to him because of the words it might contain. He opened the letter and read these simple words: "We all are waiting for you at home. Everything is fine. Do not worry. We will see you back at home and we all desire to see you."


This simple letter changed his life. He suddenly felt better and no longer despaired. There was a reason to live. The external circumstances of his life, his imprisonment and isolation, did not change. He continued his labor, endured the same difficult things, but he felt completely different on the inside. Somebody was waiting for him, and desired to see him. He still had a home. Hope was reborn in him that day. Writing simple words in a short letter saved a life, for there was a word of God in the words of another.

What I am trying to say is that God has written us a love letter in the scripture, the written word. The written word points to the Living Word, which is God incarnate in the person of Jesus. In both the Living Word and the written word, God continues to speak---personally and in a quiet voice. We speak the word of God to each other out of the silence of listening to God. And writing the word also reveals the word of God to us and others. Thus, a personal relationship with the Living Word, contemplative reading of the written word, silent meditation before a spoken word is offered or received, and the spiritual act of writing a word in a letter or prayer journal are four ways we hear the word of God. Or, to put it another way, we encounter God in the word through the disciplines of obedient listening, sacred reading, humble speaking, and spiritual writing. [86-101]








Listening, reading, speaking, and writing in ways that are faithful to the word of God are difficult spiritual disciplines. Here are four simple rules for finding God in the word:


Listen to the Living Word, which is Jesus, in your heart through contemplative prayer.


Read the written word with an open embrace through the practice of lectio divina.


Let your speaking of a word be born out of a gentle silence and humbleness of heart.


After a time or prayer and mediation, write a love letter or a spiritual reflection about what God may be saying. Share this with your spiritual director or prayer group.


With Christ in our hearts, the Bible in our hands, and some time for solitude and silence in our lives, we can find God in the word. The Living Word of God draws us into silence, and silence makes us attentive to God's written word, but word and silence both need the guidance of a spoken word through a trusted friend. May I be your guide for a moment? I want to lead you through a spiritual exercise of centering prayer, lectio divina, and spiritual writing to help you find God in the word.3



First, bring yourself to God as you are. Sit comfortably; your Bible open to a selected reading. All you have to bring to your relationship with God is yourself. The object is not to try to feel special or holy; but to feel plainly yourself.

Then, close your eyes and become quietly attentive to yourself. ... Become aware of your breathing, and begin to relax with its natural rhythm.

As you relax, you will first become aware of noises, smells ... soon your quiet will be interrupted, first by a trickle, then a rush of thoughts, feelings, shopping lists, things undone, pressing concerns.

Allow these to come. They are not obstacles to this time of quiet, they are its purpose.

Resist concentrating on any particular thought or feeling (this will block others), but allow each one to pass on by. When you do become hooked by one, don't fight. Become attentive once again to your breathing, and then allow the thoughts and feelings to come again.

You will often find that the rush subsides to a few deeper thoughts, thicker feelings. Listen ... Listen ... Listen ...

After several minutes, when you are ready, open your eyes. You are now ready to seek God in the written word.




Choose a passage of scripture to read aloud, slowly, attentively, once through. Pause to let the passage sink in. Resist a familiar understanding, even of a familiar passage. Allow yourself to hear the story anew.

Reread the passage, piece by piece. Note the story line and questions raised. Again, resist the familiar interpretation. Look for a word or two in the story. Explore the passage the way a child might explore a strange room, in the spirit of curiosity and openness.

Read the passage a third time. What word or words jump out at you, commanding your attention? Stay with that word as long as you can. Meditate on it. Chew on it. Is God speaking a personal word to you today? Contemplate the personal word for you today in the written word. Live today in the joy that the Living Word has spoken to you.




When time allows, open your journal and record your spiritual insights.

Start by reviewing and reflecting upon the particular circumstances of your life today. What are the challenges of the day? Important opportunities that lie before you? Decisions that need to be made?

As you reflect, reconsider the scripture and the words that commanded your attention through lectio divina. How do these words and images connect to your life today? How is the biblical story a part of your story? How do its questions connect with your own questions?

How does God come to you as you listen to the word? Where do you discern the healing hand of God touching you through the word? How are your sadness, your grief, and your mourning being transformed at this very moment through the word? Do you sense the fire of God's love purifying your heart and giving you new life?

As thoughts come to you, jot them down on paper---perhaps just a word or two at first, then phrases or sentences as your reflections become more developed. Try to capture specifics rather than just general themes.

You may find that in response to new insights, new ways of acting in familiar situations present themselves. In the same way, you may be troubled by portions of scripture that leave you confused, uneasy, with a feeling of dissonance. These can prove to be as valuable, in ways that are not immediately obvious, as those portions that are more obviously related. Note them as well.

When the time has come to end your quiet time, be refreshed. When ready, close with a prayer, perhaps the Lord's Prayer, spoken slowly, bearing in mind the questions and insights that have come to you today. Give thanks. Invite God's presence into your life's movements this coming day, bearing with you the fruits of your time apart.

With any discipline, such as playing an instrument or learning a language, beginnings are awkward. Stay with it. Give it time and practice, and the artificiality of the discipline will fade, giving way to familiarity and fluency.




O Lord Jesus, your words to your Father were born out of your silence. Lead me into this silence, so that my words may be spoken in your name and thus be fruitful. It is so hard to be silent, silent with my mouth, but even more, silent with my heart. There is so much talking going on within me....If I were simply to rest at your feet and realize that I belong to you and you alone, I would easily stop arguing with all the real and imaginary people around me.... I know that in the silence of my heart you will speak to me and show me your love. Give me, 0 Lord, that silence. Let me be patient and grow slowly into this silence in which I can be with you. Amen.




Read Mark 1:35-37 slowly and let it read you for a few moments. Journal about your experience of being read by the word.


Write a love letter to yourself from God. What do you know about God’s for you? [102-105]



1. Yushi Nomura, Desert Wisdom (Doubleday, 1982), pp. 14,38-39

2. Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New Directions, 1965), p. 154, used by Henri in "Unceasing Prayer," America (July 1978)

3. Whether this exercise of centering prayer was originally written by Nouwen or appropriated from someone else, Nouwen made use of it in class and shared it in a published article "Centering Prayer" (Centering, 4(1), 1987)


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