Andy Hawes is warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House

In his Reith lectures the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim spoke of ‘The Neglected Sense’ – he explored the capacity of a person to listen and hear. He pointed out that the human foetus has the capacity to hear on the forty-sixth day of development, and that it is believed that hearing is the last of the sense to be lost in the process of dying. It struck me that, as humanity is made in the image and likeness of God, the Creator expects the creature to be a being that listens, and in listening might hear his Word.

Barenboim also emphasized the vital nature of hearing. Although the visual part of the brain is bigger; the aural part of the brain is closer to the life centre of the brain – the seat of emotional and creative impulses. Hearing, he argued, is unique in that it invades and changes the physical being of a person – even the skeleton can resonate with sound. That is why the Gospel is a Gospel of sound – in the beginning was the Word and at the end it will be a trumpet call that awakens the dead. It is hearing the Word that is essential to creation and recreation.

Every person has a capacity to listen to the voice of God. Prayer is one of the ways in which the voice of God is heard. Silence is a prerequisite for listening. The Reith lecturer observed, in passing, all the many obstacles to listening in contemporary society, the plethora of noise and the absence of quiet being a repeated theme. Listening and hearing is a lost skill, one that has to be learnt – and this is true of the prayer of quiet which is listening. The ‘study to be quiet’ is the essential study for the Christian called to know the Lord in prayer.

Those who dispose themselves to listen to the Lord’s voice in the quiet of their heart find that there are many distracting voices competing for attention. Every generation has produced spiritual directors and teachers who provide advice and guidance to help the individual hear the Lord’s voice in prayer. These divide roughly into two schools of thought. The first is that the person at prayer should ignore the competing voices and their distractions and ‘look over their shoulder’ to listen attentively to the one voice. The second is to recognize the distracting voices and to deal with them appropriately. If a matter of practical planning breaks in to the prayer then make a plan to deal with it, if there is a voice of guilt about a matter then be penitent about it, and so on.

It can be that distracting voices have their purpose; sometimes a plea for intercession or a cause for thanksgiving can arise in the heart, for no appropriate reason. This is often the work of the Holy Spirit and ought not to be pushed to one side. In all things one must trust intuition in prayer. For all the emphasis on the visual in worship, and of the written word in study and Bible reading, there is no surer way than listening to the Word of God and hearing what it says in the depths of the heart. In this lies wisdom and in this wisdom is peace.