Part 14 in a series; see other parts here.
Prayer is quiet, but never quite silent. So much of prayer involves learning how to calm the noise in order to hear properly—or learning how to hear through the noise. We often call the Spirit’s voice still and small, but it is also soft, in volume, tone, and affect. It manages to be gentle and unobtrusive while also pervading everything, and in prayer God teaches us how to listen.
We need to listen because we ourselves often struggle to be soft. Sometimes we yell just because there doesn’t seem to be any other way to cut through the ruckus. And oh how we strain to be gentle to other people, especially when we encounter them through their internet avatars, but almost as much in so-called real life.
By training us in the art of listening to a gentle God, prayer makes us better listeners to each other. We learn to tune out our own urges to solve problems, come to the rescue, or fit other lives into the handy narratives we carry with us. Listening is perhaps the greatest imitatio Dei, because we become almost, but not quite, silent as we adopt an attitude of gentle presence: being there.
By default we roll through life like giant boulders, occasionally getting a bit of polishing, it is true, but mostly just knocking things about, usually without even noticing. Prayer makes it possible for God to reshape us into feathers—light, rigid, and, in cooperation with others, capable of flight—or spider silk, airy and thin but immensely strong. A soft touch isn’t weak: it’s just the carefully controlled application of strength, harder to do in fact than punching someone in the face.
In prayer we practice that control. Prayer is work, and although there are certainly times for raging at the heavens, most of the time prayer doesn’t happen without our deciding to put in some effort, and yet trying too hard at prayer turns out to be ironically easy: we pay attention to ourselves “doing prayer” instead of properly listening either to God or to our own hearts. So we have to learn how to balance on the edge that divides doing and not doing, making the gentlest possible exertion.
There is no school of softness like prayer.