Some years back, I heard a recording of some original music by four women with well-trained voices and a gift for harmony who joked that an “angel” had lent them a hand. That’s because when their voices blended just so, a fifth voice joined them. It was high, clear and bell-like; a sweet and piercing harmony that sent chills up the spine and brought tears to the eyes.
There was nothing supernatural here. The phenomenon is called “overtone” and is used to great effect in music composition. But it does offer a sort of musical parable for us.
Learning music of prayer
Discerning God’s voice is like the work of rehearsal my friends had to do. They did not spontaneously invent the song, harmonies and all, as they recorded it. They learned the song and their separate parts in it by reading and listening. In the same way, we don’t, of ourselves, know either God’s will or our part in it without the Father’s revelation. Therefore, when we pray, we also must begin, not by talking, but by listening.
“Listening” simply means making the same request of Jesus his disciples did: “Lord, teach us to pray.” This allows us to enter in a living way into the ongoing work of Christ in the earth. It is also a bit scary since it puts us in the position of really needing God to do something to us and through us. To listen is to open ourselves to the fact that a very real supernatural world surrounds us. God will show us how to pray — teach us his song and our part in that song — just as he did the disciples.
How? For starters, through the revelation he made through Scripture and the liturgy, teaching, traditions and sacraments of the Church. But Jesus also frequently speaks in concert with these primary avenues in myriad ways — through a chance comment, a gift of the Holy Spirit, a natural event, angels, coincidence, our conscience, etc. He comes to us in the daily occurrences of life. Yet he never violates the teaching of Scripture and the Church. The Spirit leads us in peace even when he calls us to difficult things. That is why St. Paul tells the Colossians, “And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body” (Col 3:15). God has an uncommon fondness for speaking to us through many voices in chorus and confirming his will to us through the hearts of other brothers and sisters. As theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has said, truth is symphonic.
If we seriously listen for guidance from God, we should not be surprised if our Bible readings, our spouse, our pastor, our prayer group, our conscience, even our enemies, all seem to be saying the same thing in a kind of unwitting conspiracy.
Suppose, for example, that Isaiah 58 (the great passage about fasting and caring for the poor) really comes alive for you as you read Scripture. That’s a clue. Then later that week your pastor mentions out of a clear blue sky that he would like people to start bringing canned goodies for the soup kitchen at church. Another clue. Then the homily that Sunday focuses on our obligation to the poor. Clue No. 3. The one who has opened him or herself to the guidance of the Spirit smells more than simple coincidence here. You begin to probe, through prayer and acts of obedience (like taking the canned goodies to church), whether God may be calling you into a deeper involvement with the poor.
Then, taking this puzzle piece to other prayerful Christians, you toss it into the general fund of insights held in common by your particular prayer community. Before long, you find that several other people in your community are saying, “You too? This has been on my mind as well all last week! Maybe God is trying to show us something.”
Once we have a sense of the overall “tune,” each individual must be about the business of learning his or her part in the choir of prayer. Each person has a unique role to play in the work God sends us to do. As St. Paul makes clear, there is one Spirit with one purpose, accomplishing his work through many people simultaneously. God leads us to blend our prayers, insights, gifts and talents just as tenors, baritones, altos and sopranos unite to form one single piece of music.
So once your community has asked, “Lord, teach us to pray,” each member must continue by asking, “Lord, teach me my role in that prayer.” Often this means he will guide us to do something quite commonsensical and mundane. Thus if your prayer group is praying that the cold weather might not aggravate Aunt Sadie’s rheumatism and you are suddenly reminded of the pile of old sweaters and the heating pad in your closet, well, do the obvious. Whether we heal a leper or dig a ditch our obedience is as highly prized by God and as profoundly important to the fate of the world as if we had preached the Sermon on the Mount.
Philharmonic of prayer
When we pray in the Holy Spirit, we open ourselves to the mystery of Christ in his people. For Christians — all Christians — are part of the Body of Christ and are inseparably knit to his glory and his work in heaven and earth.
This means that there is no such thing as solitary prayer. Whether we realize it or not, wherever and whenever we pray we are solidly fixed in the vast reality of the Body of Christ spread out through time and eternity, flung across the face of the world, terrible as an army with banners. Therefore, we have access to the entire treasury of riches which are in his saints, both living and dead (see Eph 1:18-19). This “communion of saints” stems from the fact that there is but one body and, as Jesus said, all are alive to God (Lk 20:38). Grafted into the life and power of the Risen Christ and sharing perfectly in that glory, the Church in heaven is part of a swelling symphony of prayer and praise that will culminate one day in the crescendo of the Second Coming. Whenever and wherever we pray, we stand in this vast landscape of joy and power.
The fifth voice
Such a taste of communal love is a sort of sign or sacrament of God’s own nature. For in the depths of the Godhead, the Father loves the Son and pours himself into him; the Son adores the Father and gives himself and all he possesses (including us) to him. And out of the core of that blinding fusion proceeds the Holy Spirit — himself God as much as the other two persons. It was in order to be taken up and made a part of this that the whole universe was created.
All prayer must find its root, stem and blossom in this colossal mystery. The triune God desires to sweep us up in the music of his own eternal life. To do so, he entered our world in Jesus of Nazareth — a man who sweated real sweat, laughed in real human joy and bled real blood. God himself joined the ranks of those who seek and pray and groan for the coming of his kingdom.
Jesus is not just sitting in heaven listening. Nor is he content merely to teach us to pray. Instead, he is praying along with us and through us in the Spirit. St. Paul says that the Holy Spirit prays through us, not only when we have clearly discerned his voice, but even when we do not have the foggiest notion of how to pray, making intercessions for us “with inexpressible groanings” (Rom 8:26). In other words, Jesus not only teaches us to pray and prays with us; but by the Holy Spirit he even becomes our prayer! My friends’ experience as they sang turns out to be a kind of glimpse or taste of the truth that breathes life into the whole world. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:19-20). Jesus is the true fifth voice.
Mark Shea is senior content editor at CatholicExchange.com and writes the Catholic and Enjoying It! blog at markshea.blogspot.com. He writes from Washington state.