Unimagined: Listening to the voice of God

listeningI have a hard time hearing God these days. The divine has to squeeze in between bath time, loads of laundry, the inordinate amount of time I spend trying to figure out what I’m going to cook for dinner, and my inbox. Making time to be still is more or less impossible. Stillness leads only to one thing: sleep.

Years ago, when I was in my thirties, I attended a centering prayer group on Saturday mornings. A good friend of mine talked me into going, and despite my initial objections, I decided to go back. Sitting and praying with others in silence for twenty minutes was oddly comforting. It was also followed by tea, homemade cookies, donuts, and chocolate truffles. I decided chocolate and prayer were not such a bad way to start a Saturday morning.

Most of the members were twice my age, many of different faiths. You could tell them anything—I’m going to move to Honduras; I’m writing a book about men and women who are homeless; I’m vegan—and they thought everything you did was brilliant. Wonderful, they’d say with hugs of affirmation. I liked that about them.

Twice a year they hosted a day of prayer. I never did so well with the full eight hours. Sitting in silence after lunch only led to one thing: slumber. And given that everyone could see my head nodding, I always offered my sincerest apologies to the group. But the older women in the group just shook their heads. “You’re resting in God,” they’d say. And I’d think, no, it’s quite possible I was drooling.

All these years later, I think about resting in God. Not that I’m resting all that much these days with a toddler. On one hand, resting in God sounds soothing and hopeful. On the other, it seems to imply vulnerability and trust—and the willingness to put aside your own plans in order to ease into what is before you. Take for example the fact that I haven’t wanted to write a third book. I actually took it off my list of things to accomplish by 50. And now, for reasons I cannot explain, I feel an ache to try again.

My first book got published in a record two years. I thought that was the norm and tried mightily to repeat it. Then I heard Toni Morrison speak about writing, and she said it took her five years to write a book. Since her novels are a bit closer to masterpieces than mine, I decided to ease up on myself. I wrote a number of different versions over the next several years and sent them off for feedback. Each time, despite high hopes, I had to accept that my second book was not complete. I’d written about grief and how it changed my understanding of God. It wasn’t easy to open myself up again and pour that out on the page in new and different ways. But I did. And each time the manuscript got stronger—as did I.

But when the final, final, final(!) version didn’t pick up a publisher, or an agent, I just kept right on pushing forward. I could see the front cover, and I thought that meant work harder. Send out more queries. Ask for another review. Take another class. And perhaps it did mean all of those things. Or perhaps it didn’t. Either way, I worked hard at the plan I had construed in my mind, the one that included interviews with Oprah and NPR. Year after year I pushed through the email rejections or worse, the lack of acknowledgement. And then one day, I stopped. And I wept. I wept because I had failed. And I wept because I had truly believed that that book was what I was meant to do. Perhaps I missed the point. God didn’t say go be published, although that would certainly make sense. The ache in me just said I needed to write.

I still remember well when that desire made itself known thirteen years ago. I was on the eve of my thirty third. Named for the thirty three years Jesus walked the earth, your thirty third is when something big is supposed to happen, something unexpected and heart palpitating. Mine started with me sitting at work, staring out the window, pondering where I’d been. An old friend had called the night before to tell me his first novel was due out in a month. I don’t remember saying this, but he swears I said: “I’m so happy for you. And I am SO jealous.” We’d both gone into teaching via an alternative teaching program. He had ended up a writer and a dad. And me, well, I wasn’t sure who I was. So on the eve of my Jesus-year, notwithstanding, I started praying to Mother Mary: “Mother me, please.” And before my thirty-third year was over, she appeared in every book I read. Literally.

“Maybe she’s telling me to pay attention,” I said to a friend.

“Pay attention to what?” she asked in return.

I didn’t honestly know. The first book seemed obvious: a woman’s spiritual quest to Medjugorje, a village in Bosnia where apparitions of Mary draw millions. But the next story caught me by surprise: an autobiography of a high-ranking family wrongfully imprisoned and left to die by the King of Morocco. On the night of their escape, emboldened by a vision of Mary, they eventually made it to freedom. Fiction or nonfiction, it didn’t make any difference. Sometimes Mary was a character, like the beekeepers I read about who cherished their Black Madonna. Other times, she was no more than a sentence.

That following spring, as my thirty-third year drew to a close, a travel gift appeared on my desk. I read the back cover and worried that Mary wouldn’t be going on vacation with me. The story took place in Japan and the main character was a young Chinese boy sent to live with his father’s servant while the two countries were at war. A reference to Mary seemed unlikely. But two days later, after settling into my seat on the plane, I learned that the boy’s father had specifically enrolled them in a Catholic missionary school. Never underestimate, I remember thinking.

On my return flight home, I read the last page over and over again, savoring the final scene. The father’s servant, overwhelmed at having to say goodbye, dutifully put the boy on the train back home. Their time together had softened him and changed them both. Into his bag, the servant slipped two leather-bound notebooks. When the boy uncovered the gift, he smiled knowingly, pulled out a fountain pen and began to write. The next morning, sitting at my own kitchen table, I copied that final scene onto the first page of my newly purchased leather-bound notebook, and then, I too, began to write. (And as it turned out, that novel was the last book she appeared in.)

It’s been well over three years since I’ve thought about writing another book, but I can feel that ache slowly coming up for air. It’s only a tiny little whisper. And it’s possible I didn’t even hear it correctly. I don’t know what I would write about, and I don’t want to think about it all that much. I just want to rest in God and listen to that whisper—that still, sweet voice of the divine that nudges me—and all of us—forward in ways unimagined.

One thought on “Unimagined: Listening to the voice of God

  1. Well thanks, Karen! Since we seem to keep missing in person it is a joy to read some of what is going on. You inspire me! — Katie

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