Today is Ash Wednesday, and as a practicing Catholic it’s fitting my public blogging life should start here. Most people think of Ash Wednesday as a day of sacrifice and self-abnegation. Others, however, have taken it to mean stepping out in faith to do things we’re uncomfortable with, or scared of, or that stretch us beyond our comfort zone. Perhaps it means inviting someone to go to church with us, or speaking up to explain our beliefs to others. For me, it means writing my first post about God.
There’s no better way to start Lent than to do something terrifying . . . so I’m writing my first public blog post about listening to God.
Today I’m particularly focused on the ways in which God communicates with us as we go about our daily lives. When I was younger, I thought God spoke to people in big ways—a burning bush, tongues of fire, blindingly bright angels. Absent those signs, I wondered if He was listening. One afternoon I was having a conversation about prayer with my friend Michael. I told him I prayed all the time, but wondered if I was just speaking into the void. He asked me what I did when I prayed.
“Well, I say my prayers, then I ask God to bless all the people I love; then I ask Him for things.”
“You’re doing a lot of talking,” Michael said.
“Praying is talking to God, right?”
“Yes. But what about listening?”
I flinched. “Like, hearing voices?”
“Not so much hearing voices, but paying attention to the little things. God is answering us all the time; we’re just so busy talking that we don’t hear his answer. The answers mostly come in the silence.”
My stomach clenched. I was never going to hear God, I thought, because I am terribleat silence. I lived my whole life in a house full of wonderful, vibrant, loud Italian New Yorkers. When I moved out of my parents’ home and into an apartment with my husband, when he had to work nights I would turn on every television in the apartment so every room would have a voice to keep me company. I was terrified of quiet.
How do I hear God’s “still small voice” when I am scared of silence?
I despaired thinking that to hear God I had to get comfortable with silence. It seemed impossible. A lot of days, it still is. Silence in our modern world is kind of hard to come by, and with one teenager, one almost-teenager, a husband, and three remarkably loud cats in my house, chances are that even if I wanted to find silence I probably couldn’t. But, as I said, I’m a practicing Catholic—I know I’m not very good at it, and need all the practice I can get—and sometimes in order to get better at something we have to start with what we know. As a writer, I know how to observe, and I’ve learned that sometimes, when God can’t be heard in the silence, as Squire Rushnell puts it, we see that “God winks.”
God has, in no uncertain terms, recently winked at me. I have two daughters, and while I pray for lots of things in a given day, the bulk of my prayers are for them. As my eldest daughter, Bethany, started high school, I prayed for guidance to help her find her life’s path. Since Bethany was little, she loved to sing. She has taken singing lessons and worked to develop her lovely voice. She wants to continue developing her vocal talent, but she is trying to figure out if she can find a career that involves music without putting all her eggs in the very precarious preforming arts basket. While she may ultimately want to pursue a life in theater, she acknowledges she needs a backup plan.
I can’t imagine wanting to hear God more than when I’m worried about my children.
A friend of mine in Tallahassee recently posted an article from Florida State University about its music therapy program. It is making great strides using both music and medicine to promote development and recovery in premature babies, people with certain debilitating illnesses, and elderly patients with dementia. When my daughter heard about working with elderly patients, she gasped and said, “Mom. I think I want to look into that.” If you think that was God winking, wait. It gets better.
I started looking into program requirements and saw she would have to play an instrument. Fortunately, Beth’s vocal coach also teaches piano, so I sent her a quick text to see if Beth could start studying piano along with voice this summer.
Not five minutes later, a friend of mine told me about a lady, Rusty, who was leaving her home to move in with her daughter. Rusty had a piano that had been a gift from her husband before he passed away, and it was so special to her that she wanted to sell it to a musically inclined family that would really love it. My friend wondered if we would be interested.
Sometimes, God winks. Other times, He’s a little less subtle.
I know that writers often play with concepts of time and space in memoir to make a better story. I am not doing that here. This friend honestly spoke to me five minutesafter I sent that text. Is there something bigger than a wink, but not as large as a smack upside the head? Because I think God was doing that, and he wasn’t being quiet about it.
I told my friend I had just contacted my daughter’s voice teacher about taking her on as a piano student. My friend immediately gave me Rusty’s contact information. Within a week I was in Rusty’s living room.
I looked at the piano, touched the keys to make sure it sounded about right, and checked for signs of termite damage. As I looked, I spoke with Rusty. She was kind and soft-spoken, and so sad to have to let this part of her life with her husband go.
“He died over ten years ago,” she said, sitting in her recliner with her walker next to her. “I’ve been lucky to stay in my home as long as I have, but it’s becoming impossible. I know I need to move closer to my daughter, but it’s hard to leave all of this.”
I nodded. No chapters of our lives are easy, but I have witnessed first hand that the ones where we have to let go are the hardest. I told her, “Most kids my daughter’s age like kids and babies, but Bethany loves talking to older people. She loves their stories. I think if she decides she wants to work with music and medicine, she’s going to want to focus on the elderly. This piano is going to help her explore that option.”
We all have chapters of our lives that involve letting go. One thing that makes it easier is preserving one another’s stories.
“I was a nurse,” Rusty replied, “and music really was important in giving people a reason to keep on living. It tethers them to a happier time. Memories are so important when we’re healing.” She gestured to the piano. “After we retired, my husband bought me that. I was taking lessons, and he had it delivered on Christmas Eve. I was so surprised. He would come into the living room at night after dinner and ask me to play something. Those were some of the happiest days of my life. I hope this piano brings you that kind of joy.”
“It will,” I said. “I also hope it can bring joy to all the people my daughter might help one day. This may be her calling, or it may not. But I do know that whatever happens in the future, it’s no coincidence that this happened right now.”
God works that way,” she said. “He comes to us in the little things.”
I smiled. “Yes. God winks.”
Sometimes, the little thing is music.
I had the piano moved to my house on Monday. My daughter came home from school, opened it up—and what song did she play, first thing? “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Mardis Gras was a day away; Ash Wednesday was coming up; she had just gotten a piano in a move that was one of the biggest God winks I’d ever personally experienced . . . and she, completely innocently, chooses to play “When the Saints Come Marching In.”
Maybe, for all that I know God comes to us in the silence, for now, He’s knows he needs to wink at me through the sound of my daughter’s music. So this Lent I’m going to keep looking out for when he winks, and maybe I’ll even find some time to listen for him in the silence.