We live in a world of instant gratification. If we have a question, we send out a text or an email and receive a response within minutes, sometimes seconds. If we want something, anything, we stop in a store or hop online and it’s in our hands or at our doorstep almost immediately. It’s no wonder, then, that when we send up prayers to God, our urgent requests for things we need or want (or want to avoid), we expect a quick, clear answer, preferably made-to-order.

So we pray, and then sit back and wait. And wait, and wait, and wonder, “Why doesn’t God hear me?” Or, if He does hear me, why won’t He answer? In truth, it’s not that God doesn’t hear us, but that we don’t hear — or know how to hear — Him. We expect flashes of light, voices from above, or, at the very least, a plain-and-simple answer so obvious that there’s no way to misinterpret or miss it. But, as Elijah learned as he looked for God in the strong wind, in the earthquake and in the fire, sometimes we will find the answer to our prayer in the most unexpected places.

“After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave” (1 Kgs 19:12-13). So it was in the tiny whisper that Elijah finally heard God. Do we quiet our hearts and minds and bodies long enough to hear the whisper of God? Perhaps God is answering our prayers but in the busyness of our lives and the noise of the world around us the message simply can’t get through. We will never know if God is hearing us (and responding to us) unless we make time for silent prayer, not prayers of petition or even prayers of thanksgiving, but a receptive kind of silent, contemplative prayer where we simply sit and wait for God.

When God Seems Close

Most of us have experienced, at one time or another, a moment when God seemed incredibly close. Perhaps we sensed His presence in the voice of a friend who just happened to call when we most needed a listening ear, or maybe it was in the disappointment of a job we didn’t get that eventually led us to the job that seemed tailor-made for us. Sometimes it may be as simple as looking out at the ocean or sunset and feeling a deep God-centered peace that reminds us that life is going along exactly according to plan — maybe not our plan, but God’s plan.

How can we nurture those kinds of God moments in our lives? Through silent prayer, as Pope Benedict XVI suggested, as have many saints and holy men and women before him. If we take even a few minutes out of our busy days to sit in silence with God — not asking or talking, but waiting — we can begin to cultivate a receptive attitude that will allow us to recognize that whisper of the Spirit amid the storms and earthquakes of daily life.

Of course, if we find a way to listen truly for God, we may not always like what we hear, which leads to the next part of our question: Why doesn’t God answer my prayers the way I want them to be answered?

Demanding a Response

God is not like an ATM machine. We don’t punch in our prayer request and put out our hands waiting for the exact response. We go to God and pray that someone recovers from an illness or returns from the brink of some disaster. When just the opposite happens, it can certainly feel as though God is not really listening or, if He is, not really interested in what’s best for us. But that’s because we approach God from our humanness. We cannot begin to imagine how God works, what God has planned for us, and why certain requests don’t seem to be answered or heard.

And when our prayers feel unheard or unanswered, we can begin to feel abandoned by or cut off from God. We’re certainly not alone in that feeling. Some of the greatest saints in the history of our faith experienced the “dark night of the soul,” a term coined by St. John of the Cross. More recently, Blessed Mother Teresa’s letters revealed a decades-long dry spell where she felt separated from God.

“As for myself, Father — I have nothing to say — for the darkness is so dark, the pain is so painful. Sometimes the grip of pain is so great — that I can hear my own voice call out — My God, help me.… It is so painful to be lonely for God,” Mother Teresa wrote (“Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light,” Image).

Faith in the Darkness

Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., who edited two volumes of Mother Teresa’s writings, says that the saintly woman of Calcutta can teach us how to remain faithful despite our feelings of spiritual darkness.

“It does tell us something about what the nature of love is. We hear St. Thomas Aquinas saying, love is in the will. Mother Teresa really embodied that teaching,” he explained. “In our contemporary thinking so much depends on feelings — in love, in friendship, in marriage. In that, if the feeling is gone, then we think we don’t love anymore; we give up. But I think one of the secondary things that Mother Teresa teaches is something of what the nature of love is and fidelity to it.”

In other words, we have to remain constant in our faith, in our prayer life, in our knowledge that God is hearing us, listening to us and answering us in His own time. We cannot hope to understand God on human terms, but we can continually put ourselves before Him, knowing that God longs for us even more than we long for Him. And so we pray, and we wait, and we listen for that still small voice of the Spirit.

Mary DeTurris Poust is the author of “Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship” (Ave Maria Press, 2010). Visit her personal blog at www.notstrictlyspiritual.blogspot.com.