What does God’s voice sound like? How does God speak today? Summer Mohrlang, spiritual director with Soul Formation, responds to the questions we’re wondering about, including “What does a spiritual director actually do?”
Summer's suggestions on how to get started with faith practices are both accessible and life-giving. The following is a transcript of Summer's episode on Open to Wonder. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Listen to the episode online or on your favorite podcast app.
Chris: Today’s guest is Summer Mohrlang. Summer lives life with the expectation that God is always speaking. She gives her attention to dreams, to her surroundings, and to her senses in anticipation of hearing God’s voice. Doing so has impacted the way she views sunsets, interruptions, anxiety, and more. Summer is a pastor, a spiritual director and the executive director of Soul Formation, a Christian non-profit dedicated to creating relational spaces for the transformation of Christian leaders. She lives in a multi-generational household in Seattle with her husband, two children, and her parents. And we can’t wait for you to listen in on our conversation with her about listening and prayer and how a dare from a professor led her to combine the two. It all starts now on Open to Wonder.
Chris: Summer, we're so excited that you're here joining us today. As mentioned, you're the Executive Director of Soul Formation, where you work as a spiritual director as well. We'd love to learn more about you and kind of the work you're doing as a spiritual director. But we really have a baseline question: What exactly does a spiritual director do?
Summer: That's a great question. When I meet with people in spiritual direction, I often begin with a prayer. And the prayer is just asking that God would bless us with an awareness of His presence, and that we would be able to tune in to that, and to be able to see the tracings of His footprints throughout the life of the person that I'm meeting with.
So that's really what I feel like happens in spiritual direction. It's a space once a month, where you can come, knowing that it is a space just for you to reflect on your relationship with the Lord and to kind of reorient from the chaos of life, and all of the things going on in your life.
To pay attention. To ask questions: Where's God in that? What is God doing?
Chris: I've sometimes heard people talk about spiritual directors as just another therapist. Is there a distinction between therapy, counseling, coaching, and spiritual directing? How would you help people understand some of those differences?
Summer: Yeah. Well, the reality is that spiritual direction is going to be shaped by the particular spiritual director that you find. And so there are spiritual directors who are also pastors. There are spiritual directors who also have training as therapists and coaches. And so you can find, to some extent, a blend of those different practices within spiritual direction.
But what's unique about spiritual direction is that the focus in the spiritual direction relationship is your relationship with the Lord. So that's really the “client” in spiritual direction, contrasted with counseling where the “client'' is the individual or the individual's relationship with another person. And then counseling—often you are there to resolve a problem. Something's not working, and so you want to fix that and so when you fix the problem often that counseling relationship ends.
In spiritual direction, it's much more about journeying together towards deeper intimacy with the Lord. And so a spiritual direction relationship is not focused necessarily on resolving a problem. Although often what brings someone to spiritual direction is that something's not working, right? There's a longing for more in their spiritual life. But once that has been worked through there can be years and years of walking with the spiritual director, and where you simply get to celebrate goodness, the richness, your growing awareness of God's presence in your life.
Chris: That's helpful, thank you.
Karen: It sounds like as a spiritual director, you do a lot of listening. And one of the things that Chris and I really want to talk with you about today is listening as a faith practice. And in the Faith Practices Project we describe listening—that practice—this way as training ourselves to recognize God's voice in the midst of all the other voices calling for our attention. So if we think that listening as one dimension is recognizing God's voice: What does God's voice sound like? How do we recognize God's voice and what are some of the ways God speaks today?
Summer: Yeah, such a good question and a question that I get a lot from people as they step into spiritual direction. At Soul Formation, we talk about three-fold listening. That is kind of one of the key practices that we encourage and kind of practice together with folks as they are exploring the possibility of stepping into spiritual direction.
So in threefold listening the idea is that as you sit with another person, you are listening to them. But you are simultaneously listening for the Lord. What is the Lord saying? Where is the Lord in this? And there's also a need to be aware of your own voice, so that as you're sitting with another person—inevitably, there's stuff that bubbles up for you, connections that you're making impulses, things that you want to share—but there's a need to discern “is this from me? Is this something from the Lord for the other person? Is this my lunch talking?”
And so we talk about that as three-fold listening. And so I think that in order to listen in that way, there really does have to be an intentionality in getting to know yourself, as a spiritual director, and also learning to distinguish and recognize the voice of God. So your question, Karen, is a really important one. What does God's voice sound like? How does God speak?
I think that the reality is that God speaks in a variety of different ways, because what God wants most is to be in relationship with his children.
So in Acts chapter 2, you know the story of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples in the upper room. And they immediately go out and they begin speaking in all of the languages, the world. And the people are amazed because these are simple Galileans. And what I love in that is this image of God speaking in languages that all of the people present can understand.
And so I think there are so many different ways that God speaks. But I think that many of us have been raised in traditions where we've only been introduced to a few of those, right? We've been raised to believe that God speaks to us in Scripture. And God absolutely speaks to us in Scripture. God speaks to us through community, through wise counsel. Absolutely that is true. I have found in my own journey, however, that there are additional ways that weren't as talked about. And so it's taken me time to embrace those as also ways that God speaks.
So one of them for me has been through dreams; that's a tricky one. Because how do you discern if a dream is from the Lord? Or if that dream is you know something completely different? That's been something that I have sat with my spiritual director at times, and processed together. And I think ultimately the times where I had a clear sense that this was from the Lord was that the after-effect of the dream was real peace, clarity, and the courage to step forward in something that I'd really been wrestling in.
There have been times for me when I have been in the midst of discerning big life changes or where God has spoken to me through images. I'll kind of get a mental picture—I mean not dissimilar Karen, from the pictures that you have on the wall behind you, right? There will be some vivid image that kind of comes to me and just kind of continues to be present. And over time I begin to understand kind of how God is using that to help me understand something that I'm wrestling with.
Something else that I feel like over the last few years, during Covid, has particularly been a way that I think God has been speaking to me and inviting me to pay attention to him, is by recognizing that He speaks to me through my body, through my five senses.
So part of my journey—I've wrestled with anxiety since I was a child. And several years ago, in the context of spiritual direction, the idea popped into my head suddenly: what if this anxiety is not just kind of the thorn of my flesh that I need to pray to be delivered from, or something that I have to bear? But what if my anxiety is actually God communicating to me? And if I viewed my anxiety as from the Lord, what would I do differently?
And that for me—it totally changed the way that I felt about my anxiety. And it gave me the courage to begin making radical changes in my life that I had never been willing to make to that point, trusting that God wants me to be well. And so that anxiety—you know to kind of begin seeing that as a guide post. That when my anxiety starts to rise up, maybe that's God inviting me to kind of pull back, and to readjust.
I also, during Covid, have felt—as so much has been stripped away from me, so many routines and relationships, and as life has become so simple. and yet there's been so much in life that has been so overwhelming—I have needed for God to be more involved in all of life and I've needed to experience God with all of me. And so increasingly I've been feeling the desire to hear God speaking to me through my senses. So paying attention to the input that's coming at me from all of my different senses has opened up new ways that I've experienced God's voice for me.
Karen: So it sounds like, Summer, as you're kind of walking through your day—or night, if we're thinking about dreams too—it's kind of, if i'm hearing you right, doing so with an attitude or an openness of “I wonder if God is speaking to me through this? Is there a way that God is speaking to me through this image, or this experience?” Being attentive to that possibility?
Summer: Right, yes. Living life with the expectation that God is speaking to me, having my eyes and my ears and my heart open to receive the voice of God in the wide variety of ways that He speaks.
So just one example, Soul Formation runs retreats at a Benedictine abbey in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. And the Guest house where we meet has the floor to ceiling windows that look out on the Willamette Valley, and I watch the sunrise. I watch the sunset. I watch the fog kind of rising and lowering over the valley outside of the window. There's a garden right outside and there's hummingbirds and hawks that soar around. And so, as I am going about my work of hosting these retreats, I see this magnificent, divine masterpiece that is being painted outside the window for me. And it has almost…I have this image of it's kind of God out there like a peacock dancing for me, for his beloved, just wanting to get my attention, wanting to communicate his love for me by painting this magnificent work of art out the window.
One particular day I was sitting in the room preparing for a session, and I was on my laptop facing away from the window, and one of the participants came in and said, “Summer you've got to look out the window, you're missing it.” And my response was “I know. I I saw it at breakfast.” Like I looked out the window at breakfast. And so a few minutes later I stood up and I turned around and I realized that the view out of the window had completely changed. The fog that had kind of covered the horizon when I was in the dining room at breakfast had dropped down into the valley. And all of a sudden the sun was shining through the fog. And these beautiful pink and orange rays from the sunrise were there.
It was just a reminder for me that God is always speaking. And if I'm paying attention, God is just wanting to pour his words of love over me.
Karen: Oh, thanks for that.
Chris: That is rich. I think what you're really describing here sounds like “how do I be fully present to God's presence in the environment around me?” And even in your own body.
And one of the things that we've been talking about with this faith practice of listening, is that there is a listening to God. There's also a listening to others and learning to be fully present to others. I'm wondering if you could say: how does that figure into this whole context of learning to listen and be attentive? How does that impact the way we engage with our neighbor?
Summer: Well, I think in the same way that we have to choose to be intentionally present to God, we really need to choose to be present to others. And I'm aware of just how loud life is. And how fast life is, how busy life is. And so I can let my schedule own me and it fills up, and I don't have time to be present with people, right? I walk past my neighbor's houses on my way to pick up my kids from school, and I've left so little margin that a neighbor walks out the front door and I don't have time to be present with them because I'm rushing to the next thing.
And so I've learned the importance of leaving margins, so that I can be interruptible. We see so many times in Scripture where Jesus' ministry happens along the way. Right? His ministry really is the interruptions. And so I think that that's something that I have been challenged with is to not view those interruptions as a distraction, but as an invitation to engage and to listen to the people that God has placed in my path.
Another thing that I feel like I have recognized is so important is to curate our inputs. And what I mean by that is, we have so many different sources of input, so many different social media platforms and news outlets.And you know the data, the input is just coming at us from every direction. And it's loud. And it is there as often as we are willing to listen to it. And I really have to be intentional, then in choosing what I'm going to allow myself to take in in order to create space, mental space, to actually have room to engage and to listen to others well.
Chris: I like how you're saying curation of our inputs and the idea of margins. Sometimes we talk about that in terms of “well we need margins in order to make sure that we're as productive and as efficient as we can be. It's like a business time management strategy. But what I hear you saying, is actually it even goes much deeper than that. There's a recognition of what we need in order to be present with other people, in ways—I think I hear in the background of what you're saying—in ways that God is present with us. There seems to be a willingness to be interrupted, or a willingness to not be as efficient or productive as we probably could manage to be in order to be attentive.
Summer: Yeah. As you were talking, a quote from Kenneth Blue came to my mind about listening. He says, “Intense listening is indistinguishable from love. And love heals.”
And so, if we think about listening as a way of loving others, loving is not efficient, is it? I mean you think about how you fall in love, nd just the the lavish amounts of time that you're willing to give to that other person as you're in the process of falling in love, spending time with another is not wasting time at all right? You'll sit and watch a sunset and hold hands with your lover for hours, and it's the best possible use of your time.
And a practice that I have been feeling invited into over the last few months is centering prayer, listening prayer, contemplative prayer, right? Growing up, prayer was not about listening. It was kind of about going through the checklist of all the things that I wanted or needed all of the people in my life that needed prayer. But I have been feeling invited to simply sit in silence with God. And as an extrovert, as a fairly driven person, in the past you couldn't have gotten me to do that for five minutes.
And yet I recognize now that the God who loves me, is inviting me to simply come away with him to sit, and to waste some time with the one I love. And so I think that that same thing can translate to our relationships with others. But listening, being able to listen well requires time and a willingness to simply pause in the midst of the business of life, to be present in a really lavish way.
Karen: You know, you mentioned prayer. And I love the connection between listening and love and prayer. And you mentioned the way that you've kind of been leaning into contemplative prayer and this idea of sitting—yeah, that's so counter to the way I certainly was raised to pray. And I think it seems to me—we know there's so many different ways to pray. And there seems to be as many different levels of comfortability that people have with prayer. Some people are freaked out at the thought of praying out loud, and certainly in front of someone else.
Others are comfortable with that. I just grew up with particular words that they were taught to pray and feel uncomfortable, praying their own words. I know it wasn't until I was in college and my Professor Eugene Westra, where I went to school, prayed conversationally.
I had never heard anyone—he would begin every class by praying like, “God, thank you for the way our elbows and knees are created. Thank you for the butterfly that I saw on the way into the room, and for the paper sack that's holding my lunch today.” I had never heard anyone pray like that. It shaped the way that I pray.
So I'm wondering, when you talk about contemplative prayer like: was that easy for you? Did you have to do a minute, and increase it by moments each day? What did that look like, that form of prayer? And are there other forms of prayer that you have found particularly helpful on your journey?
Summer: Yeah. Well, as I mentioned my journey into centering prayer, contemplative prayer—it was not a journey that I was looking to take. It was not a form of prayer that was attractive to me in my twenties and into my thirties. And so it has taken time. And I think I wouldn't have done it, if I had not been challenged by a professor and basically told that I wouldn't do it. So I think the reverse psychology kind of got me. But I think in trying it, you know the invitation is always to be gracious with yourself, and recognize that anything that's worth doing takes practice.
And so there were days where I would sit down and my mind would immediately start going in 15 different directions. And I'd find myself jumping out of my seat to do the next thing.
But when I would realize that that happened, the invitation was to not beat myself up, but to simply step back into that place of prayer, to recognize that God is not shaming me about that. But the God’s just simply delighted that I am choosing to step back in. And that he loves the time with me. I have found that having a word to be praying can help me focus. And so this morning I spent some time in in listening prayer, and the word for me was “Beloved, rest in me. Beloved, rest in me.” And so anytime I would find my mind kind of wandering, I could come back to that. And even just in speaking those words, I was kind of speaking my deepest desire in that moment: to be able to simply rest in God and recognize my belovedness as his child.
I have also found that walking is sometimes a really helpful way to kind of get my body moving and then allow my mind to kind of be present with the Lord. I think that something about engaging our bodies can sometimes help us allow our minds to kind of ponder, and be present with God in a slightly more leisurely way, and usually a walk takes 15 min or so, and so. Wow! You've just given the Lord 15 minutes. Whereas at home, sitting for 15 minutes in prayer can feel endless sometimes.
Karen: It just connects with me. You know when you talked about the sunset, and being with someone you love, and how you would sit for hours. And for those of us who were just taught “well, when you pray, fold your hands, close your eyes.” But when you're with a loved one, you do things together. You go for a walk. You can sit in quiet together. And so, even just hearing your descriptions there makes me think of the way I spend time with those I love. And how might I also think more creatively about the way in which I spend time with God?
Summer: Yeah, I think that that invitation to be creative and to shape your times with the Lord in a way that's life-giving for you is huge, right? If your time with the Lord is going to look like time with a friend, and is going to involve activities that are life-giving for you, how much more eager will you be to step into those times?
So gardening is also, I would say, a prayer practice for me. It slows me down. It gets me outside. It gets my hands in the dirt. There's something very embodied about that. But my mind is free to be with the Lord during that time.
I have also found that things that involve other senses are helpful for me. And so I've had times where I took a tray of sand, and I actually wrote my prayers in a tray of sand. And then you can wipe it out and you can start over again, and nobody, you know—there's no evidence after the fact of what you are praying about.
So I think being creative with that is lovely. As a parent sitting and doing art with my daughter can be a prayer practice, while she colors her paw patrol, or whatever cartoon character you know, I can be creating something with the Lord, and making that my prayer time, if I choose to invite God into that.
Chris: This has been really rich, Summer, and I love the very accessible, practical ways that you're talking about prayer and listening. You know I once heard somebody talking about spiritual disciplines. And they started by well, the four-day weekend up in the mountains. And the person sitting next to me was like, “I have three young kids. I cannot go into the mountains for a weekend. As much as I would like to, it ain't happening.” So the way you're describing things seems to be really accessible. Small, doable practices. And that's encouraging. I’m wondering in light of what we've been sharing, if you could leave our audience with one small step, one starting place, that you would say “Here's one simple access point to become more intentional with the faith practice of listening, or with your practice of praying.” What would you recommend as a good starting place for someone who's going “I don't even know where to begin.”
Summer: Yeah, I think I might give two. I think maybe my my first challenge would be to ask: Where can you find a little bit of silence? What could you let go of in order to free up a little bit of space? That might be driving in the car and choosing to turn off the radio for a few minutes while you drive to work or pick up your kids, just to free up a little brain space to listen.
The other invitation that I would throw out is: What is something that you enjoy, that you already engage in frequently, that you could simply invite God into with you, and choose to do that with the Lord, and turn it into a time of prayer?
Karen: That's so helpful. Summer, this has been such a gift of a conversation. I have never thought about so many of the things—the way that you described prayer and and just this idea of inviting God in and being aware and open to “What might God want me to see or hear? What my God be showing me today?” Thanks for making this so practical and doable and beautiful.
Yeah, we just really appreciate taking this, your taking this time with us today, and teaching us so much. Thank you
Summer: you’re welcome. It’s been a joy to be with you.