"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

The Spirit Behind Murmurs

very often expression that a retreatant will say about his or her prayer is this “In my prayer, nothing seems to be happening.” Almost all the time, even for those who are advanced among us in the spiritual journey will still, from time to time, have the nothing-seems-to-be-happening prayer experience. Some call it spiritual dryness. When this occurs, the retreat giver must be attentive to what I call the ‘murmurs’ of the retreatant. Nothing-seems-to-be-happening is a form of a murmur. It is a way of naming something that has not yet fully manifested itself. In that sense a murmur is a true mirror that something (a 'no-thing') is still unutterable, inexpressible, unfathomable.

The greatest rebellions and revolutions in history started from a murmer of discontent. A murmer is a sign that someone is not pleased. In itself, a murmer is not right or wrong. What is it then? It is a symptom of something deep. A murmer, grumble or complaint is a smokescreen. Sometimes it serves a good purpose but eventually the real underpinnings need to be faced squarely in the open. In fact to be able to sense or notice the murmer is already grace enough because it is like freeing oneself from a self-imposed prison or cage.

While murmers can lead to rebellions they can also serve as catapults to a deep prayer experience because God hears, understands and answers the hidden language of such indistinct communication when one cannot yet find the proper words to describe how one feels. This is the meaning of Psalm 139: For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether (Ps 139:4 KJV). We find also in Exodus: And Moses said, This shall be, when the LORD shall give you in the evening flesh to eat, and in the morning bread to the full; for that the LORD heareth your murmurings which ye murmur against him: and what are we? your murmurings are not against us, but against the LORD (Ex 16:8 KJV).

For my second point, I would like to talk about the spirituality behind murmurings. In the entire Bible the word murmur appears in 24 occurrences (there maybe a lot more). Murmurs are taken very seriously in the bible. One classic example is the murmer that we hear from our first reading today—But with their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained (murmered) against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

A murmur is often a sign that someone is getting impatient and could not wait any longer. We are all very familiar with this experience and we have our own unique ways and mechanisms of coping and escaping. It is a form of vulnerability that if we are not fully aware we can easily be pushy towards others, towards ourselves and towards God. Not only that we can also be easily pushed away into discouragement. St Ignatius of Loyola advises those who are guiding a retreatant in the retreat setting to be very careful and very discerning of the spirit. In my reading of a 2012 issue from the “Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits”—a quarterly monograph series—Fr Barton T Geger SJ included one touchy issue as regards a pet peeve of St Ignatius on being “pushy.” When we start to notice that murmers are high, we do agere contra but without being “pushy.” Agere contra literally means "to go against" which can also mean staying put with patience. It is something deeply spiritual. When murmurs are high, it is so tempting for someone to get in the way by leading a person to find an instant solution. The agere contra is to just wait patiently for both the retreatant and the retreat giver. It can be spiritually dangerous because certain reactions that ensue like emotions of anger can get the better of us. St Ignatius gives a stern warning when this happens and he had it all safeguarded in that small paragraph (165 words) of Annotation 15 in the Spiritual Exercises. He did not mince his words when it comes to giving his opinion about the relationship between the retreat giver and the retreatant. He would remind retreat givers about their fundamental duty to “get out of the way,” and even in one case, about being a “walking contradiction” (Frank Wallace, “Spiritual Direction,” in The Christian Ministry of Spiritual Direction, The Best of the Review, no. 3, edited by David Fleming [St Louis: Review for Religious, 1988], 88–89).

God’s divine persuasion is paramount. The immediacy of the communication between God and the creature must at all cost be safeguarded. Spiritual guides who actively encourage or discourage exercitants most specially to a particular “posture," even if done with very noble intentions, risk contradicting the spirit behind Annotation 15 and, worst, interrupting ipso facto the immediacy of the religious encounter.

For my third point I would like to ask, "Did Jesus have murmurings?" "Supposing he did (which is perfectly fine) what did he murmur about?" Our gospel today, seems to give a clue. Let me read again, what Jesus said to the Pharisees, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me. The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to him.” Jesus had a tremendous reverence towards his Father in heaven. In fact, the evangelist John cites this reverent and humble style of Jesus as a reason why many came to believe in Jesus. How? By speaking not on his own but always what the Father teaches him. Jesus does not do anything except what he sees the Father doing. Jesus is giving each of us a good model to follow whenever we would like to say, murmur or do things on God's behalf. In the Spiritual Exercises, there are a lot of times when one is expected to speak on God's behalf but know that we can speak more by being silent for "Nothing is more like God than silence" (Meister Eckhart). But it takes a lot of deep listening and interiorisation.

There is simply nothing that a retreat giver could do when God has not made any spiritual move yet towards the retreatant. We cannot speak if God has not spoken his own word yet. Amidst the indistinct murmurings, only God could give clarity to them in His time. Perhaps the best that both the retreat giver and the retreatant could do is to wait patiently, pray and listen more to God. “For the vision is yet for the appointed time; it hurries toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it delays, wait for it; for it will certainly come, it will not delay long” (Hab 2:3). Fr JM Manzano SJ


  1. Good reminders not only for SD but also for formators...listen well in silence and mirror accordingly...also be attentive to the murmurs' story behind... Thanks Fr. JM! A great help for me in accompaniment. God bless you more!🙏🙏😇

    1. Thanks much for your sharing! There are layers upon layers that could be found underneath murmurs. It could be unveiled gently through God's grace! GBU!


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