“Hearing the Good Shepherd’s Voice” (4/26/10)

Rev. Br. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP

Do we expect to hear God’s voice?   When we wake up each morning, do we expect to hear God’s voice throughout the day?   I, for one, normally don’t. (I mean after I wrote this homily, I thought I had better give it a try a few days, but normally I don’t.)   Yet maybe we should. For in the Gospel, we hear from Jesus the promise that we will hear his voice.  He says the sheep hear the Shepherd’s voice, as they are called by name, and they follow the Shepherd because they recognize his voice.

So it seems from this that we should expect to hear God’s voice. And this, not just in some general way, but also as addressing us personally and even directing us in our concrete circumstances. For only then can we hear the Shepherd’s voice and follow him in taking our next step. I have in mind today especially following him in the small, day-to-day things.

            Sometimes having high expectations of hearing God’s voice can turn out to be a little disappointing (Maybe that’s why we don’t get our hopes up.)   In concrete decisions in life, we are often left with a good amount of uncertainty. It’s hard to discern whether we are really responding to God’s voice. So in this uncertainty, have we heard God’s voice?   Or is the situation even too trivial for God to speak to us about?

            In class a few weeks ago, Fr. Francis Martin made a passing comment in this regard. It was sort of in jest, but kind of not. He said that throughout each day we probably receive from the Holy Spirit about 200 promptings to do something. But out of these 200 promptings from God each day, we are vaguely aware of only about 30. And out of these 30, we actually carry out only about 10.

Personally, I’d like to meet the pool of people surveyed to establish this. Surely even by Fr. Martin’s standards, charismatic as they may be, these figures are exaggerated for affect. Yet on the other hand, if we get down to the nitty-gritty of our thought- life, we might reach 200 promptings from God pretty quickly. The Lord might direct us to stop entertaining a certain thought—maybe one that might lead to a mild disdain for a brother. Or we might have noticed something praiseworthy about a brother, and the Lord wants us to pause a moment to let it soak in. In this way, we might reach 200 promptings from God by noontime—vaguely aware of only about 30, and actually carrying out only about 10.

            We all know that the Sacred Scriptures are a primary means by which we hear God’s voice. St Jerome has said, “If you pray, you are speaking to your Spouse; if you read, he is speaking to you.” Moreover, praying the Scriptures on a regular basis, as we do, forms us to hear and respond to God’s promptings at other times. It attunes us to the Lord’s voice.

            Moreover, Jesus tells us that he calls his sheep by name (Jn 10:3). This too sheds some light on how we hear his voice. Imagine you are in a room, at a party, with many voices going at once. Then you hear your name spoken. Something about it stands out from all the other voices. Your spoken name somehow speaks to your heart and attracts your attention. So too is this the case when the Lord speaks to us; it stands out amidst the other voices we hear in the world.

            Yet when it comes to making concrete decisions, whether large or small, we will probably still be left with a certain degree of uncertainty. What does this uncertainty mean about hearing or not hearing God’s voice?   Well, the sheep image suggests something about this.

            If you watch sheep (and this is hard to do in D.C., but there’s always YouTube). If you watch a flock of sheep following a shepherd, you’ll notice that each sheep is constantly readjusting its course. There’s a flexibility and fluidity in slightly adjusting to the circumstances. Another sheep might begin to cut it off, so it slightly bears to the right. Or its foot might catch itself on a stump, but the sheep sort of rolls with it and keeps on following. The constant readjustment and responsiveness has a fluidity to it. So the whole flock moving along looks almost like a cotton field swaying in the wind.

Our response to what we discern to be God’s voice is like this. It’s always slightly readjusting itself to the real, concrete circumstances placed before us. There’s a constant flexibility and fluidity in our response to what we hear from God. And as a result, like sheep, we don’t need to know exactly where we are going at each step. All we really need is to stay close to the Shepherd’s voice.  

In the end, hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd brings us joy, not so much because it makes everything clear and certain, and gives us a roadmap for life. Rather, hearing the voice of the Lord brings us joy, because it’s the voice of the One we love. And ultimately, he is leading us to himself.

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