By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 4, 2009)
The following is part 7 of a 14-part series to help inspire parish cenacle and study groups who are looking for ways to make a difference in this troubled world. We invite you to view the entire series.
Once we are living on the Bread of Life, with Jesus at the center of our hearts, and once we have removed from our lives all the clutter, setting our priorities straight and our lives in order, we will find that we have not reached the end of our spiritual journey, but only the beginning.
Now we are closer to Him than ever before, but that means that we accept Him as our Lord. In other words, we accept that He is our Shepherd and we are His sheep. Just as sheep trust the voice of their shepherd and follow him, so we need to listen to our Good Shepherd's voice and trust that He will lead us and use us in His service in ways great or small. Jesus alluded to this in St. John's gospel:
I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me. ... The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. ... He goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. (Jn 10:14, 3-4)
Jesus is our Shepherd. He calls us by name and leads us in the paths that we should follow. As we are His sheep, we ought to be able to hear His voice.
Both Scripture and the lives of the saints, however, warn us that recognizing our Shepherd's call is not as easy as we might imagine. Our hearts are still too full of the clamor of the world and its false values and the din of our own disordered desires. How easy it is to convince ourselves that we know just what our Lord wants us to do in His service and precisely how He wants us to accomplish it.
Again, recognizing the true voice of the Shepherd is not so easy. For example, in the Old Testament, the boy Samuel was raised under the care of the old priest Eli. It was then that Samuel heard for the first time the call to be a prophet of the Lord — although he mistook it, at first, for the voice of his guardian:
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim, so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down within the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. And the Lord called again, "Samuel!" and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call you, my son; lie down again." Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore, Eli said to Samuel, 'Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, "Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
And the Lord came and stood forth, calling as at other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for thy servant hears." Then the Lord said to Samuel, "Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel, at which the two ears of everyone that hears it will tingle." (I Sam 3:2-11)
This passage also shows us how important it is to lean on the counsel of good friends in Christ and wise counselors in the Holy Spirit if we are to be able to clearly discern God's calling to us. Notice that it was Samuel's mentor Eli, and not Samuel himself, who first discerned the real source of the voice that spoke to the boy.
In the 13th century, Francis Bernadone of Assisi also ran into problems in his first attempts to recognize the voice of the Lord. At the age of 24, in 1205, Francis had a vision in the night in which the merciful Lord showed him a spacious and beautiful palace filled with weapons and shields marked with the sign of the Cross. Francis interpreted this vision as the Lord's call to him to become a chivalrous and heroic knight, so he set out for another town to put himself in service as a knight of a local duke.
A second nocturnal revelation, however, corrected his interpretation. A voice called out to him, "Francis, who can do more for you, the lord or the servant, the rich man or the poor man?" Of course, Francis answered, "The lord and rich man." The voice then said, "Why, then, do you leave the Lord for the servant, and the God of infinite riches for a poor mortal?" "Lord, what do you want me to do?" Francis replied. The Lord told him to return home and to understand that the first vision referred to a spiritual work that Francis must accomplish. Francis did as he was commanded, and from then on he spent much more time in solitude, praying for the Lord's guidance.
Once, while taking a walk through the fields, Francis came upon the little, broken-down church of San Damiano. When he entered the ruined sanctuary and knelt to pray before an ancient icon of the crucifix, he heard the lips of Jesus from the crucifix say to him, "Francis, go and repair My house, which as you can see is falling down." Francis was overjoyed: The Lord's will seemed crystal clear at last!
Francis immediately began to repair the old church of San Damiano — but again, he had misunderstood. It was not until 1207, after hearing the gospel read at holy Mass for the feast of St. Matthias, that Francis finally discerned the Lord's true plan for his life. This is the gospel reading in which Jesus sends His disciples out two by two and tells them that they should carry neither gold nor silver nor money in their belts, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; that they should preach "peace" and proclaim "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt 10:5-15). Francis came to realize that the "house" that our Lord wanted him to repair was actually the universal Church, sorely in need of reform and renewal at the time by those willing to live as true disciples of Jesus Christ. Thus, Francis undertook an evangelical form of life as an itinerant preacher of the gospel, committed to holy poverty. He said: "This is what I wish; this is what I seek; this is what I long to do with all my heart."
Most of us will not receive supernatural visions or hear words from the Lord as we seek to discern what our Savior is calling us to do in His service, which may only mean that our task of discerning what our Lord is calling us to do can be even harder than it was for Samuel and St. Francis! At times, in our walk with Christ, we would be happy to have such supernatural help. (Be careful what you ask for, however: such extra helps are usually only given by our Lord to those whom He intends to call to extraordinary tasks and responsibilities!) Most of the time, the Lord only lets His voice be heard when we are willing to silence the clamor of the world in our hearts and the distractions of our own daydreams. Notice how both the prophet Samuel and St. Francis of Assisi heard the Lord's voice mostly in solitude and in silence. Also, think for a minute about real sheep on a hillside: one of the reasons they are able to hear and recognize their shepherd's voice is because a pasture out in the countryside is usually a very quiet place. It is so much easier to hear the call of the Good Shepherd in times of internal and external silence.
If, therefore, we want to hear our Shepherd's voice, guiding us to take the next good steps as His disciples, we need to resolve to find daily times of silent listening to His Word, especially times of meditation on the gospels, and at least a weekly time of true solitude and silence with Him, perhaps before the Blessed Sacrament, or alternatively in another quiet spot, where we may be surrounded by all in nature that speaks to us of our Creator's presence.
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta teaches us the importance of seeking God's will in daily time of solitude and silence — even if we can manage it only on occasional days of retreat. She wrote:
We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature — trees, flowers, grass — grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and sun, how they move in silence. ... The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us. All our words will be useless unless they come from within — words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.
Open my eyes that I may see
glimpses of truth Thou hast for me,
place in my hands the wonderful key
that shall unlock and set me free;
silently now I wait for Thee,
ready my God, Thy will to see,
open my eyes illumine me,
Open my ears that I may hear
gladly the warm truth everywhere,
and while the wave notes fall on my ear
everything else shall disappear;
silently now I wait for Thee,
ready, my God, Thy will to see,
open my ears; illumine me,
Open my heart that I may bring
trophies of grace to Christ my King;
echoed in love Thy words shall out ring
sweet as the note that angels sing;
silently now I wait for Thee,
ready, my God, Thy will to see,
open my heart; illumine me,
Read Part 8: The Call You May Have Missed.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. He wishes to extend special thanks to Kathleen Ervin and the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society of Oakland, Calif., for help in producing this series. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).