HEARING VOICES

grace1This reflection is based on Mark 1:7-11 on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

There’s quite a thin dividing line between mystics and psychotics.

If someone comes up to you to say that he’s just had a vision, you would probably immediately hear alarm bells going off in your head, warning you that you just might be dealing with someone who has lost touch with reality. And yet that is exactly what the Evangelist Mark reports about the Lord right after his baptism. Jesus gets a vision–the tearing open of the heavens and the Spirit’s gentle descent. And not only that, he hears a voice as well with a very specific message: “You are my beloved Son; with you, I am well pleased.”

These days the Lord might just be diagnosed with bipolar psychosis and suspected of suffering from visual and auditory hallucinations. So that makes me wonder: How do we know whether we’re getting an authentic message from God or whether we’re just, in spite of ourselves, making it up? How do we know if God is indeed speaking to us or if we’re just, as it were, “hearing voices?”

I think one of the toughest questions you can ever ask a priest is “How did you decide to be a priest?” And the reason it’s such a tough question is that people expect a short and sweet soundbite for an answer when it really would require a complex–and usually lengthy–story to answer that question. The times I actually yielded to “make the long story short,” I always regretted. The best but always inadequate soundbite I could come up with was “It’s a calling,” which invariably invited even tougher questions like “Did you hear a voice? And how do you know it’s God’s?”

The problem is, we never know for sure. And sometimes the only way to find out is to do it, to follow the voice–as long as it’s not asking you to do something ridiculous or dangerous!–and to confirm by looking at what it leads to. In other words: “By their fruits you shall judge them.”

I suspect that our Lord, even if He was completely divine, didn’t have an absolutely 100% crystal clear way of communicating with the Father–precisely because He too was completely human and wanted to be very much like us. This is good news for us because this means that He went through the uncertainty that we go through and that we can do the same: open our hearts and train our ear to recognize the inaudible–but no less authentic–voice of the Spirit in us.

Just yesterday I received a strange email from someone I’ve never met personally, but who had apparently attended a Lenten retreat I gave about five years ago. Anyway, she wrote to say that she had awakened that morning with the feeling that the Lord was asking her to pray for meand to make sure to tell me that. The request for prayer was an easy one to grant, but the other request to inform me of it? Some people might actually balk at the idea, afraid of being considered weird, accused of “hearing voices.”

I’m glad that she went ahead and did both. What that stranger had no way of knowing was that I was really going through a particularly difficult day yesterday, and her unexpected and strange email reminded me of God’s care precisely at the time when I most needed it and in a way that was as simple as it was powerful. I’m grateful that she “heard voices” and followed them.

This morning the wind was particularly strong as I made my way to the community library. As I turned a corner, I noticed a small and frail-looking woman holding on to a post. What a strange thing to do, I thought, as I continued on my way. Then in a split-second, there it was, a small, non-audible voice, maybe more a feeling: “Turn around,” it said. And I obeyed in spite of myself, and saw the woman looking at me. “Does she need help? Should I ask?” I thought. And in yet another split-second, there it was: “Ask!” And again in spite of myself, I did. “Do you need help, ma’m?” I asked. The woman reached for my hand and said, “Could you walk me to that corner? This wind is so strong, and I just got out of the hospital and don’t want to slip.” I took the woman’s hand and walked her to her corner, inexplicably grateful that I had heard voices–and in spite of myself, heeded them.

The experience left me strangely blessed. It felt less like a favor extended to a stranger and more like a benediction from her. It took an entire day before I understood why: Her silent look of gratitude as we parted–it spoke to me in a still small voice, as gentle as dove wings: “You are my beloved son, and with you I am well pleased.”

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5 thoughts on “HEARING VOICES”

  1. Greetings Fr J! I wonder if it was His face that you saw in the old woman? Or maybe we are used to listening to the subtle sound of His voice? I hope you are doing well in your pilgrimage.

  2. When people ask me how do I know if it’s really God talking, I would often answer, “You’ll know when you hear His Voice”, which only leads to another HOW?!!

    It’s given that you need tons of God’s grace. I can’t come up with a concrete answer other than my daily conversation with the Lord through prayer time and gospel reading, these are humble ways of learning God’s language. It’s like how you develop friendship w/ someone.

    What amazes me is that God is not that choosy when he picks a messenger and it takes obedience on our part for his voice to come out loud.

    Your reflection is a great relief, reading the word psychotic made me laugh a bit :)

    Bless you, Fr.J !

  3. Father Johnny. Seventeen years ago I was in Atok, Benguet to visit a community for Assisi Foundation. At that time I was still steeped in depression from a failed relationship. The community worker brought me to this place that had an incredible view of the mountains. I felt peaceful and there I thought I saw a Lady asking me to do something important that wasn’t clear. I agreed somehow and in my grief I just begged her to free me from my pain in exchange for what she was asking. As we walked to the village, the community worker related a story about a boy who was crippled by a serious beating he received from a relative. She brought me to his home and saw the boy. I was moved with pity for he had been suffering the pain of an exposed fractured leg bone for over a year without medical attention. I begged the boy’s father to allow us to bring his son to Baguio for treatment. Somehow, he reluctantly obliged for they (the Ibalois)are by nature very shy and embarrassed that they were too poor to give him medical help. We brought him to Baguio that day and the Foundation took care of all the expenses. You know, Father, I hesitate to talk about that part about my encounter with Our Lady because people may think I am coo-coo or trying to have had a miraculous experience. You know, our Lady was so graciuos to answer my prayers for doing that bit her for that day, I first saw and met my wife Addie in the hospital. A year later I met the boy and he was fully recovered from his trauma. Addie and I married in 1998 and that I thought was Our Lady’s greatest gift to us.

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