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 me—and 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.”