In today’s first reading the boy Samuel is sleeping in the temple when he hears someone call him. He goes to Eli, the priest in charge, thinking Eli had called. Eli tells Samuel he hasn’t, to go back to sleep. This happens twice, and the third time Eli realizes that Samuel is hearing God’s voice. So Eli tells Samuel just Who is calling him, and what to do about it. I like that story as a touchstone for our work.
I wrote last week about listening for God’s instructions on how we are to fulfill His assignment for our life. I mentioned, but didn’t have time to elaborate on, the need to test what we hear at Mass or in personal prayer, to be sure we’re not just talking to ourselves. Today I want to talk about that testing.
I read a story a few years ago about a physician who had become one of the world’s experts in a rare cancer of the throat. Then, in a tragic irony, he himself developed that very cancer. So he researched it more, called on the medical experts he knew from his professional network…and thoroughly confused himself to the point that he didn’t know what treatment would be best for him to undergo. Finally, to the M.D. surrounded by other M.D.s, one of his physician friends pointed out the pathway through the thicket: “You need a doctor.” He was trying to be a doctor to himself, and that rarely works out well. So it is with the spiritual life.
Eli in today’s story isn’t a genius of the spiritual life – he gets things wrong twice before he gets them right. But he does know some things that Samuel doesn’t. And Samuel knows his own experience, which happened to him, not to Eli. So to figure out what God is asking, they need each other. If their conversation is a success, each walks away with a richer understanding of God’s will and of how God works. But neither can do it alone. If Samuel didn’t challenge Eli by coming back those second- and third-times, God’s plan would have been frustrated. If Eli didn’t know what to do once he understood Samuel’s situation, then God’s plan would have been frustrated. But they kept at it with each other, and God was heard.
This, it seems to me, is what’s happening too rarely in our church. And it’s why we’re weak as a community and as a force for good in our world.
In addition to listening eagerly for God’s direction (which I wrote about last week), we need conversation with one another about how to put what we hear into practice. Take one example: Do you know how much (dollars or percentage of income) any of your Christian friends or relatives gives to charity? I thought not. Yet despite our being the most affluent Christians in history, with more awareness of how our charity might put love into action because of modern communications (Google “effective giving” if you want to learn more) – thoughtful, prayerful conversation about how, where, and how much to give is almost nonexistent. Because we’re isolated, our witness to Christ isn’t as strong as it might be – and because we don’t talk, we don’t grow in faith as we might, and we don’t do as much good as we ought.
I use our charitable giving as an example; but we need thoughtful, prayerful conversation about so many topics: How to vote, how to consume (and not consume), how to care for elderly relatives, how to select a vocation/career, how to sustain a life-giving marriage, and many more. If you work in a gossip-plagued office, or go to school in which cliques and bullying are merciless, do you know how to find other people who are as revolted as you by what’s happening? Do you know how to start a conversation about changing things? Do other people even know that you wish the gossip or the bullying would stop? When we don’t talk with one another about our values and our discipleship and our vision for how to make our part of the world better, we fail in our mission and we weaken the Body of Christ.
I so wish every parishioner would take these two steps: to listen eagerly for God’s instruction – at Mass and in private prayer. And to talk with one or a few other people who are trying to take their Christian faith seriously, so as to test with and for one another what we hear. The alternative is more drift, and more lost souls. Until next week, peace.