There’s an old joke that, if you speak to God, you’re religious; but if God answers, you’re crazy. And certainly one of the occasional features of mental illness is auditory hallucinations, sometimes of “God” speaking to the troubled person. But when the saints say that God “spoke” to them they only very rarely mean that they heard words: Usually, “speak” is a metaphor. There’s a wonderful scene about this in Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan. Joan of Arc is trying to convince the French that “her voices” have told her to drive the English armies out of France. She is talking to a military leader, Robert de Baudricourt, in the presence of another French official, Bertrand de Poulengey:
Robert: What did you mean when you said that Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret talked to you every day?
Joan: They do.
Robert: What are they like?
Joan: I will tell you nothing about that: They have not given me leave.
Robert: But you actually see them: And they talk to you just as I am talking to you?
Joan: No: it is quite different. I cannot tell you. You must not talk to me about my voices.
Robert: How do you mean? Voices?
Joan: I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.
Robert: They come from your imagination.
Joan: Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.
“They come from your imagination.” “Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.” Joan (Shaw, actually) is right. When we say “God speaks to us” we don’t mean we hear actual words; we’re talking about images, thoughts, emotions, and resolutions forming mysteriously within our imaginations that seem to come in some way from beyond us. The Christian discipline of “listening for God” is nothing more than making opportunities for such things to arise, and then paying attention to them when they do.
For example: If you watch a detective show on tv, images and emotions around justice, retribution, anger, and the like will probably arise. If you watch a documentary about (or, better, immerse yourself in) the lives of poor people, images and emotions about compassion, justice, sharing, and similar things will come to you. What arises is affected by the situations we put ourselves in. So when we come to Mass, putting ourselves into the Sacramental presence of God and listening to His Word, we can reasonably expect that – if we pay attention – our imaginations will be active. Thoughts, memories, hopes, and intentions may arise; a particular word, phrase, or image from the readings or the prayers may lodge in our minds; we may feel ourselves inclined – “being led” – toward some sort of resolution for future action. As Joan would say, “That is how the messages of God come to us.”
Beyond making space by putting ourselves into the Sacramental presence of God and paying attention, we can give God an additional opportunity by preparing: reading the Scriptures before coming to Mass, arriving early so we can have some moments of silence to clear mental space for God to work, and inviting God to say something to us during the Mass. We can also help God to act effectively in us by ensuring that we take home in some way what we’ve experienced and don’t forget it when life once again gets busy and complicated. More on that next week. Until then, peace.