All day long our thoughts can waver between being hopeful and depressed, feeling loved and lonely, encouraged and discouraged—how do we know which thoughts come from Jesus? Is He pushing us or are we just being too hard on ourselves? We know from the Gospel that Jesus can be extremely gentle, but He also criticized His disciples for not understanding (“How foolish you are, and slow of heart to believe”) (Lk 24:25).
Even after 22 years of spiritual formation, I still need to go to a spiritual director to know clearly what Jesus is saying to me. It’s amazing how sometimes I deceive myself or need reassurance that I’m on the right track. All of you need a spiritual director, but there are so few of them. Here’s the solution: Some of you need to be trained to become spiritual directors, and I’m going to give some group spiritual direction now on the basics of hearing Jesus’ voice.
Let’s focus on three clues to hearing Jesus’ voice, then look at the advice of St. Ignatius, and finish with a story. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers” (Jn 10:1-5).
The symbolism is this: We’re the sheep (Jn 10:26-29); the gatekeeper is probably God the Father (Francis Martin & William M. Wright IV, The Gospel of John in Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 187); Jesus is both the gate (Jn 10:7,9) and the shepherd (Jn 10:11); the thieves and bandits are leaders who lead people away from Jesus (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John 1-XII: 388, 392). What does Jesus’ voice symbolize? Jesus’ voice. Just seeing if you’re paying attention.
Now here are three clues to help us hear His voice.
1) Jesus’ voice affirms our dignity. He says that He ‘calls his own sheep by name.’ Those of us who have belonged to this parish family for the past few years know our emphasis on learning each other’s names. Why? Because names are expressions of human dignity.
Whenever we have a thought that doesn’t affirm our dignity, such as, “I’m a loser, worthless, ugly, a complete failure,” then it doesn’t come from Jesus. That’s the voice of condemnation.
When Jesus criticizes us, He still affirms our dignity. We said in October 2019 that “people who get everything they want become spiritually and morally weak: They can’t handle adversity, they become passive, unengaged, selfish, materialistic, and hedonistic. They become perpetual children. You know how that feels? We feel useless and pathetic”. We used strong language to capture a real human experience, that of not reaching our potential through our own fault. But this criticism affirms our dignity, that we’re made for greatness!
Remember I told you about the friends Bill and John, who go for a walk, and Bill says, “John, no one takes you seriously”? People loved John and he was the life of the party, but wasn’t respected. John hated who he had chosen to become because he knew he was fundamentally good.
Jesus says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). He does so because the sheep are good! They may be dumb… at times… but Jesus obviously thinks you and I are valuable enough for Him to die for us.
Michael Dopp said on Saturday, April 25, 2020 at the UEvangelize Virtual Summit that he tells his children every day that they are perfectly loved. If that thought is in our minds, or that there’s much goodness in us despite our sins, then we’re on the right track.
2) Jesus’ voice offers us the fullness of life. He says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Jesus always thinks about our deepest happiness, not instant gratification. Most philosophers categorize four levels of happiness: 1) Pleasure and instant gratification; 2) Achievement and comparisons; 3) Contributing to the happiness of others; 4) Transcendental happiness (Fr. Robert Spitzer, Finding True Happiness, 31-33).
So the question for us is: Which thoughts in our head point towards the happiness that is deepest and endures? Here’s an example: A couple dating talk to me about when they should get married. They consider when they’re going to finish school, seek job prospects, and opportunities to find a home—all good. But I know they’re attuned to Jesus because their primary consideration is what will make for the best marriage: If waiting will give them more time to work on their faults, that will create the greatest marriage, not career or house. However, if there’s nothing to be gained by waiting, but starting a family right away is most important, then their focus on family life will create the greatest marriage. Here’s the point: The couple are considering which route will offer them the fullness of life, and it’s primarily with Jesus and their virtue, and secondarily with career and home.
Another example: Pay attention to how something feels afterwards, not before. Getting drunk or high feels good and is enticing before, but not after. Same with pornography or sex outside of marriage—it promises pleasure, but gives no intimacy after, which is part of the fullness of life.
This applies to virtue but in the opposite way: How do we often feel before exercise? We don’t want to do it! How do we feel after? Great! Much of the time we don’t feel like praying, but we’re always happy we did.
Last example: Distinguish between the voice of excellence and the voice of mediocrity. Our culture asks: What is the least I can do and still keep my job? What is the least I can do to get good grades? What is the least I can do and stay fit? What is the least I can do and get into heaven (Matthew Kelly, Rediscover Catholicism, 28-29)? But that’s not the attitude of Christ. He always asked, “How can I do the Father’s will perfectly? How can I give my whole self to humanity?” The voice of rest sounds different from the voice of laziness: The voice of rest talks about greater generosity in the future, whereas laziness leads to a self-focused, sad life.
3) Jesus’ voice offers us truth. He says in John 18:37: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” Are our ideas in accord with what Jesus teaches philosophically, theologically, and morally? The sure guide for the most important teachings of Jesus are in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
If we’re ‘of the truth’ it means that we seek the truth, even if we don’t like it and it makes life inconvenient. There are two quick ways to help us hear the truth: 1) Share what’s really in our hearts with someone spiritually mature. For example, when we wonder what God wants us to do in life, we know that our plans are often different from His. So, when we talk to a spiritual friend, we sometimes don’t reveal everything, because we’re afraid they might see through our reasoning and challenge our plan. But if we do this, we’ll close ourselves to truth and probably deceive ourselves in at least a small way! Share everything, because God only takes away good things to give us better things. If you don’t know anyone spiritually mature, then sign up for online Faith Studies starting soon. 2) Pray this prayer of Mark Hart, a wonderful Catholic speaker: “Jesus, take away anything or anyone in my life that prevents me from being a saint.” That’s hard! But that’s openness to truth. Here’s the thing: God only wants to make us happy! And when we give Him freedom to take away good and bad things in our lives, He gives us back more.
Let’s apply these clues to two situations of discernment according to St. Ignatius. In his first rule of discernment, he talks about people “who are going from mortal sin to mortal sin.” So, the first difficult but helpful question is: What’s the fundamental direction of our life? Are we moving away from God and caught up in mortal sin? Mortal sin has three conditions: it’s a gravely wrong action that we know is wrong and freely choose to do it anyway.
When we’re in this state, the enemy will give us thoughts focused on pleasure: making lots of money at the expense of our soul and family, lustful thoughts, sex outside of marriage, living it up; we’ll be very concerned about our image (Fr. Timothy Gallagher, OMV, The Discernment of Spirits, 35), and comfort.
But Jesus’ voice will say: 1) we’re loved and good; 2) we want to be free, healed, and whole; 3) He’ll work on our conscience: “Are you really happy living this way? Why do you hurt those who love and need you? When you look back, will you be happy with the life you’re leading now?”
St. Ignatius’ second rule applies to those “who are intensely purifying their sins and rising from good to better,” meaning we’re trying to get rid of sin in our lives and grow in love of God! In this case, the voice of the enemy will give us lots of anxiety, prayer will become very difficult, trying to serve God will seem hard, we’ll think we won’t be happy if we lose our old friendships, and that people at church are hypocrites. Whoa! No affirmation of our goodness, no call to a fuller life, and lots of exaggerations, but no truth.
By the way, because we’re talking about ignoring the voice of the enemy, we’re going to start having the St. Michael’s prayer during Communion, so that each of us can pray silently for the angels to fight against the devil’s influence in our lives.
Jesus’ voice, however, says: 1) You are so good! Look at all the things you have for which to be grateful. You’ve grown so much already. You’re helping people. People love you! 2) You’ll experience deeper peace and relationships, satisfaction in helping people, and tears of joy and healing. 3) He’ll remind us of the truth that He won’t hurt us or push us beyond what we can handle. Please remember what Fr. David Bauer, CSB, said to my mom. He gave up a career in the NHL to become a priest. But because he was so good at hockey he coached the Canadian Olympic team and is now in the NHL Hall of Fame. He said to my mom when he was preparing her to become Catholic at UBC, “When you give God what you love, He gives it back to you,” meaning in a deeper, better way.
When St. Augustine was 15, his studies were interrupted because his family lacked money (like a COVID-19 situation). The boredom was the occasion of his starting to live a self-indulgent life. He said, “I burned to fill myself with evil things.” When he was 17, his friends would boast of their sexual encounters, and Augustine got drawn in. He had a girlfriend for 15 years, and had a son when he was only 18.
For years, he was hungering for truth and wisdom, and felt weary about his lifestyle, but couldn’t break free. Years later, when he was 31, a friend told him in passing how two of his acquaintances left their government jobs to live as monks, after hearing how St. Anthony had left everything to follow Jesus as a hermit. That story of a fuller life hit Augustine. He wanted that life, but also wanted a life of pleasure. So he said God lashed him with fear and shame in case he was tempted to go back fully to his old life. (He’s in the first stage of going from sin to sin.)
Later on, he started to search for God more, and here’s the change: He wanted to move ahead, but he heard voices of his past life say, “Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again… You will never be allowed to do this thing or that.” So he couldn’t go forward.
Time passed until he heard the voice of purity calling him to come over. “She smiled at me to give me courage… saying, ‘Can you not do what these men and women do? Do you think they find the strength to do it in themselves and not in the Lord their God? … Cast yourself upon God and have no fear. He will not… let you fall… He will welcome you and cure you of your ills.’”
Famously, he finds himself under a fig tree and is crying. He hears the voice of a child, “Take and read,” and he opens the Bible to Romans, “The night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us… cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” (13:12) (See Gallagher, 27-31). He was free. He told his best friend Alypius about his joy and Alypius decided to become Catholic. They went into the house to tell his mother, Monica, and she was filled with joy! After years of being lost, he finally came home!
St. Augustine’s life demonstrates the three clues to hearing Jesus’ voice: 1) There’s goodness in each of us, which is why God never gave up on him or gives up on us but uses all His power to help us; 2) Augustine shows that we all want to be deeply happy; 3) He shows us the search for truth when he admits his weaknesses and what’s right and wrong.
Today, after Mass, I have a very simple question for you in the online chat: Which of the three clues do you need to remember this week to hear Jesus’ voice?
Listen to the voice that affirms our dignity, offers the fullness of life, and offers us truth.