On God’s Quiet Voice
[Is.55:1-11; 1Jn.5:1-9; Mk.1:7-11]
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. This event marks a turning point in Jesus’ story: the end of his hidden life, and the start of his public ministry.
How do we know it’s significant? It’s because of what happens when Jesus emerges from the water: the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, and he hears a voice: ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’
In the Jewish tradition, this heavenly voice is known as the bat kol, which literally means ‘the daughter of a sound’, or ‘the echo of a voice’. In Latin, it’s the ‘vox dei’, the divine voice that proclaims God’s will or judgement.
This bat kol is often heard in the Scriptures (Heb.1:1). It’s heard at Jesus’ Transfiguration (Mt.17:5), and just before Jesus enters into his passion (Jn.12:28). Paul hears it on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4; 22:7, 9; 26:14). Peter hears it in Joppa (Acts 10:13, 15).
And Elijah hears it in his cave on Mt Horeb, where he faces a strong wind, an earthquake and a fire. But God’s voice isn’t in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. It’s only later, when everything is quiet, that Elijah hears God’s ‘still, small voice’ (1Kgs.19:11-13).
The Hebrew for the voice Elijah hears literally translates into English as a ‘sound of thinnest silence’. So, the ‘daughter of a sound’, the ‘sound of thinnest silence’, and a ‘still, small voice’ are all ways to express something that’s beyond the boundaries of ordinary speech. [i]
Today, God still speaks to us, and not just in the Bible. He speaks to us through his creation (Ps.19:1). He speaks through art, music, the events of our lives and through the wisdom of our family and friends (1 Cor. 12:8-10). He speaks to us whenever we pray or meditate (Prov.8:34), and sometimes he speaks to us through our dreams (Mt.1:20; Acts 2:17).
Some people therefore hear God’s voice not with their ear, but with their heart. It comes to them from deep within. Like an echo, it calls them, urges them and encourages them. But like a whisper, it can be hard to hear.
Richard Rohr writes that in their path to wholeness, both the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung and the Jewish Auschwitz victim Etty Hillesum learned to trust in and listen to the voice of God in their deepest selves.
Many people, however, are reluctant to do this. They aren’t willing to submit to such ‘indirect, subversive, and intuitive knowing’.
Rohr says such people prefer external law and behaviour to achieve their spiritual purposes, because it feels more ‘objective and solid’. To them, intuitive truth feels too much like our own thoughts and feelings, and they’re not willing to call this ‘God’, even when that voice prompts them towards compassion instead of hatred, forgiveness instead of resentment, generosity instead of stinginess and bigness instead of pettiness. [ii]
‘But think about it,’ Rohr says. ‘If the incarnation is true, then of course God speaks to us through our own thoughts! When accusers called Joan of Arc the victim of her own imagination, she replied: “How else would God speak to me?”’
Rohr says this inner voice is experienced in our deepest and usually hidden selves, where most of us do not go. It speaks at a level ‘beneath’ our rational consciousness; in a place where only the humble – or the trained – know how to go.
He quotes Carl Jung, who late in his life wrote, ‘In my case, Pilgrim’s Progress consisted in my having to climb down a thousand ladders until I could reach out my hand to the little clod of earth that I am’. Jung knew that any authentic God experience takes a lot of humble, honest and patient seeking.
This is where embracing the Christ Mystery becomes utterly practical, Rohr says. Without the mediation of Christ, we’re tempted to exaggerate the distance and distinction between God and humanity. But because of the incarnation, the supernatural is forever embedded in the natural, making the very distinction false. ‘How good is that?’ he asks.
That’s why mystics like Hillesum, Jung, Augustine, Teresa of Ávila, Merton and others link the discovery of their own souls with the discovery of God. It takes a long time to trust and allow such a process. But when it comes, Rohr says, it will feel like a calm and humble ability to quietly trust yourself and trust God at the same time. ‘Isn’t that what we all want?’ [iii]
Our challenge, then, is to develop our sacred listening skills; to learn how to hear, trust and respond to God’s quiet voice deep in our hearts.
When Jesus heard his Father’s voice at his Baptism, his life changed.
When we hear God’s voice, our life will change, too.
[i] Marcus J. Borg, Days of Awe and Wonder: How to Be a Christian in the 21st Century, Harper Collins, NY. 2017:228
[ii] Ron Rolheiser proposes 5 principles for discerning the true voice of God. See https://www.franciscanmedia.org/minute-meditations/hearing-the-voice-of-god