Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

If today you hear

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the August 15, 2013 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky How long has it been since someone mentioned to you that they were hearing voices? When was the last time you “heard a voice”?

For most people, these are foreign experiences. Hearing voices usually indicates detachment from reality, if not acute psychological disorder. For the normal, balanced person, an experience of hearing voices is startling – even scary. Accordingly, we tend to measure people who claim this experience with a great deal of skepticism and caution.

That being the case, how are we believers to deal with the challenge we heard recently in the Psalm Response at Sunday Mass: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts”? After all, does not Christian spirituality press into service a vocabulary associated with “hearing the voice of the Lord”? Referring to our experience of prayer we sometimes say “the Lord said” or “I heard God say to me.” Homilists often encourage us to listen to God’s Word as it makes itself manifest. And we read Sacred Scripture with the expectation that it “speak” to us.

The Jewish tradition we Christians have inherited echoes richly in the phrase, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” At the center of our Christian spirituality we find the challenge to develop a sensitivity of heart which “hears” the voice of the Lord. The essence of Christian spirituality obviously does not testify to the hearing of actual voices, but focuses rather on that inner conviction of the heart that God truly does address us in dialogue at a level of mutual understanding. When someone says that they “heard the Lord say…” they normally refer, not to an audible conversation, but to their awareness of God’s moral demand.

In our prayer and our sensitivity to the unfolding mystery of daily life – in good times and in bad – God does speak to us. A laying bare of the heart, an opening of self between God and ourselves, is always taking place. Is that not essentially what we profess when we say God is everywhere? God is not to be found in the dresser drawer, under the table, or in the closet. God is profoundly part of us, and our spirituality bids us focus our attention – to listen for God’s voice, to be aware of God’s presence.

Our religious experience is what it is. Much of it remains a mystery even for us. And certainly no one can tell us whether or not we have had a specific experience. However it may be described, or however it may impact, our experience of hearing God is what it is. In our Catholic faith tradition, however, our personal, private religious experience is not the full measure or moral dictate of our journey of faith. A personal claim to have “heard” God speak does not trump reality. As immediate as it is to us, religious experience is not the full measure of truth in the spiritual life. And certainly private experience can never become the measure of truth and orthodoxy for others. In our well-tested spiritual tradition, even those saints and mystics who enjoyed deep, enriching personal experiences of “hearing” God raised these cautions.

In its wisdom, the Church has always insisted that private religious experience be tested by the broader and longer-lasting experience of the Church community. The faith tradition of the Christian community is anchored in the public self-revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. The public testimony of Sacred Scripture makes clear who he is. Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, is the One in whom God has spoken completely and definitively for all people to hear. There is nothing private, nothing secretive about this Word. Jesus is not private experience but public revelation. Any religious experience a Christian may have – even of Jesus himself – can and needs to be measured by this public revelation as preserved in the testimony of Sacred Scripture and the living faith tradition of the Church. Anything claimed to have been heard in private prayer finds its moral demand, not from the experience itself, but from its congruence with the public faith of the Church.

It is important for our spiritual growth to keep this in mind at a time in history when a variety of people claim the experience of hearing special messages directly from God, our Blessed Mother, or from various saints. No one can deny these individuals have had these experiences. An experience is what it is. What is claimed as messages received in these experiences, however, is fully subject to the prudent judgment of the Church. And even when the Church “approves,” it cannot verify that a particular experience happened. The Church can only assure that what is claimed as fruit of that experience or message is not contrary to the public witness of faith. No one is accountable to words, messages or instructions received in private religious experience, even if that experience is accompanied by alleged miraculous happenings. Our growth in faith is nurtured by the call of Jesus, the public word of God. Developing a personal relationship with him as he leads us to God is the central focus of our discipleship and our Christian spirituality.

No one has a private hold on hearing the voice of God. We listen together.

(Father Savelesky is Moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Spokane, and pastor of the parishes in Oakesdale, Rosalia, St. John, and Tekoa.)

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