Hearing God or Hearing Voices?

Brother David Henley Glenmary Vocation DirectorMarch 2011

"I waited, waited for the LORD; who bent down and heard my cry..." Ps 40:2

Recently I have had a chance to attend a few vocation events around the country. In January I attended two of the regional FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) conferences in Denver and Nashville. This year's theme was "Answering the Call." Last week I attended a "Here I Am Lord" conference, an annual vocations and discipleship gathering for teens and young adults. A question that came up in one of the small group discussions at this most recent event was "How do I know if I am being called?" I shared a little bit about this subject in a column a few months ago, but I didn't go into detail; instead, I focused on how we can respond to our calls.

In a book I have been reading, Already There: Letting God Find You, author Jesuit Father Mark Mossa gives a good explanation about some of our doubts regarding whether we are being called. "In the course of history," he writes, "some saints and even some crazy people have shared with others that God has spoken to them in an audible voice. It may be that I'm not saintly or crazy enough, but this has never been my experience."

I think that is true for the vast majority of us. Only a few have had an experience like St. Paul, who fell down when he heard the voice of Jesus calling him: "He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' He said, ‘Who are you, sir?' The reply came, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.'" (Acts 9:4-6)

So if the vast majority don't hear voices or get struck by lightning bolts, how do we know if we are being called? I believe the answer is that we are all being called. Each of us has the capacity to listen to that inner voice that helps in discerning good or bad decisions—"Should I go to Mass today, or should I spend the morning updating my Facebook account or reading my friends' drunken tweets from the night before?"

Sometimes a person hears the best answer but chooses to ignore the voice. While I was discerning to join Glenmary, the sky didn't open up, and I didn't hear a loud voice from the heavens saying "David, join Glenmary!" But I did hear the voice of God in what I heard from my family and friends who supported me in my decision to become a Glenmary brother. For instance, Sister Joseph, a Glenmary pastoral coordinator and friend, reminded me over and over again: "You would make a good Glenmary brother. What are you waiting for?"

I think an individual can get in tune with hearing God's voice by slowing down and taking the time to pray. Most of the time I don't get an answer to my prayers at the exact moment I am praying. I have to wait. Later on a friend or one of my brothers might mention something that relates to my prayers, or I might hear a song on the radio or be reading something that helps me reflect back on my prayers.

Journaling prayers and reflections is another good way to open oneself to listening to what God is saying. And rereading that journal might reveal some life patterns that are pointing in a certain direction. Also, meeting with a spiritual director to discuss one's prayers and reflections allows someone else to join in prayer and help confirm or deny the call. God's call is there for each of us to hear even if it's not an audible or recognizable voice.

The key is to take the time to make the time, to be open, and to pray as the Gospel reading from St. Matthew on Ash Wednesday reminded us: "But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you." (Mt 6:6) As Father Mark Mossa writes, "The more you reflect, the more you'll see that God has been trying to communicate with you in unexpected and surprising ways."