The Voice of the Good Shepherd

“The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” (Jn 10: 4-6)

St Ignatius of Loyola affirmed the basic idea that God communicates with his creatures. It’s not only Moses, or Abraham, or Peter or James who were able to hear the voice of God, but also we today can hear if we know how to listen. Ignatius was adept at making accessible to us how to proceed in a process of discernment or decision making when we are actively seeking God and following what God desires for us.

Ignatius has us begin with paying attention to our feelings, especially consolation and desolation. For people already set on a good path, intending to live good and loving lives and not constantly engaging in mortal sin, the good spirit leads through consolations (feelings of peace, freedom, increased desire to love, joy, energy focused outward) whereas desolation (feelings in which one is turned toward oneself, disquieted, anxious, confused or full of doubt) comes from the evil spirit which seeks to take us off that good path.

For example, a person trying to decide between two jobs that she has been offered may notice that one may be more challenging (e.g., a job teaching in an inner city school with many challenges) but thoughts of that work give her a sense of energy, interior feelings of warmth as she thinks of the people she met during the interview process, a sense that she will grow in new ways with this work, and so on. Perhaps the other job was perfectly fine and is the ‘safer’ alternative in terms of pay or ease of tasks, but she does not feel the same sense of being drawn through consolation. The sense of peace, energy, and freedom she feels indicates God’s action in her decision making process.

However, this picture becomes complicated in several ways. First, consolation is not about only feeling good. One can be consoled even in the midst of sadness. For example, when my grandfather died years ago, although I was immensely sad to lose him, I also felt a profound sense of gratitude for his life and for the ways in which we had spent time together. I felt connected to other people in my family who had similar experiences of him while he had lived. These were all signs of consolation, not desolation.

Second, in cases where we are resistant to what God wants, we can mistake the pleasure of doing what we want to do (exerting our own will) as God’s will. For example, a person who enjoys alcohol to excess may confuse his pleasure in drinking with consolation and choose to ignore signs that the drinking is, in fact, moving him away from care for his family, work, good health, etc. If he eventually realizes that he has been neglecting his obligations and feels great sorrow and regret, then this sincere grief and sorrow is an instance of God’s action, although it’s not at all pleasurable for him to recognize it.

Ignatius also says that evil spirits can disguise themselves as angels of light, through feelings that initially appear to be in accordance with a holy and devout life but gradually lead the person astray. An example Ignatius gave from his own life: when he was learning and memorizing grammar during his studies Barcelona, he started to have profound spiritual insights that distracted him. Initially these seemed like the work of the Lord because they were apparently holy thoughts and even increased his learning about God, but when he saw that they were leading him further and further from fulfilling his duties, he realized they were temptations of the evil spirit. Thus, much care must be taken in attending to feelings and experiences, because while they are a real means by which God communicates to us, our feelings are only part of the process of discernment. We also have to look at the larger picture of our lives and our commitments and see whether those feelings are leading us to be more loving in the reality of our lives. At the same time, we might be taken in new and unexpected directions through a process of discernment. I can think of a friend who retired early from her work because she realized she could do more at this point in her life for others after retirement. She had not planned to retire so early but felt the Spirit guiding her in this way.

The operative questions then are: does this choice lead me to be more loving, less selfish, more connected to others in friendship and in community, freer, and more open? Are the actions that I will undertake loving ones?

After many years of praying imaginatively and listening for God’s voice, we begin to have a “feel” for what the voice of Jesus sounds like. Just as the voices of our own friends become so familiar that we instantly recognize them when a friend picks up the phone and calls, even after many years, each one of us can come to recognize the voice of the Lord. Jesus’s words on the Good Shepherd remind us that His is a voice of encouragement, gentleness, strength, and love, a gate that moves us from listening into action.