If God spoke up in our lives, would we really listen?
The calls are so easily heard. That is what makes us envious. Samuel’s is so loud, so clear that it wakes him from sleep. And Jesus speaks directly to the two disciples, telling them to “come and see.” We tell ourselves that we would happily do whatever God wanted if the Good Lord would only make himself so clear in our lives. But is that true? That with only a little more clarity, we would eagerly answer God’s calls?
Two things tell against us. One has to do with the way that God speaks to us, coupled with our inability to grant God sufficient distance. The other has to do with what God wants of us, which finds us uncomfortable with just how close God is to us.
We tell ourselves that we would happily do whatever God wanted if the Good Lord would only make himself clear in our lives.
First, consider how God speaks to us. We think that we would like God to step into our world and speak. But would we really? Here is such a scene, from one of last year’s best novels, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Jojo, a 13-year-old, mixed-race boy, lives on the Gulf Coast, in a family swaying from poverty, addiction and racism. Jojo has the gift of sight. Like Samuel, the other world communicates with him, just as we wish it did with us. But, be honest: Is something like this really what you would wish to experience?
And the branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves. There are women and men and boys and girls. Some of them near to babies. They crouch, looking at me. Black and brown and the closest near baby, smoke white. None of them reveal their deaths, but I see it in their eyes, their great black eyes. They perch like birds, but look as people. They speak with their eyes: He raped me and suffocated me until I died I put my hands up and he shot me eight times she locked me in the shed and starved me to death while I listened to my babies playing with her in the yard they came in my cell in the middle of the night and they hung me they found I could read and they dragged me out to the barn and gouged my eyes before they beat me still I was sick and he said I was an abomination and Jesus say suffer little children so let her go and he put me under the water and I couldn’t breathe. Eyes blink as the sun blazes and winks below the forest line so that the ghosts catch the color, reflect the red. The sun making scarlet plumage of the clothes they wear: rags and breeches, T-shirts and tignons, fedoras and hoodies. Their eyes close and then open as one, looking down on me, and then up at the sky, as the wind circles them and moans, their mouths gaping now, the airy rush their song, the rush: Yes.
Do you see the problem? How do the unburied sing to us without drowning out our own world? We barely make our way, day by day, through our lives. Could we bear the weight of voices and visions, singing of worlds we cannot see? Singing the sins in our own world, unknown, save to God?
God’s great gift to the world is withdrawal, distance.
God could enter our lives that directly but not without overwhelming them, crushing our lives with more reality than we could bear. No, God’s great gift to the world is withdrawal, distance. If God were the helicopter parent whom we think that we want, we would never grow into anything more than a receptacle, certainly not an actor in our own story.
God does, however, speak to us in our imaginations, our memories, our desires, even our preoccupations. We are given all of these so that God can do just that. And yes, that begs the question: How do you sort them out, make sense of them? They cannot all be of God.
Briefly put, you pray, which is no more than putting yourself in the presence of God; you ponder, which is watching and weighing what happens within you; and then you act. If you’ve listened to God, you will bear fruit. Otherwise, rinse and repeat.
You do not hear God speak to you because you honestly do not believe that God has chosen to enter your life.
What keeps you from doing this? From finding God within you? That is the second obstacle. You do not hear God speak to you because you honestly do not believe that God has chosen to enter your life, to claim you as his own. You think that God is much too distant for that.
Knowing only what is possible for a human to know, you can’t imagine a God who lives each day, watching only you, desiring only you and leading only you into life. You think that God must be as subdivided and distracted by the number of lives that depend upon him. But God is the center, who knows no division, who is as immediately present, as immediately God, to one as to all.
If you resolve to pay attention to what happens within you, you will be able to watch God at work.
This isn’t a question of feeding our spiritual narcissism. Indeed, God’s grace is all about dismantling that. The problem is that we think the world has two centers: God and ourselves. We then presume that God is so busy at one end of the world that we would best manage our own end for ourselves. That is true self-centeredness. We do not understand that the world has one center. We must drown in God, be baptized into God.
Ironically, if you try to picture God as completely focused upon your life alone, you will begin to surrender that life to God, which will allow it to emerge from itself. The saints think that every little detail of their lives is part of their dance with God. It is the constant, unconditional presence of love that leads them to forget themselves in God.
If at the start of this year, you resolve to pay attention to what happens within you, you will be able to watch God at work. But you cannot do that if you do not understand and accept how near to you God is. And that is not a bad description of the virtue we call faith: recognizing and receiving just how close God is to you.