When you see this phrase, “God spoke to Noah,” what do you picture? How do you envision it happening? Do you imagine a booming voice startling the man?
Sometimes, angels appear to people. They are God’s messengers. When they appear, the angels usually begin with the words, “Be not afraid,” because angels don’t look like chubby-cheeked cherubs. They look strong and powerful, and the sight of their radiant beauty can be, well, intimidating.
It’s not usually like this with God’s voice. God’s voice is gentle, like the voice of a patient father. Consider how God was not in the strong wind, the earthquake or the fire when he communicated with Moses. Moses knew it was God when he heard “a small still voice” (1 Kings 19:12), and he stepped forward from the cave. Consider how when Samuel was called by God, the only one who could hear God’s voice was Samuel. Samuel heard a voice and thought that Eli, who was nearby, was calling him, but it wasn’t Eli. Eli, for his part, could not hear anything at all (1 Samuel 3:7-11).
And that’s what we sometimes forget. When these prophets and saints heard God’s voice, usually nobody around them did. When they learned things from God, usually nobody else around them did. In most cases where God spoke to prophets or saints, there were neither eyewitnesses nor ‘ear’ witnesses; no one would be able to verify that the prophet or saint heard or saw anything out of the ordinary.
So what are you to do? Let’s say you’re there, minding your own business, when suddenly you hear God’s voice. It’s clear and it’s distinct and you’re not imagining it.
What do you do?
What makes the prophets and the saints holy is not that they heard God’s voice, but that they responded to it. Even Jonah, who is viewed as somewhat of a wimp for initially running in the opposite direction from the one that God wanted him to, did not doubt that he had heard what he heard. He believed that he had received a message from God and that he had a mission. What makes St. Paul special is not that he heard Christ’s voice, but that he heeded it.
More people have heard God’s voice than have responded. More people have been invited than have responded. Those who don’t respond don’t make history. It’s only later that we will learn about all the rejected invitations and the squandered opportunities to become what God had wanted his children to become.
When Joan of Arc heard God’s voice and invitation, she obeyed and made big changes and took big chances. What did the people around her think? They didn’t look at her and see a glowing halo. They saw someone utterly ordinary who was now acting Really Odd.
When Juan Diego saw Our Lady of Guadalupe, he did not doubt what he saw, but what did the people around him see? They saw an ordinary man who was wasting the bishop’s time and acting Rather Oddly. It was only after the others were given concrete signs that they understood that they were dealing with the supernatural.
When Mary conceived Jesus, the world entered a new era, but the world did not know it. People passed Mary and Joseph on the street, clueless that Mary carried within herself the Saviour of humanity. And indeed, judging from outside appearances, nothing had changed. It didn’t seem that a new era had dawned at all. Herod savagely ordered the slaughter of innocent babies, and the normal lives of Mary and Joseph were interrupted as they fled to Egypt. Did they have anything, now that they had unexpectedly relocated to a foreign land? They had their newborn baby but neither friends nor relatives. Humanly, these refugees had nothing. Spiritually, they had everything.
When Mary and Joseph returned to their homeland, they had with them Jesus, true God and man, but who would have guessed it? They blended in to their neighbourhood and people would have treated them as they liked, with familiarity, with disinterest, with friendliness or coldness. There was no bright neon sign flashing above their home: “Here Resideth Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Son of the Living God.”
No. It was quiet. God is, generally, quiet.
So when the neighbours found out that Jesus, that most predictable Jesus, son of the unremarkable carpenter, had appointed himself teacher, and was attracting crowds, well, they didn’t deal with it well. They had known him long before these crowds knew him, and they Knew Better. They chose not to accept the possibility that Jesus or his followers knew more than they did, and that this man was special, or holy, and that his current behaviour was justified. Their high opinion of themselves caused them to stiffen their necks and harden their hearts against him. When Jesus returned to the region, willing to shower them with graces, they lacked the requisite openness to him, and he left, having performed no miracles. A prophet is not acceptable in his own country, he said.
Indeed, those who know you from the past can’t handle a change in plans. They can’t handle God’s plans for you if you go in a new direction that they haven’t pre-approved. Can they handle God, who calls people out of an ordinary existence to act in ways that are unpredictable and ‘wild’?
I received an email from someone whose name was “anonymous” and whose email address was written as “firstname.lastname@example.org.” Part of the comment was, “This was NOT what I was looking for or expecting.”
What have I said or done to make you expect anything at all? What is the basis of your expectation? My past conduct? Our past relationship? The contract between you and me, where I promised to satisfy your needs and desires, for a handsome fee? The contract between you and the internet, to which I am a party, assuring you that you will find Everything You Desire Online?
Look elsewhere. I don’t write to make you happy.
Giovanni was popular and loved to laugh. He had many friends and appreciated them all. There was really nothing to dislike about him, because he liked everybody, even the unlikeable. He was one of those people who wanted to do everything for everybody, and when he wanted to be a soldier, people cheered him on. He had, so it seemed, everything a young man could want, including a father who provided for him. But then, suddenly, inexplicably, something ‘got into’ that young man, and he went off the deep end. (He went into the deep, you could say.) The fellow publicly disowned his father (for what? A dispute about some cloth?) and walked away, abandoning his very tunic. It made no sense; what has happened to Giovanni — known to his friends as Francisco? What has happened to St. Francis?
What happened to him was what happens to many of the prophets and the saints. It goes like this: you’re there, minding your own business, when the email comes in, and it’s from God. No. Sorry, let me begin again. You’re there, minding your own business, when the doorbell rings, and it’s God.
That’s the problem.
What proof do you have that you heard anything? What proof do you have that God spoke? What proof do you have that he said, “Rebuild my Church,” or “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Did he leave his business card? What proof do you have that Mary spoke to you? What proof do you have that you heard her sweet voice, saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception”?
You have nothing. You have your word, easily discredited, especially in light of the way you’ve been acting lately.
The priests and the bishops gave many saints a very hard time. Why? It’s because they knew that God wouldn’t entrust anything important to an uneducated and unimportant layperson. Do I exaggerate? Read the accounts of saint after saint, distrusted by the clergy. How St. Faustina suffered!
Sadly, even in this post-Vatican II era, there is such a thing as clerical snobbery. It’s ironic, of course. As WiseOne once put it, “Where do priests think priests come from?” Every priest is born of a laywoman. The problem is that a priest, who is, generally, chosen by God to become a priest, forgets that there are other ways of being chosen. St. Peter was chosen to lead the Church, but St. John was chosen to be a son to Mary. St. Paul was not chosen as one of the twelve apostles, but he was chosen to preach to the gentiles.
Every person is invited, in more than one way, and more than once, to do God’s work. God’s voice is soft and hidden, but those who respond to his call may change before your eyes. The neighbour builds an ark. The shy man defies the Pharaoh. The shepherd boy becomes a king. The virgin has a baby. The carpenter’s son challenges the religious elite. The fisherman leads the church. The young man disowns his parent. The peasant girl leads an army. The wealthy widow sells her possessions. The laywoman becomes a blogger.