Shortly before I went to bed last night, I heard a faint sound outside - like the call of an owl. A few seconds later I heard it again. Then again.
I picked up my iPhone, opened the door, and stepped outside. There was a thick fog and the temperature was just below freezing. It was completely still and the silence was as thick as the fog. The owl called again and this time I made a recording. Here's what I heard:
People often ask, “how can I recognize God's call to me?” It is a question of vocation. The word vocation is derived from the Latin root voca, voice. It means “to call.” There are so many voices crying out for our attention and our loyalty, it is difficult to discern the voice of God. That makes it difficult to know what God is calling me or my community of faith to do. The question may have to do with our overall life mission or with what God wants of us in a specific situation.
Sometimes, in order to hear God's call in the midst of all the voices in our busy lives, we have to learn to recognize God's voice when it is quiet and still, just like it was when I heard the call of the owl. Then, when things get busy and noisy, we can discern the voice of God in the midst of the other voices.
It is true that most of us don't hear God's voice with the ears on either side of our heads. God's voice is perceived as an inner voice. But it is certainly not the only inner voice we "hear." There are the voices of fear, desire, joy, hurt, anger, temptation, judgment, and so many others that speak to us in a language of their own. But we certainly hear them and they often drown out the still, small, quiet voice of God and we lose our bearings.
A word of caution: When we believe we have heard God's call, sometimes our own inclinations get in the way. Sometimes the message we hear is inconsistent with what God would say to us or ask of us.
Coincidentally, yesterday was the feast day of Richard Hooker, the sixteenth century Anglian theologian. Hooker prepared a comprehensive defense of the Reformation settlement under Queen Elizabeth I. This work was entitled Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. It is Aristotelian in its philosophy and places a strong emphasis upon natural law eternally planted by God in creation. On this foundation, all positive laws of Church and State are based - from Scriptural revelation, ancient tradition, reason, and experience. Hooker offered a process, a way to use the resources we have to discern the voice of God.
One of the resources we have as disciples is the witness of sacred scripture. For instance, St. John gave wise advice when he wrote, "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1). A country preacher once said, "All the spirits ain't the Holy Spirit." Is what I think God is calling me to do consistent with ways God spoke to those whose witness is recorded in the Bible? Is this the voice of the God who is revealed in the sacred texts?
Another resource is the tradition or teachings of the Church. Not all the teachings of the Church have withstood the test of time, but as a professor of mine used to say, "Some things are neither old nor new but ageless." What are the great truths, the enduring themes, the big ideas that have been handed down to us in the tradition of the Church? Can they help us discern the call of God?
And, we have our life in Christian community where there are others to help us learn to distinguish the divine voice calling us. It is important to involve a pastor or mature Christian friends in discerning if it was in fact God. Is what I think God is calling me to do consistent with the reason and experience of others. Is it consistent with my own reason and experience?
That brings me back to the owl. I knew the call was that of an owl, but I wasn't sure what kind of owl. So, I consulted the iBird app on my smart phone. After listening to the recording I made and then to the recordings of various kinds of owls provided in that app, I determined without a doubt that the owl in my neighborhood was a great horned owl. My bird app has photos of great horned owls so had it been daytime, I would have been able to visually identify the owl. If I had a pair of binoculars, I could have had an even closer look as a part of my verification process.
The resources available to me were useful in determining that I was indeed hearing an owl and, more precisely, that it was a great horned owl. Likewise, when we are learning to recognize God's voice and discern what God is calling us to do, we have resources to help us. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are resources we can and must use in our quest to hear God's voice guiding us in our spiritual journey.
We tend to hear what we listen for. So let us learn use the disciplines and resources that have been provided to us as we listen for the voice of God.
I'll see you in Church!