“My sheep know my voice and they follow me (John 10:27).”
I read that line a long time ago, proclaimed in the week after we celebrated Good Shepherd Sunday. But it has stayed with me for weeks.
I know His voice and I’m supposed to follow it. So, why do I so often follow my voice or that of the enemy?
Do you pay attention to the voices in your head? Saint Ignatius of Loyola says the first thing to do as you move into the spiritual life is “Be Aware.” I’m just a little kid in the spiritual life. I’m only just learning how to be aware. I’ve been praying for how to do what Saint Ignatius asked – to discern between the human, the holy and the unholy.
The voices in my head that stir me into action or hold me back are many. But I’ve been praying about how to know which one belongs to God.
“I don’t want to get out of bed. I want to sleep longer.” Hmm. That’s probably a human voice.
But I have been interested in discerning the other voices.
Saint Ignatius says the Lord can be harsh in admonishing those in mortal sin (Discernment of Spirits, Rule 1). He scolds and tells you to stop. This is important to know. The Lord gives us a conscience for a reason. He wants you so badly to be His and to find happiness in Him. His laws aren’t for restricting. They are for wisdom and joy.
Saint Ignatius says those who are not in mortal sin and are trying to advance from “good to better” will find the Lord’s voice to be encouraging (Rule 2). He speeds you on with joys and tears and laughter and moments of clarity.
What about the “other voice?” Saint Ignatius says the voice of evil for those in mortal sin is very soothing as it gives temptations to unholy pleasures (Rule 1). Giving the generic example of alcoholism, the voice of evil would say your drinking is no one else’s business and offer the allure of a drink to ease your tensions. For one trying to go from “good to better,” the voice of evil would admonish, giving discouragement and using fear to hold a soul back (Rule 2).
The first question, then, is whether or not you are in mortal sin. A mortal sin concerns grave matter, full knowledge and is done on purpose. It would be good to check out Exodus 20:1-17 for the Ten Commandments, Galatians 5:13-26 for the comparison of the fruits of the flesh versus those of the Spirit and 1 Corinthians 13:4-13 on how love behaves for examining your conscience.
The next thing is to listen and “Be Aware” of the fact that there are voices in your head. Sometimes we aren’t really paying attention.
Step two is to “Understand.” If you are in mortal sin, listen to the voice of admonishment because God chastises those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6). And He must love me a lot because I’ve had a lot of holy chastisement in my life! The chastisement of God, I have found, comes with a kind of clarity and peace. It tends to have a joy in it that makes you realize you are going to come closer in relationship with God and experience more of His love.
The voice of unholy admonishment, I am finding as I try to “rise from good to better,” feels very dark. There is an intense shame, an alienating feeling, a worry I’ll never be forgiven. I hear all of my wounds speaking: “I’m so stupid,” “I never do anything right,” “I always say the wrong thing.” I feel like I’ll be cast out from the presence of God and those I love forever. But I’m finding this isn’t the voice of God. God’s voice doesn’t make me feel alone, stupid and hopeless.
Understand that God’s voice is peaceful and unifying. It’s loving. The voice of evil is shaming, accusing and alienating. And then you have to “Take Action.” How do you do that?
Saint Ignatius wants us to toss what isn’t of God in the trash by actively renouncing or rejecting it. Jesus gave His holy name as a weapon. So, you can combat the voice that is not of God by saying, “In the name of Jesus, I reject, rebuke and/or renounce having another drink/staying in bed/the lie that I’m stupid/that I’m always saying the wrong thing/that I’ll never be forgiven.” And then ask God to restore and fill you by the Holy Spirit.
I’m trying, day by day, to listen to the voice of the Shepherd. I’m His sheep and no one else’s. I hear His voice and I follow.
“…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.”