One of the formative teachers in my life is Rose Mary Dougherty, a Roman Catholic sister and Senior Fellow at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. Rose Mary tells a delightful story about a recurring dream. For many years this dream seemed to show up to announce some kind of transition in her life, though she did not always see it at the time. In the dream she was trying to decide whether or not she should enter a religious community, and would go from one wisdom figure to the next, listening to each person’s opinion.
Years later she had this same dream again. Only this time as she approached each wisdom figure to elicit their advice something told her not to ask. Finally she came upon a young boy about five years old. To this child she posed her question, “Do you think I ought to be a sister?” He looked at her for a long time and then responded simply, “Do you wanna?” Rose Mary acknowledges that from this moment on she began to encourage herself and others to listen to the “deep wannas” of our hearts.
I believe that God the Holy Spirit is communicating with us at a profound level all of the time. Most of the time, I’m unaware of what is being communicated, but the divine call is like a continuous radio signal. It is always being transmitted, but I’m not always tuned into the right frequency or there is a whole lot of static obscuring the transmission. Even so, the “deep wannas” of our hearts, what Rose Mary also calls the “invitations to love” are always there for us. We don’t have to be afraid of them. We can learn to dial in.
Spiritual awaking is about getting in touch with our “deep wannas” and becoming willing to trust the invitations to love. Spiritual guides and wise teachers have their place, but as in Rose Mary’s dream, their role is to direct us back to our own experience of God, to listen to the still, small voice within.
We could only be so lucky to have such a wise teacher as the young boy, Samuel, found in his mentor, Eli. Eli was the priest at Shiloh, and Samuel was his servant at a time when “The word of the Lord was rare” and “visions were not widespread.” When God’s call comes to Samuel, he doesn’t recognize it at first; he is sure it must be Eli who is calling. It is so much easier to seek confirmation from recognized authorities than to trust our own capacity to listen. Eli wisely perceives what is going on, and gently counsels Samuel to give expression to his desire for God, instructing him to pray, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Good spiritual leaders do not say, “Listen to me” – they say, “Listen to God. Tell me what you are hearing! Perhaps you have a word for me.” Sometimes, God speaks to us through the voice of another. We need the help of others to hear those things that we cannot, or would rather not, hear. Later in the story, Eli implores Samuel to share with him what he has heard from God. Samuel is hesitant to presume to speak for God – and rightly so.
Samuel is afraid, too, because what he has to say is not easy for Eli to hear, but it is a liberating truth. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, abused the privileges of their priestly office and used their position to exploit others. They were bent on a path of destruction, and there was nothing Eli could do about it. This was Samuel’s message to Eli. When Eli hears this news, he replies, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
Eli is willing to entrust to God’s care what he can not control – even the fate of his own children. This is a hard truth, but it is a liberating and, ultimately, healing truth. In helping Eli to understand this, Samuel was responding to an invitation to love. By his willingness to listen, he was able to speak a hard truth with compassion.
To my mind, this is a very tender scene of great vulnerability – Samuel and Eli are wide open to God and to one another. It demonstrates something of the way our attention to the invitations to love is a compassionate and unifying force in our lives, even when it isn’t easy. We don’t always know what the consequences will be when we are willing to respond to God’s call in our lives, but it will inevitably lead us to a deeper engagement with life in the world, to become more fully ourselves, to become more fully alive.
One of the most beautiful, but rarely mentioned, aspects of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s witness was his willingness to listen to God’s call and respond to the invitation to love that he heard. Early in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King was unexpectedly thrust into leadership when he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. He was 26 years old. He almost immediately became the target of death threats, and his family was continually harangued by threatening and obscene phone calls: sometimes more than 40 in a day. You can imagine the emotional toll this took.
As part of the boycott, the black community organized a carpool system. The Mayor soon ordered Montgomery police to arrest the carpool drivers. On the afternoon of January 26, 1957, Dr. King was one of the first motorists to be arrested, his first experience of being in jail. When he was finally released later that evening, he returned home after his family was already asleep. The phone rang. It was yet another caller telling him that if he wanted to leave Montgomery alive, he’d better do it soon.
Dr. King’s resolve was broken that night. He sat at the kitchen table, staring at an untouched cup of coffee, and tried to think of a way to resign without seeming like a coward. Reflecting later on this moment, Dr. King noted that, although he had been raised in the church, he had never really had a personal experience of God. But that night, he found himself praying out loud, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m in the right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage.”
Then it happened:
“And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world’ . . . I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
Dr. King repeatedly returned to this touchstone experience of God’s presence in the long struggle for freedom that would end for him on April 4, 1968. This one experience gave him the strength to love that sustained him for the rest of his life. It was enough. Touching into our desire for God, acknowledging the “deep wannas” of our heart for even a moment, can change everything.
We live in a cynical culture that thrives on irony and satire. We seesaw between taking ourselves too seriously and taking nothing seriously, and risk failing to take the reality of God seriously at all. Such an environment makes it difficult for us to trust our desire for God, to listen to the invitations to love. Perhaps Nathanael is the perfect disciple for our age.
Nathanael’s cynicism matches our own. When Philip tells him that he has found the Messiah, Jesus from Nazareth, Nathanael responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael exhibits the typical urbanite’s disdain for country rubes. It’s like expecting the Messiah to come from, I don’t know, Modesto! Nathanael is skeptical about this invitation. Why would anyone want to meet Jesus of Nazareth? I love Philip’s response, “Come and see.”
“Come and see.” Don’t take it from me – see for yourself! And when Nathanael encounters Jesus, his skepticism quickly turns to credulity! Just like us post-moderns, believing nothing, he’ll believe anything! How quickly we fall for anyone who pays attention to us and flatters our conceits.
Jesus admonishes him, “You ain’t seen nothing yet. You will see for yourself how God will confirm the truth of the invitation you have been given.” Jesus in effect tells Nathanael to keep paying attention. Keep listening. God will yet show you so much more. Trust your desire for God and stay open to the invitations to love.
God is communicating with all of us on a deep level – all the time. Sometimes, the message comes to us through other people. The invitations to love find some way to get through to us: one way or another. Maybe your being here today is a response to just such an invitation. St. Cyril, the bishop of Jerusalem in the fourth century, writes about how God’s invitations are at work in our lives – even when we don’t know it. He describes those who have come to prepare for Holy Baptism as photizomenoi – those being enlightened. But he admits that folks may be there for different reasons. He writes,
“Perhaps you have come for some other reason? A man may want to please a woman and may come for that reason. The same may be true of ‘a woman. . . or a friend [may come to please] a friend. I take whatever is on the hook, I pull you in, you who came with an evil intention but will be saved by your hope of the good. Doubtless you did not know, did you, where you were going, and did not recognize the net in which you have been caught? You have been caught in the church’s net! Jesus has you on his hook, not to cause your death but to give you life after putting you to death . . . Begin today to live!”
Maybe you came today because a friend asked you. Maybe you are here to celebrate the blessing of our new solar panels – wonderful! Maybe you came to see the bishop – terrific – now I’ve got you on the hook! You’ve taken the bait, now here is the switch: Trust your desire for God. Listen to the invitations to love. It will change your life. It will change the world. But don’t take it from me. Come and see.