By: Max Bindernagel, Chaplain in Residence in Georgetown University
“Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” —1 Samuel 3. 10 (NRSV)
Today, “discernment” is as popular a spiritual topic as any, and there seems to be a great interest, especially among young people, about how one can be best attentive to the voice of God. Unfortunately, for many this tends to take the form of an “existential crisis” in one’s life. People searching for God’s will torture themselves over the many questions (often good, legitimate ones) which accompany this search: What does God want from me? When will he let me know? How can I hear him? Out of a genuine concern for doing God’s will and following the promptings he inspires in one’s heart, this search easily becomes fraught with all kinds of needless anxiety.
A helpful corrective comes from Bl. John Henry Newman, the 19th century English theologian, convert, and cardinal. In his homily “Divine Calls,” Newman comments on the many examples of God’s call as seen in Scripture, especially the call of Samuel. The common theme among the many instances in which God prompts various men and women to do his will lies in the response: “prompt obedience.” Like Samuel, who, once he knew Whom he was hearing, obeyed and listened attentively, so too we ought to eagerly and quickly obey the promptings of God in our own heart. There is something childlike in the trust that this requires; if we know and trust that God has our good in mind, what reason do we have to be anxious?
But how do we hear that voice in the first place? Newman was not satisfied with those who said that God’s call has already been answered by us when we were baptized, and who say that it therefore remains “not a thing future with us, but a thing past.” On the contrary, God is constantly at work in our lives, and our labor is to respond consistently to his ever-deeper call to holiness.
In the daily trials of life, often “indefinite and obscure,” “sudden and unexpected,” we answer God’s call by obeying him. We learn something new which we know to be true but which we find difficult to accept; and we follow God’s will by accepting it rather than fighting it. We deal the loss of a loved one, and through much grieving and pain we come see that God alone endures; and in this we follow God’s will. We are challenged by a situation in which we must choose to stand by our faith or to abandon it; and in remaining steadfast, we follow God’s will.
For those who make a regular practice of this prompt obedience, the “bigger questions” about discerning one’s vocation will be shown with greater clarity. When we follow God’s inspirations in the small things in life with greater ease (in the circumstances of life, in our conscience, in studying our faith), we develop a deeper attentiveness to God’s greater plan for our lives. This work of answering the Divine Call is one of mutual trust, where our freedom and his are totally intertwined. As Newman puts it:
“This is a call to higher things; let us beware lest we receive the grace of God in vain. Let us beware of lapsing back; let us avoid temptation. Let us strive by quietness and caution to cherish the feeble flame, and shelter it from the storms of this world. God may be bringing us into a higher world of religious truth; let us work with Him.”
This essay was written with reference to a homily by Bl. John Henry Newman.