Guest Post: Hearing the Divine Call by Max Bindernagel

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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. 



Priest, Prophet, King and The Lord of the Rings

There is no character named Jesus Christ in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. God also makes no appearance. The protagonists don’t attend church, or even pray. Yet The Lord of the Rings is a Catholic work, equal to or overshadowing C.S Lewis’s Narnia series in the depths of faith. Tolkien weaved Catholic theology, philosophy, and tradition throughout The Lord of the Rings, but he also despised the idea of allegory. Therefore, there is no character, such as Aslan in Narnia, who represents Christ. But there are characters, three in particular, who offer insights into the three traditional vocations of Christ: priest, prophet, and king.

ImageKing: Perhaps the easiest of Christ’s vocations to find in The Lord of the Rings is Aragorn. Aragorn is the “King returning.” Like Christ, he has an extensive lineage that dates back to the leaders of his people long ago and is fashioned by prophecy, but appears not in glory but humbly – “all that is gold does not glitter.” Aragorn reunites Arnor and Gondor through his reign and brings together the once feuding peoples of the Elves and Dwarves, as embodied by the friendship of Gimli and Legolas: how can one not see here parallels to Israel and Judah, or the Jews and the Gentiles? Aragon is a king that serves and heals. He does not meet the people’s expectations: he does not enter the city of Minas Tirith openly, and labors in shadows to defend the Shire with his Dunedain under the Hobbits’ noses. Nobility meets selflessness in the character of Aragorn, and the kingly vocation of Christ is quite easily noticed.

ImageProphet: Gandalf embodies many of the qualities and characteristics of the prophetic vocation of Christ. Certainly, Gandalf’s “death” hints at multiple moments in the life of Christ – for example, Gandalf wrestles with a demon in a deep underground tomb, dying only to return again in new form. That new form can also be seen as a “transfiguration” of Gandalf (bright white clothing and hair being a common feature); Gandalf’s struggle with a Balrog does not take place only under but also on top of a mountain. Like a prophet, Gandalf was sent by the benevolent gods of Middle Earth – the Valar – to work against Sauron. Also similar to many prophets, Gandalf does not originally desire to go, and he is mocked as unworthy by his compatriot Saruman. Saruman, as the foil to Gandalf, shows the temptation of the prophet fulfilled: taking power for his own. Instead, Gandalf guides without forcing, and his abilities come from knowledge, words and runes. Like Christ, Gandalf strangely balances the world of Middle Earth and the divine Valinor from which he comes, shaping in small ways the struggle against Sauron.

ImagePriest: Finding the priestly vocation in The Lord of the Rings is probably the hardest of the three – after all, there are no “priests” because there is no open religion. Yet, Christ’s role as priest plays out in part by Frodo in Tolkien’s tale. Frodo bears the Ring throughout the tale, the embodiment of temptation, sin, and evil – in a sense, like Christ he bears the weight of the evil of the past and present that grows ever heavier as he approaches the Ring’s ultimate destruction. Because of this, Frodo seeks silence and solitude often. As well, Frodo’s path mimics the Via Dolorosa, the “way of tears” leading to Christ’s crucifixion, as Frodo goes through hardship after hardship: abandoned by friends, (seemingly) betrayed, tempted and tired. Frodo then “dies” through Shelob’s sting and arrives in Mordor, a very representative Hell, which Frodo is forced to harrow to save those he loves. Frodo, in short, is the sacrificial lamb, contending with Gollum as the mirror of his own soul’s fight ultimately brings about a new world.

The insights, of course, only go so far. As no character is Christ, there are limitations to each of them. Frodo, after all, ultimately fails to destroy the ring. Gandalf’s role might better be described as an angel than as a prophet. They are, in some capacity, all mortal and all flawed. But each present a new way of understanding the vocations of Christ, vocations that all Christians are called to live out in their own times. In following Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, we follow Christ: in work, in suffering, and in glory.

Michael Fischer is a senior in the SFS and a Knight of Columbus. He serves as Baking Scheduler for the Nightly Mass Community and President of the Alpha Sigma Nu Jesuit Honor Society.