My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.
John 10: 27-8
The teaching of Jesus in the gospels often emerges out of a dramatic conflict with those who cannot or refuse to believe in him. Those who surround Jesus as he walks by the Temple on the feast of the Dedication have heard him clearly state who he is and where he comes from. Yet, they continue to accuse him of keeping them “in suspense.” It is not by lack of Jesus’ witness in word and deed that they do not yet know who he is, but it is rather because they do not hear his voice. Jesus tells them that his sheep hear his voice and, as they hear his voice, he knows them, and thus they follow him and receive the “eternal life” which he gives.
To attend carefully to the incident in today’s gospel is to discover a point of identification both with those who question Jesus, who cannot hear his voice, and also with those who are his sheep, who do hear his voice. Much of our experience of daily life, of the ordinary, is that of the “practical agnostic.” Life on the surface is more than busy and full enough. Perhaps there is a loving shepherd whose voice beckons to a deeper and even “eternal” life. The possibility is a thought to be mulled over, and even “prayed” over, when we have the time and space and energy, but otherwise we are much like those who say to Jesus “How long will you keep us in suspense?’ From this way of living, we may attempt to pray, to stay in touch with God, but often the words we read or hear are, while being attractive, remain somewhat foreign and superfluous.
Yet, by the grace of God we are, at times, Jesus’ sheep, who hear his voice in the events of our lives, in the words of scripture, in the aspirations of our hearts, and we realize at those moments that we are known by God and, as the one who is known, shall “never perish.” We have moments—sometimes periods—in life where the word as it comes to us is filled with a surplus of meaning and summons us beyond anything “we could ask for or imagine” (Eph. 3: 20). As St. Benedict writes in his Rule of Life:
What can be sweeter to us, dear ones,
than this voice of the Lord inviting us?
Behold, in His loving kindness
the Lord shows us the way of life.
Who we most deeply are is a capacity to hear the invitation of the Lord’s voice and to follow the way which the Lord shows us. Yet, in reality, most of us know this at certain times, while more often living out a life that is much more on the surface and unable to hear that voice. At times the words of the scriptures are “spirit and life,” while, much of the time, they sound routine and banal. We are both the disciples and followers of Jesus as well as the scribes and pharisees who are unable to hear what he is saying and to see what he is doing.
What is the difference between those two different ways of being that we live out. Perhaps it likes in the questions: “Whose are we? To whom do we belong?” “My sheep hear my voice.” When, first and foremost, we belong to the Lord, we are able to hear his voice and to follow him. When we belong first to ourselves, we cannot hear. St. Benedict calls on us to “incline” our heart toward the word. When we are the Lord’s sheep, we hear his voice. When our hearts are not inclined solely toward the Lord, then his voice becomes for us the faintest of whispers. There are always many voices in us contending for our attention, for our love and for our devotion, and the truth of our lives is that our hearts are often torn among them. If it is true that we are, in the greatest sense, what we love, then we actually manifest many different characters. In today’s gospel, however, Jesus says that he knows only the one who is his sheep. It is only in living, which means ordering, our lives toward God that we are in truth the one that God knows. All of our other self-creations are, as Thomas Merton points out, unknown of God.
To “incline” our hearts toward God requires of us the inclining of our wills. We have choices to make, about how we spend our time, where we put our efforts, and who we choose to befriend. The sheep of the Lord hearken to the shepherd’s voice above all. Teachers would often tell their students, “Give me your undivided attention.” This is exactly what the Lord asks of us, a difficult challenge in an age of distraction.
The inner self is as secret as God and, like God, it evades every concept that tries to seize hold of it with full possession. It is a life that cannot be held and studied as object, because it is not “a thing.” It is not reached and coaxed forth from hiding by any process under the sun, including meditation. All that we can do with any spiritual discipline is produce within ourselves something of the silence, the humility, the detachment, the purity of heart and the indifference which are required if the inner self is to make some shy, unpredictable manifestation of God’s presence.
Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 7