Agnostic Jerry Martin had a vivid encounter with a personal God. Then he pondered his options: spiritual counselor, psychiatrist, or just keep quiet?
Step, for a moment, into my shoes.
You’re an urban professional in a secular world. You do not believe in God. But, one day, you have occasion to pray. And, to your surprise, a Voice answers – not out there, like Cecil B. DeMille, but in your ear, like talking on the telephone. You know it is not you talking, so you ask, Who is this?
The answer comes: “I am God.”
After that, the Voice usually responds when you pray. It’s as real as talking to your wife on the telephone. It is benign. And it is somehow authoritative. If you follow its guidance, things usually work out well, not like having a tip on the Fifth but in a more general way, like going with the grain.
Now, standing in these shoes, ask yourself, “What would I do?”
You would have several options.
“I would keep my mouth shut.” That is a quote from Aldous Huxley, scientist and mystic, commenting on our intensely secular age. Talking to God and hearing back is socially unacceptable. Friends don’t let friends hear divine voices. But the crucial question is what you yourself decide, not what you are comfortable telling others.
“I would see a psychiatrist.” Your shrink will look it up in the big book of psychological disorders and find it under Schizophrenia. But, other than the usual angst of life and a couple of bad habits, there’s nothing wrong with you. If you want to label the Voice as a “problem,” you can. But so could have Moses and Jeremiah, Socrates and George Fox, founder of the Quakers. One surprising trait does not a mental illness make.
“It would bug me. I would hope it would go away.” New York journalist Daniel B. Smith tells, in Muses, Madmen, and Prophets, about a man who heard voices for thirty years – without telling anyone, not even his wife. What the voices said wasn’t disturbing; they just told him to do this or that in everyday life. But he was afraid of being declared insane. Finally he broke down under the strain. Later he learned that his own father had also heard voices for many years – but made use of them. “You had to listen very carefully or you missed it,” his father explained. In business decisions, “I always listened correctly and decided correctly.” The man was furious. Had he known about his father’s voices, he would have taken his own experiences in a very different way. The two men were the journalist’s father and grandfather.
“I would test it.” That’s what I did. I was having breakfast out, so I asked the Voice, how many biscuits have been set out in the buffet? “Twenty-four.” I walked over. There were only a few. A few minutes later a guy brought out some more and I was told to go look again. There were twenty-four. I got the point: You shouldn’t test God. I heard: “That’s right.”
“I would worry that it was demonic.” That was St. Paul’s worry. Early Christians would start hearing voices and go off in all directions. He warned in I John 4:1,“believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God.” How do you do that? Maybe you would do what I did. I asked a friend knowledgeable about these things. This is the problem of spiritual discernment, he said. The classic guide is The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). I read it eagerly, but the section on Rules for the Discernment of Spirits sent a chill down my spine:
“It is characteristic of the evil one to transform himself into an angel of light, to work with the soul in the beginning, but in the end to work for himself. At first he will suggest good and holy thoughts” but “then, little by little, he strives to gain his own ends by drawing the soul into his hidden deceits and perverse designs.”
Evidently, the evil one is a very good con man. Could the voice be a clever deception leading me down the garden path? How could I tell? St. Ignatius explains,
“We must pay close attention to the course of our thoughts.” If they are “directed to what is entirely right, it is a sign that they are inspired by the good angel. If the course of the thoughts suggested to us ends in something evil … this is a clear sign that they proceed from the evil spirit.”
The Voice did prompt “good and holy thoughts.” It had certainly not told me to do anything wrong. But I continued to investigate. I looked for something more recent and found it in The Art of Praying by Romano Guardini. “It may happen in contemplation that we have a strange experience. … Suddenly, God is present … a wall which was there before is there no more.”
Okay, this speaks directly to our situation.
There follows a period of mixed reactions: “Our intuition tells us that this is God or at any rate connected with Him. The intimation may frighten us.”
“We do not know whether we dare presume that this intuition is true and we are uncertain what to do.”
“However, the intuition becomes a certainty, even an absolute certainty which leaves no room for doubt.”
Ah, that’s something I left out in describing the shoes you are stepping into. There is something about the Voice that is so compelling that it really leaves no room for doubt, not for real doubt.
However, Guardini says, doubts may return “when we discover that other people have no knowledge of these things.”
There is always the problem of What Will Other People Think. As sociologist Peter Berger explains in The Sacred Canopy, “few beliefs can survive peer disapproval.”
“In the face of these difficulties and doubts,” Guardini advises, “one should remain calm and trust in God. One should submit to His will and pray for enlightenment.”
In short, there is a problem in believing every voice you hear. But there is also a problem if, having sensed the divine presence, you give in to doubt.
Final alternative: “I would decide to accept the Voice.” You might follow the advice American philosopher William James gave in his classic essay, “The Will to Believe.”
James wrote in response to a British scientist who had argued in an influential essay, “The Ethics of Belief,” that it is always wrong to believe something without sufficient evidence. The scientist clearly had religion in his crosshairs.
James responded that there are some beliefs which, if you accept them, will shape your whole life. And shape it in a different way if you do not. Evidence may be inconclusive either way, but you cannot remain neutral. In these cases, it is okay to accept the belief even with “insufficient” evidence. A reasonable person is free to pick either answer.
So, if you were in my shoes, you would have to make a choice, a choice with consequences. So ask yourself: What would I do?
Photo: Flickr/Mish Sukharev