Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Listening to the Spirit

Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love... love... love, never counting the cost.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House

Listen to the Spirit – He will lead you. We are going through the Little Mandate, the words Catherine received in the 1930s as the core of what she believed God was asking of her, every Tuesday on the blog, bit by bit.

Last week I talked about preaching the Gospel with one’s life, without compromise. Catherine came up with that line in the context of the social problems of her time—the Great Depression, racism, poverty, unjust economic practices (sound familiar, any of it?). When leading people in study groups through the social encyclicals of the Church, she would come to that phrase as the essence of the matter—Christians had to preach the Gospel by their actions and not water it down, either.

The question would come back at her: how are we to do this? She took that question seriously, and pondered it at length. She describes sitting by the fireplace in her house one evening, quietly doing this, and these next words coming to her with great simplicity and assurance: listen to the Spirit – He will lead you.

For Catherine, that was simply the answer. She wrote later that for a Russian that is a perfect answer, needing no further commentary. So she wrote it down and went to bed, another piece of the puzzle in place.

Perhaps for us non-Russians some further commentary is required. When we talk about the Holy Spirit speaking and us listening, we are not to think of some weird mystical experience—voices and whatnot. We are certainly not to think that whatever stray impulse or strong conviction enters our little minds and hearts is ‘the Spirit, speaking to us.’

Catherine always loved to repeat the story of the young woman who came here in the 1960s and failed to show up at her work assignment one day. Asked why she hadn’t gone to the laundry as she had been told to do, she said, “The Holy Spirit told me to go for a walk instead!” Catherine’s response: “Well, the Holy Spirit just told me you’re supposed to leave on the bus tomorrow.”

God does not speak to us in that way, normally. And even when He genuinely does speak in this inward and rather mystical way, there is a process of confirmation and discernment that is needed before we go haring off down some trail or other. It is too easy to fool ourselves or to be fooled by the devil that our own ideas and desires are ‘the voice of God.’

But the Spirit does speak, indeed. Catherine was always careful and (in my view) very balanced in her presentation of this, that the normal way of things is that God reveals his will to us through people, situations, and events. And through a prayerful, thoughtful, carefully considered examination of all of these, to see what the response of the ‘Gospel without compromise’ should be to them.

In short, the normal pattern of discerning God’s will in the moment is to pay attention to what is going on around you, and applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to it. Is there someone in pain or anguish, loneliness or sorrow in front of you? Assuage it—listen to them, find out what they need and if you can, give it to them. If you can’t, pray for them. It's that kind of thing, multiplied by a thousand possible examples.

At times it may not be clear what to do, and that’s where prayer comes in, and perhaps consulting with trusted counsellors, and sometimes just waiting in patience for it to become clear, and a lot of listening and loving and suffering with a hard situation in the meantime while we’re trying to sort it out. The key thing is that what matters in any situation is that we do God’s will and not our own, put into practice the ideas of God (i.e. the Gospel) and not our own puny ideas.

And that we be very humble, very acquiescent, very quick to question and doubt our own motives and desires, very quick to ask God to guide and govern us in all things, very aware that quite often the Lord asks us to do the hard thing, the thing that brings us to die to our selfish selves. To mistrust the easy answer, the easy path, that which flatters our ego and panders to our desires. 

All of this is what goes into ‘listening to the Spirit’. All of which we do, as Catholics, within and under the authority of the teaching office of the Church, knowing that God is not going to tell us to do anything that contradicts what His Church teaches us to be good and true.

It is very necessary, very necessary indeed in our world of confusion and profound spiritual and intellectual darkness, that we seek the Spirit’s guidance into the perfect will of God with eager serious intent. The world is full of people—the Church is full of people—doing their own thing and operating from their own ideas and principles. We need to reclaim this radical openness to God and his moment by moment guidance of our life, if we wish to have anything to do with the restoration of the world in Christ. 

Doing our own thing does nothing, even if (especially if!) we are convinced we are right. Doing God’s thing—discerned carefully in the duty and call to love of each moment—is the only thing that makes a bit of difference in the world.

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