What Is Necessary to Listen to the Voice of the Good Shepherd?
Today’s readings may not seem like it, but they actually present us with a great challenge. None of us, myself included, likes to admit this, but, the words of Peter to the Jewish community in Jerusalem apply just as well in our lives. “God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” Peter’s listener’s at least were able to be “cut to the heart”, and it is this one thing above all else that I need, and that you need. If the word of God does not convict us, if the result of participation in the sacramental life of the Church is not to be cut to the heart, then we are missing the point. This has always been a great mystery to me: to try to understand why it is so hard to acknowledge our own flaws, and why it is that we all insist again and again that we are fine, that while, of course in a generic sense I could be better, when it comes to any specific point, I am fine. We all do this, we all have this need for self-justification, and this, more than anything else is the thing that holds us back from the holiness and the peace that God desires for us. Our Lord’s words could not be more clear: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
These words of our Lord are both simple and out of reach for us at the same time. They are simple because they tell us all that we need to know about God and His love for us, but they are out of reach because they require us to be capable of acknowledging both that we are dead and that something other than ourselves is the cure. As long as we remain closed off, convinced of our goodness, or incapable of acknowledging our shortcomings, we do not really experience salvation. The grace of God cannot function where it is not welcome, and it can never be welcome whenever we chose to deny the need for it.
All of this is true, and I doubt that a single one of us denies it; however, that knowledge alone is incapable of bringing about that which it accepts. In the final analysis, there is one thing that holds us all back: FEAR. When I am afraid of anything, it means that I am closed off, that I am dead, that I have not life in abundance. Fear is the one thing, more than any other that destroys us. Fear is, in a sense, more toxic than sin. We have already seen that Christ is the Lord, that He overcame sin and death, so why then do we continue, day after day, to interfere with that victory?
The answer is simple, we are more afraid of our wretchedness than we are certain of God’s love and God’s power. The more certain we are of God’s love for us, the more we embrace our brokenness, the more we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. Everything in Scripture points to this fact: those who trust in God are easily corrected, but those who do not cling to their own point of view. Even as he hung on the Cross, Our Lord was faced with this stark contrast: on the one side, a thief who clung to his own point of view, on the other side, a thief who gave thanks for the privilege of encountering his Savior, even though it took the cross to bring it about. Each and every day all of us, myself included, need to ask that question: which thief am I, for thieves we are. If we are able to see Christ, then we are the good thief, but if we see only ourselves, our rights, our perspective, then we are doomed. Look to Christ, speak with Him, worship Him, most of all, listen to Him, He will tell you all that you need to know. Do not be afraid of Him, do not try to justify yourself before Him, it is impossible. Not one of us, and first and foremost me, is justified before God; rather, He is the one who justifies us, not because we deserve it, but because we need it. The price of our salvation is the loss of the fear that makes us hell-bent on saving ourselves.
One of the things which we all fear most, I think, is the discovery that we are nothing special. Each and every one of us, myself included likes to fancy himself important, and for that reason, we increase our fear, and we distance ourselves from The One who can actually give us the importance that we try so hard to give to ourselves. Robert Hugh Benson describes this so well in the chapter on “Christ in the Average Man” and I can think of no better way for us to regain the ability to know the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd than what he describes:
It is not so easy, however, to recognize Christ in the average man — any more than it is easy to recognize the Divine will and guidance in humdrum circumstances. How, we ask ourselves, is it possible for the Unique to disguise Himself under the Ordinary, for the Fairest of the children of men to hide Himself under the merely unattractive, for the One “chosen out of thousands” to be concealed beneath the Average? ‘Yet, if the love of our neighbour means anything, it means exactly this. “Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me”. . . (as well as in the heart of every man who never gives me a thought). “Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks to me. Christ in every eye that sees me. Christ in every ear that hears me…. To do this perfectly and consistently is sanctity. To find Him here is to find Him everywhere….
Two considerations, however, are worth remarking: (1) We have to remind ourselves constantly of the duty, and to remain discontented with ourselves until we are at least attempting to practise it….(2) A second aid to this recognition of Christ lies in an increase of self-knowledge. My supreme difficulty is the merely superficial and imaginative difficulty of realizing how it is possible to discern the Unique beneath the disguise of the Average. Therefore, as I learn to know myself better, and learn therefore how very average I myself am, and, at the same time, discover that Christ still bears with me, tolerates me and dwells within me, it becomes easier for me to realize that Christ is also in my neighbour. As I penetrate deeper and deeper by self-knowledge into the strata of my own character, learning afresh with each discovery how self-love permeates the whole, how little zeal there is for God’s glory, and what an immensity of zeal for my own, how my best actions are poisoned by the worst motives — and yet, all through, that Christ still condescends to tabernacle beneath it all and to shine in a heart so cloudy as mine — it becomes increasingly easy for me to understand that He can with even greater facility lie hid beneath that exterior of my neighbour whom I find so antipathetic, but of whose unworthiness I can never be so certain as I am of my own.
“Cleave the Wood” — look down into your own wooden stupidity of head, “and you shall find me. Lift the stone ” — wrench out that rocky senseless thing that you call your heart “and I am there.” And then, having found Christ in yourself, go out and find Him in your neighbour too.