Friday, May 29, 2009

1-18-2009: 2nd Ordinary Time (B)

1 Samuel 3:3-10,19/Psalm 40/1 Corinthians 6:13-15,17-20 /John 1:35-42
There’s a renewed interest on the part of psychologists of religion, of late, regarding people who claim to hear divine voices. A few generations ago they would have been relegated completely to the schizophrenic category, their revelations seen as merely the symptom of an underlying disorder. But with the publication on Julian Jaynes' controversial book in 1976, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, researchers have been revisiting the subject.

Jaynes’ thesis, as I understand it, says that millennia ago the right and left hemispheres of the brain were so separate that one side produced a thought and the other side heard it as an external voice. When, primarily through the invention of writing, the two hemispheres of the brain were bridged, the thought was no longer heard as an external phenomenon but as an interior locution and consciousness, self-awareness, was born. Following this theory we might conjecture that those who claim to hear external voices, for one reason or other, may have not yet experienced that bridging of the hemispheres of the brain. Thus, in young children and the illiterate, there is more of a possibility of such an experience than in adults or those culturally conditioned by education.

Young Samuel in today’s scripture reading hears a voice call his name and thinks it’s the old priest Eli calling him. Eli, more than a little annoyed from being woken up by Samuel, realizes that it may be the Lord calling the boy, and instructs the boy that the next time he hears the voice to say: Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. Samuel does just that and his destiny as king-maker and prophet begins to unfold.

Joan of Arc, older than Samuel but illiterate, claims to hear voices commanding her to do some remarkable things. Such joy did those voices bring her that Joan would choose to die with them than live without them. And the great St Teresa of Avila, who heard the divine locutions in an ecstatic state, would write about them with much common sense and insight way before the invention of psychology.

This week the Church calls us to pray for vocations to the priesthood and Religious life. At the same time the Vatican has recently issued a rather stringent document listing some personality attributes as incompatible with any candidate seeking to become a priest or Religious. While it is understandable that the Church fears what might be considered mental instability or aberration in her clergy, it’s important to heed the lesson underlying today’s reading: God will not be fit into any category; He will not be limited to our understanding of how we think he should call us to serve him. God calls whomever he wishes, in whatever way he chooses.

In a like manner it’s also important for believers to realize that just because psychology can identify the physical/biological conditions present to what some consider revelatory experience, doesn’t mean that the experience is not from God. In G.B. Shaw’s play Saint Joan there’s a powerful scene when the English judge, frustrated with Joan’s insistence on the reality of her voices, scolds her. Don’t you know, he says. Those voices you hear come from your imagination. Joan simply answers: Of course. Or, according to the actual court record, we know that following Charles’s coronation as king, Joan tells the resentful archbishop that he should trust her voices “even if they are only the echoes of my own commonsense.” Just because voices may come from our imagination or our commonsense, doesn’t make them any less real. Where better to encounter the divine than in that place where audacity and daring merge with sensible street-smarts. Perhaps that’s what bishops and vocation directors should be seeking in young men and women today. Rather than boxing young people into categories by tendencies or inclinations, we need (like Samuel and St. Joan and St. Teresa) to start entertaining the imagination with a touch of common sense and think again outside that proverbial and insufferable box.

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