Thursday, January 26, 2012

12-01-15: Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

1 Samuel 3:3-10,19 / Psalm 40 / 1 Corinthians 6:13-15,17-20 / John 1:35-42

Vocation Awareness Week is upon us and we pray that more young people may “answer the call” to follow the Lord as priests and Religious. No doubt this time of year is chosen because of the readings chosen for Mass: the gospel stories of Christ calling his disciples to follow him, to “come and see,” as St. John puts it. And then there’s the Old Testament story of Samuel, the boy-seer and later prophet, who is called by the Lord to become his voice as judge and prophet of Israel.

Coincidentally we’ve just passed the six hundredth anniversary of another seer’s birth. Joan of Arc is thought to have been born on January 6th of 1412. Although separated by millennia and geography, Joan and Samuel have quite a lot in common. Both live in times threatened by violence and familiar institutions are falling into ruin. Both see themselves as instruments of God in “crowning” a king. And both have come to their remarkable vocations in life through the experience of hearing voices they attribute to the divine.

Although the Church might celebrate the likes of Samuel and Joan as hearers of the word, the Church would be the first to turn away any young man or woman today who claimed that they wanted to become a priest or Religious because they heard voices. And it’s important to remember that it was the Church, albeit corrupted by the politics of the time, which would condemn Joan to be burnt at the stake.

Joan’s voices were judged to be real, but demonic. With Freud and the birth of psychology, the phenomenon of hearing voices was consigned to the realm of psychic illness and insanity. But there’s been interesting developments of late in the field of neurobiology. One theory suggests that the invention of writing, more precisely – the invention of the alphabet, had somehow changed the hard-wiring of the brain and what was once perceived as the external voices of the gods became interior locutions and the birth of consciousness. Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is obviously more than a mouthful and not a little beyond my understanding but hints at an intimate connection between what we understand as conscious awareness and what has traditionally been understood as the realm of the divine. Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet and the Goddess is a fascinating read, suggesting that a leap was made in human evolution when humanity invented the alphabet. It is interesting to note that many of those that claimed to hear voices or see visions were either pre-literate children (Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, the children of Fatima) or illiterate adults (Joan of Arc, Mohammad). In Muses, Madmen and Prophets, Daniel Smith presents many of these famous voice-hearers and respectfully evaluates their claims. All these works are not apologies for religious experience - quite the opposite; but they make the phenomenon of voices and visions a relevant topic and not one submerged in Freud’s view of them as psychic illness and illusion. William James, that psychologist of religious experience, argued that mental instability might be a necessary precondition for revelation. And it was C.G. Jung who said that “confrontation with the unconscious eventually leads to the recognition of an alien ‘other’ in oneself, the objective presence of another will.” Jung would claim that it was “a vocation that destines a man to emancipate himself from the herd and from its well-worn paths.”

Whatever you may conclude about divine-voice hearers, you have to marvel at what some of them accomplished, from the likes of Samuel and Joan of Arc who crowned kings, to the work of Mother Teresa who confessed in her posthumous memoir, Come be My Light, that the voice she had once heard that invited her to care for the poorest of the poor had never again returned, she nevertheless continued to do such extraordinary work with joy.

Maybe this Vocation Awareness Week our prayer shouldn’t be so much about the young choosing a specific life-path, but that they will simply listen a bit harder: the ear as it were, being the primary organ of the spirit, according to the Jesuit Walter Ong. And it was St. Augustine who insisted that’s precisely how Mary conceived Jesus – through the ear – tilted, as it were, toward Gabriel’s angelic voice.

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