Once upon a time there was a shepherd in Israel who had three sheep stolen in the middle of the night. He suspected he might find them at the sheep auction on the Jordanian border. He went and, sure enough, he saw them in the flock. He called to one: “Brownie” and the sheep raised its head and trotted right over to him. He called another: “Curly,” and Curly came running right up to him. He called the third: “Fluffy” and Fluffy came right along to him. The shepherd went his way and three lost sheep followed. Not one person questioned that he was the true shepherd because he called his sheep by name, and Brownie, Curly and Fluffy knew their shepherd’s voice. Charming story, no? True, too!
But the question remains: How do we recognize the Shepherd’s voice? What is this voice like? Here is an incident that gives a contemporary example – without sheep: Jane, a woman in Boston, told me that she and her husband Bob had always wanted to retire to Nantucket island, off the coast of Cape Cod. The time came. They had located the house. They were going to the closing at the real estate office that morning. But she was frozen, paralyzed with fear, doubt. It didn’t seem right. They would be far removed from their children and especially the grandchildren, isolated in the winter due to the ice, snow and fog. She told me: “I sat on the edge of my bed, and I prayed, “Please, God if we shouldn’t do this, let me know.” She continued to feel this way. So she told her husband, “Bob, we can’t do this.” And they didn’t. Instead, they bought a house along the coast on the mainland, Gloucester, an easy drive to the children and grandchildren. Jane recognized God’s voice shepherding her in her feelings. It was in their Gloucester home that she told me this story. “I know mine and mine know me.”
So how do we hear the voice of the shepherd? St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises says we can hear God’s voice if we pay attention to our feelings, to what attracts us and to what repels us. Jane felt static with her choice, soon to be finalized. These feelings can tell us something about how God is directing us, tending us, his sheep. God voice speaks in peace, not in turmoil. “My peace I give to you.” Not turmoil, doubt and fear. Wherever there is fear, discouragement, that is usually not God’s voice. That’s how Jane knew the island house was not in God’s plan for them. Where there is encouragement and hope, peace that’s God. That’s finding pasture. Our feelings are the gate, or gateway, the way in, to what God wants for us.
Or listen to the story of this man: “A man was walking along a beach at night and saw the moonlight touch with silver the crest of a wave. He was delighted and felt at peace and in the presence of someone who himself delighted in such things. He felt that God was close and loved him even though he often drank too much and got angry with his family. He know that God knew all about him and yet loved him, and he felt freer than he had in years”(Barry G&Y 21). God loves us and wants fullness of life — for us and for the community we touch, for the good of the whole flock. Feelings are the gateway and peace is the pasture. Dwell there. When you find the pasture of peace, dwell there. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me.”