How do we hear God speak? It’s a common question, especially in the context of discerning one’s vocation. Many people wish God would appear to them in a vision and tell them what to do, or at least send a text message. But while there have been saints who were blessed with such experiences – St. Catherine of Siena, for example, received a vision at an early age, from which point she knew she would consecrate her life to the service of God – for most of us, God speaks in more subtle, mundane ways.
During the novitiate (the first year of Dominican formation), people often asked the novices how we had discerned God’s call to the Dominicans. Often I would use a story to illustrate an important aspect of my discernment (and of discernment in general).
One day a man heard a weather report about a flood that would wipe out his town. Concerned, he got on his knees and began to pray, “Lord, save me from the flood.” A few minutes later, his neighbor drove up in a pickup truck and said, “Bob, get in the truck – the flood’s coming!” But Bob replied, “No, thanks – the Lord is going to save me.”
The waters continued to rise, and Bob moved to the second floor. There he continued to pray, “Lord, save me from the flood.” A rescue boat came by and the men on the boat called out, “Sir, get in the boat, your house is going to be swamped soon.” But Bob replied, “No, thanks – the Lord is going to save me.”
The waters continued to rise, and Bob climbed up on the roof. He was getting nervous now, but unfazed, he continued to entrust himself to the Lord, “Lord, please save me from the flood!” A little later a helicopter came by and they shouted out to Bob, “Get in the helicopter! This is your last chance!” But again Bob said, “No, thanks – the Lord is going to save me.” The helicopter flew away, the waters continued to rise, and Bob, not being a great swimmer, drowned.
When he reached the pearly gates, Bob said to God, “Lord, I asked you over and over again to save me – why didn’t you answer me?” And God replied, “Bob, I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter – what more did you want?”
The point of the story, of course, is that, while God might on occasion speak directly to us, more often He speaks to us through other people. Although for many years I resisted the call to the priesthood, I suspected deep down that this was what God had in store for me, because I would repeatedly get the question, “Are you going to be a priest?” From people who knew me well to complete strangers, everyone seemed to think that I was called to be a priest. Several people even suggested that I look into the Dominicans, sometimes in jest, other times quite seriously.
Gradually I came to realize that if I didn’t at least explore the call, I might one day end up like Bob. In fact, I distinctly recall telling a friend the story and having the sneaking suspicion in the back of my mind that I was, in fact, behaving like Bob. Thankfully, God eventually gave me the grace to overcome my stubbornness, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Though God most often speaks to us through other people, on occasion He can also send us little signs that we’re on the right path. But even these usually come through other people. Early on in my discernment with the Dominicans, I was visiting one of our communities. During the homily the celebrant took the opportunity to talk about discernment, and he used the very same story about the flood to illustrate the importance of relying on others to discern God’s voice.
Although it would be nice to get a message directly from God about what we’re supposed to do, there is a certain fittingness to the way God speaks to us through others. Every vocation has ramifications not only for the person answering the call, but for the community he or she is called to serve, be it the Church in the priesthood and religious life, or a family in the married state. In speaking to us through others — without impinging upon our freedom — God moves us to be instruments of His grace to our brothers and sisters. By daring to answer his summons, united as one in Christ, we grow ever closer to he who is the source of our happiness and joy.