Seventeen has turned thirty-five
I'm surprised that we're still livin'
If we've done any wrong
I hope that we're forgiven
-- John Mellancamp, "Cherry Bomb"
I had lunch recently with the pastor of the church where I have been attending services over the last few months. The pastor wanted to discuss with me the possibility of my joining the church. It surprised me a little that the pastor would initiate this sort of conversation, since the previous congregations where I have worshiped have had a more hands-off approach, leaving the decision to initiate a conversation about membership entirely up to the attender. At one point in our conversation, she asked me what made me decide to start looking for a church to attend.
"I felt something pulling me," I said. "I don't know if it was God or whatever, but I just felt a pull." I shrugged as I said that, because I tend to be an agnostic about whether such things constitute a genuine expression of the voice of God or just--well, something else. She nodded, but otherwise didn't respond to my remark.
There is no question that the "pull" that I felt was real, but I cannot attest as to its source. When I hear people asserting confidently, without the slightest trace of doubt, that God (or the Holy Spirit) told them what to do, or answered their prayers, or caused them to believe something, I am generally fairly skeptical. While I do believe that God calls out to us, I also believe that discerning that voice of God is not a simple process, and there is much danger in claiming to know with absolute certainty that God has told you something. If it were so simple a matter to know God's will, there would not be so much theological disagreement in the world. And many people, convinced with complete certainty that they were carrying out God's will, have done terrible things in the history of the world.
That being said, the best I can say is that if what I am experiencing seems to be pushing me in the the right direction--if the voice I hear is making sense to me--then it might be useful to heed that call, as if it does come from God, whether it really does or not. But I will always be filled with doubt in such matters.
On a birthday many years ago, as I was laying in bed, half-awake, waiting for the alarm to go off, I heard a voice asking me what I was doing with my life. Perhaps it was a half-awake hallucination. Or perhaps it was the voice of God. Or perhaps God speaks to people sometimes through half-awake hallucinations. I have no idea. The message to me was formulated as a simple question--merely, what was I doing? If it was God asking me the question, then I was being asked by God to take stock of my life. Even if it wasn't the voice of God, it was still a good idea to take stock of my life. Either way, I felt it was beneficial to listen to that voice.
In her book Do You Hear What I Hear, Minna Proctor analyzes the concept of a religious "calling". She focuses primarily on a calling as it pertains to those who are "called" to a religious life--priests, for example--but I think that what she says about the process applies to any of us who listen for that "small, still voice" of God. The Bible tells stories of those who received explicit instructions from God--the Apostle Paul, struck blind on the road to Damascus, for example. Some post-biblical figures in history seemed to get very explicit guidance, but for most people who try to listen to this voice, the instructions from God seem muddled at best:
Francis, for example, was told to "repair my church". Others over the centuries came to crave such explicit instructions. In 1835, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote, "What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know....The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do." Simone Weil, even after concluding that she was not called to convert to Catholicism, suffered a fate that condemned her to never know for sure what she was supposed to do. "The most beautiful life possible, " she wrote, "has always seemed to me to be one where everything is determined, either by the pressure of circumstances or by impulse such as I have just mentioned, and where there is never any room for choice."Perhaps for most of us, God doesn't want to give us explicit instructions. Maybe we just have to figure it out for ourselves. Perhaps that is why the voice I heard years ago was phrased in the form of a question. Perhaps herein lies the real truth to be found in the biblical myth of Eden: if God gives us explicit and absolute instructions, we'd just feel compelled to do the opposite thing anyway. Perhaps there is also something to the Buddhist idea of the value in seeking understanding within ourselves, rather than simply parroting what we are told--as the Zen saying goes, "if you meet Buddha on the road, kill him". It is one thing to heed the Divine will; it is another thing to internalize it. Perhaps, after all, for many of us, the answers we seek have to be found from within. But this is a scary road to take; it would be so much easier to just have God telling us what to do. In her book, Minna Proctor quotes Isaiah Berlin, who said: "Where there is no choice, there is no anxiety; and a happy release from responsibility."
And it is that anxiety that I struggle with. The reasons for this anxiety are clear: my mortality, and the shortness of my human life--there just isn't enough time to figure it all out. Until a few years ago, I labored under a kind of illusion of eternal youth. Sure, I knew at some level that I was going to die some day in the (distant) future, but at another level I was free to be in denial; I was relatively healthy and I considered myself young. But when I hit my forties--much more quickly than I anticipated--things started to change. My body started to break down: a kidney stone here, a thrown out back there, a sudden spell of dizziness thrown in for good measure. Bicycling up that hill was noticeably harder than it was ten years ago. I started feeling mortal in significant ways. And with this deeper recognition of something I always knew but didn't choose to deal with-- that my days are numbered--the pressure to define some kind of meaning out of my life increased.
Yesterday, I took a good look at myself in the mirror, something I realized that I rarely do. I noticed how much older I looked than I think I realized. In my mind's eye, I guess I try to pretend that I haven't aged quite as much as I actually have, so my glances at the mirror when I comb my hair or brush my teeth tend to avoid looking too closely at the signs of aging. But this time, it was readily apparent that I was middle aged, and it was not an enjoyable moment to see myself that way. My mortality was staring back at me. When I was a child, the world was full of infinite possibilities. I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up--an astronomer, a football player, a Congressman. But as the years passed, decisions were made--career choices, life choice--and all of that took place in the context of what was available to me given my skills, aptitudes, and experiences. My life took a certain course. So many of those years were invested in certain life choices that, perhaps, could have instead been invested elsewhere. You only have so many years on this earth to make certain choices, and you can't rewind your life and try something different if this choice doesn't turn out. I'm stuck with the choices I made, but I am also human, and I sometimes make mistakes. The wisdom I acquire is often thanks to those mistakes, but it means spending many of those precious years available to me just to make that acquisition.
I have less and less time available to me to make decisions in my life. Less and less time to make sense of the world I live in. Less and less time to make my life as meaningful as I can. If God was asking me what I was doing with my life, all I can do sometimes is shrug, throw up my hands, and say, "I don't know." I wish I had a better answer than that.