Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
“…The sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name… the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice… they will not follow a stranger… because they do not recognize the voice of strangers…”
These are words from Jesus in our gospel today. Our relationship with Jesus is as simple as that. We hear and recognize his voice; and we follow him. But learning to hear his voice is an acquired skill.
As with most skills, the way we learn it is as you might expect: through repeated practice. We listen to that voice over and over and over again. Even from a natural perspective, we know how this works. Imagine a number of mothers at the playground. When it’s time to leave, each mother calls out for her child, and all the children are able to distinguish their mother's voice from the rest, as she calls them by name.
They know how their name sounds from their mother’s lips. They know her voice very well. Even before learning the meaning of words, a mother’s voice is recognized and cherished. Anyone who’s seen a mother quiet her infant knows this. Only her voice will do at times. There’s no substitute.
Likewise, we have one true shepherd: the Lord. To recognize his voice, we must hear it over a lifetime of prayer. Prayer is the language of God. It’s how God speaks with us, and it’s how we speak with God and the angels and saints.
As with any language, it’s not enough to speak a language occasionally. Full immersion is often necessary. We cultivate an ear for language by hearing it spoken every day, and in different contexts.
We use language to honor others, to thank them, to ask for things for ourselves and others, and to simply chat with them and share stories. Prayer takes those same forms. There are prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, petition, intercession, and contemplation.
Just as we might honor others with words, in the language of prayer we honor God with prayers of adoration. We thank others at times; likewise, we offer prayers of thanksgiving to God. We ask our God to forgive us our sins with prayers of contrition and repentance. We ask the Lord to have mercy upon us and others in some special way. We ask for certain blessings from God for ourselves and others. These are prayers of petition and intercession.
Sometimes we simply pray in contemplation and meditation, with no real goal other than spending time with the Lord. That’s like the simple sharing of time with friends, with no definite goal other than being with each other.
Through all these forms, we habitually become better at prayer. No prayer is too mundane, short, or repetitive. They all have their place.
Think of a loving couple. Those little “check-ins” that can happen throughout an ordinary day; they matter and enrich a marriage. That quick, “I love you,” even over text, has its place. So it is with prayer. We can never pray enough Our Fathers or Hail Marys throughout our day. Those are our little "check-ins" with our God.
Some people have a knack for prayer; just like some people have a knack for language. Some people are natural mystics. But for the rest of us, we have to be deliberate about it, and devote time to prayer.
Just as there are many sounds found in nature that might distract sheep, there are many sounds in our environment that can distract us from the voice of Christ. Many things compete for our attention. At work, our projects, and the people we work with, occupy our attention for eight to sixteen hours a day. It’s no different at home. Our family obligations require our time and attention. Even in our free moments alone, we can be engrossed in our phones, tablets, or other devices.
In short, it can be difficult to learn to distinguish the Lord’s voice from the rest, unless we’re deliberate about devoting time to prayer. But it’s worth it. His voice brings every consolation, stills the unquiet heart, and refreshes the weary soul. Through all of our prayer, we come to know the shepherd’s voice, and he will lead us to greener pastures. God bless you.