This essay is by Maggi Van Dorn.
I used to be quite frustrated that God never spoke directly to me the way She spoke to the Hebrew prophets. Or even in the way some charismatic Christians claim they interact with the divine—speaking in tongues, catching the holy spirit, or quaking in the pews. Had God gone dormant over the last 2,000 years? Or was I lacking the faithfulness or requisite mysticism to decipher that still small voice? And then I took a class on the 16th century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross. Most people might recognize John of the Cross by the famous expression he coined: the dark night of the soul. It referred to a period in the spiritual journey, when the mature, God-adoring mystic can no longer locate the source of her longing. The divine lover withdraws from the beloved and she is left in an empty and desolate darkness. It was John’s language of hunger, longing and loneliness that first spoke to me. Here was one of the most revered sages of the Catholic faith, who spent a lifetime penning poems of his love affair with God, admitting to a pained and prolonged silence. If St. John of the Cross could acknowledge this silence, and if over four hundred years later, St. Teresa of Calcutta’s diaries would reveal a similar loneliness, I could also rethink God’s communication style.
The “Speech” of God
It was during my study of St. John of the Cross that I also encountered the words of his predecessor, St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote of God’s language this way: “God speaks according to the mode of the receiver.” Or as I understood this—God speaks in the language of our own heart. God meets us where we are, not where we think we need to be, and pronounces every moment an acceptable and holy site for whispering love and truth. So the “speech” of God can look and sound like a lot of things. I’ve heard it from a friend on the phone, three thousand miles away, saying exactly what I needed to hear at that very moment. I’ve seen it in the faces of protesters who refuse to surrender hope or a vision of justice in the face of bigotry, violence and cynicism. And it’s not really about how the voice sounds or how the faces look. It’s the feeling it engenders within me. Something clicks. There is a sudden moment of recognition that what is happening is important, maybe even sacred, and that somewhere at the base of my gut, truth is being born.
And it’s not just any old feeling. We can experience many emotions throughout the day that are clues unto ourselves, but not necessarily revelatory of God’s will. The difference between my ordinary passions (which range from romantic to petty, anxious to hopeful) and holy connections is that the latter is often marked by synchronicity. To be clear, synchronicity, is a secular concept that was formally furnished by the 20th century psychoanalyst Carl Jung. It referred to the experience of finding relevant meaning between two otherwise disconnected and random events. While Jung’s concept of synchronicity did not rest on a belief in God, the idea lends fodder to our theological imaginations.
Been Here Before
The whole bundle of Hebrew and Christian scriptures is riddled with synchronicity and the church’s lectionary frequently reflects these divine call backs. For instance, if the Gospel reading has Jesus quoting Isaiah then the first reading will usually be that same passage in Isaiah. This not only enables the eternally distracted listener a chance to hear the chorus of the gospel message twice over, but it is designed to ritually reawaken us to something deeply buried in the memory of the church. It deliberately stimulates the feeling of déjà vu or the feeling of “haven’t we been here before?” And that déjà vu is critical to the life of faith. Without it, we would mostly stumble along as an eternally distracted, forgetful band of spiritual rookies, unaware of the enormous trust fund of scriptural wisdom we have inherited. And we are not the only humans who have struggled to find hope in the midst of darkness or to long for justice in times of corruption, greed and oppression. However, when we are personally or communally experiencing hardship it can easily feel all-consuming and beyond compare. It doesn’t matter how many people have endured the loss of a brother or sister, a parent or a child, a friend or a lover. Each death is excruciatingly singular. And yet, at the same time there is something in the collective consciousness of humanity that will resonate with our suffering. We are unrepeatable, fascinatingly unique creatures and we also share 99.9% of our genetic make-up. We are a peculiar paradox.
Yet, the scriptures remind us, through allusions to the past, that we are not alone in our struggles. In the gospel of Matthew, after John the Baptist is arrested, Jesus withdraws to Galilee and begins to assemble his ragtag crew of disciples, beginning with Peter and Andrew. Jesus’ physical relocation from Nazareth to Galilee isn’t random. It is meant, as the scriptures tell us, to recall the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles,
the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light,
on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death
light has arisen. (Mt 4:15-16)
We have been here before, maybe not as individuals, but as a beloved community that stretches across place and time. Notice also that God speaks not just through words, but through movement and action. We see this when Joseph takes the infant Jesus and his mother to Egypt to flee potential harm, thereby recreating the journey of the Hebrew people. And we see it here in the Gospels, where Jesus’ travels remind us of how God has repeatedly breathed new life into lands overshadowed by death and into people who were once captive to despair.
We have countless saints and mystics reminding us that God prioritizes love in action. St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote in his Spiritual Exercises that, “[L]ove ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.” This is both an admonition for us to practice acts of love and a reminder that God shares the same preference for action when it comes to loving us. But since we are eternally distracted, forgetful people, God speaks through moments of synchronicity in our own lives. The uncanny familiarity we may feel when a friend speaks wise words, or in an encounter with a stranger, or in an act of hospitality, or in some seemingly random connection, may be an occasion for us to ask ourselves: Have I been here before? What truth can I recollect? How might I listen for divine resonances?
Maggi Van Dorn is the host and co-producer of The Interfaith Center of New York’s original podcast series “Interfaith Matters.” She holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University and a Masters of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. Currently, Maggi is the curator of Religion, Ethics and Spirituality content for SiriusXM’s forthcoming Project Orange.
Listen to an audio version of this post, narrated by Maggi…