Contact Us

The whisper of God

30 November, 1999

If God wants to speak to us – to you or me – how do you think He goes about it? From his experience John Callanan SJ gives an insight as to how this works.

Some months ago I was asked to visit an Irish parish and present an evening on prayer. I have to be honest here. The parish in question is situated in a very deprived area, and the evening we’re talking about turned out to be cold and miserable.

My first thought as I cycled out – after I’d considered where I could chain my bike with some possibility of recovering it safely afterwards – was that nobody would come, that the place would be damp and unwelcoming, and that the whole event would be a fiasco.

Pleasant surprise
Imagine my surprise when I arrived. The church had been redesigned and reconstructed quite recently, with one small intimate section portioned off. Flowers and candles had been tastefully set out and the place was full to the rafters – and beautifully warm.

I had decided to make the prayer period very practical and to this end, had chosen the Gospel scene where the old man, Simeon, having been told that he would not die without first seeing the Christ child, waits patiently for that promise to be fulfilled. During our meditation, the group was supposed to wait with Simeon in expectation and hope, which is what happened. Everything went surprisingly well.

As we concluded, the parish Sister who had organized the event invited those present to come over to a side-table where she had carefully lain out coffee and cakes. It was at this point that the evening became truly memorable for me.

As I tucked into the delicacies, a middle-aged lady ambled over and, with great energy, began to speak. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘that you were sent especially to me by God this evening.’ I may have been, but I have to admit that such a thought was very far from my mind at the time. Mainly I was concerned about whether my bike was still outside and would it still be there when we finished the evening. None of that mattered to her. She had more important things on her mind and she proceeded to let me know exactly what they were.

Low ebb
‘This has been the worst week of my life’, she insisted, ‘and this place is about the last spot I expected to find myself in this evening.’ She went on to recount that just a week previously, her husband had lost his job and three days after that, her seventeen-year-old son had been sent to prison.

‘Definitely the worst week of my life. Just this morning I was wandering around the local shops and felt like a heavy black cloud had descended and was sitting right on top of my shoulders. I felt so bad that if I could have finished myself off, I would have.’ She went on to say that she had seen the church notice about the prayer evening a few days previously but had discounted it.

‘I don’t really know what came over me,’ she said, ‘but as today wore on, I found myself being drawn here for the evening session. One can only go so low and I knew I was at the bottom of the barrel. As we began the session, I was at an all-time low and then you asked us to imagine ourselves in the darkness and gloom with Simeon. That was easy enough for me. It was exactly the space I had found myself in all week’.

Sent by God
During the meditation, I had pointed out that Simeon had come to the right place, at the right time, with an eagle eye and an open heart. He was honestly seeking something. So, it seems, was she.

‘When you mentioned that as Simeon peered into the darkness, some spark of hope suddenly lit up inside him, the very same thing happened to me. It was as if a candle had lit up inside me. Something in my hopelessness began to melt.’ And then she went back again to her opening sentence, ‘I’m sure you were sent by God’.

Now stop and think for a minute. I’m happy to report that when the whole event finished, my bike was still outside, and in one piece. As I made my way home, the phrase she kept repeating, I think you were sent by God,
reverberated in my head. Could she have been right? If God wants to speak to us – to you or me – how do you think He goes about His task? I think it may well be through such an agent.

The late Fr. Anthony de Mello, an Indian Jesuit priest and prayer guru, is a writer and speaker I’m very fond of. During his life, he often mentioned that God speaks to us. What was special about his teaching – at least for me – was that he grounded such ideas in reality. He showed how you might, with effort, become aware of the whisper of God in your life, just as I’ve described above. If you want to learn more about the man and his message, you might like to work your way through an interesting new book*, to learn a little more about his methods.

* Anthony de Mello: his life and spirituality, by Anand Nayak (Columba Press, 2007). 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (November 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.