If God suddenly spoke to you, how could you tell you weren’t just talking to yourself? More to the point, how would you know you weren’t crazy? Not that I normally hold two-way conversations with the Almighty, but the few times it has happened to me, there was no doubt in my mind that someone other than my usual self was on the other end. Which addresses the first question, but not necessarily the second. We tend to be wary of people who hear voices in their heads when there is no one there -- usually with good reason. In my experience, however, I didn’t hear voices in my head, apart from the one that usually prattles on in the first-person singular. The entity I took to be God spoke to me from the heart.
We tend to use “head” and “heart” in a figurative sense when not speaking anatomically. Here I am using them in a directional sense. The thoughts I normally think of as mine seem to originate in a space behind my eyes and between my ears, inside my head. Those other thoughts came to me from somewhere lower down. For the sake of convenience, I have located them in the heart to distinguish them from the ones inside my head. They seemed to arise from a great depth, certainly deeper than anything I had previously thought of as “me.”
Conversations with God are not usually portrayed as interior dialogues. The God who confronted Adam and Eve after they indulged in some forbidden fruit was known to stroll the Garden of Eden in the cool of day. Moses got a peek at God’s backside during the 40 days he spent communing with the Almighty on Mt. Sinai. St. Paul heard a voice when he first encountered the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, but his companions reportedly heard it, too. The closest thing to an interior dialogue may have been the prophet Elijah’s encounter with the Lord after he had fled into the wilderness of Sinai. He stood upon the same mountain where Moses had communed with God centuries earlier. There was wind and earthquake and fire, just as there had been for Moses, but the Lord was in none of these. Then, as Elijah stood at the entrance to the cave where he had taken shelter, a “still, small voice” came to him. Was the voice coming from the cave, or was it within himself?
Spiritual adepts have laid claim to the “still, small voice” passage as biblical endorsement for contemplative prayer. In contrast to the pyrotechnics that greeted Moses on Mt. Sinai, the God who appeared to Elijah was a mere whisper of his former self. The “still, small voice” is variously translated from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, but this version accords with my own experience, even if it sounds contradictory. After all, how can a voice be still? In the same sense that a voice can be hushed. It is in stillness that God speaks, as Tennyson writes in his poem, “The Ancient Sage”:
If thou would’st hear the Nameless, and wilt dive
Into the Temple-cave of thine own self,
There, brooding by the central altar, thou
May’st haply learn the Nameless hath a voice,
By which thou wilt abide, if thou be wise...
In contrast to the basso profundo voice of God that addresses Moses from the burning bush in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, the voice that speaks from the depths of one’s own being is easily drowned out by the clamor of the world. The clamor is so great at times we can’t hear ourselves think. At other times, that is all we do. Either way, the still, small voice cannot be heard. “Be still,” the Psalmist advised, “and know that I am God.”
It has been nearly 40 years since I first heard a whispering from the depths of my soul. Cease striving, the voice instructed – an exhortation I assumed referred to my immediate circumstances at the time but which I now realize applies to every aspect of life. There is a natural flow to the universe in which everything unfolds in its own good time without fuss or bother. Call it the will of God, if you must. But once our own striving is abandoned, there seems to be no more striving on God’s part than on our own. Everything just is.
Two surprises await those who stumble upon God as I did. The first is that the God we assumed to exist out there is, in fact, in here (again in a directional sense). Second, the depths from which God speaks run far deeper than anything I had previously encountered within myself. We think of the self as a container rather than something that is itself contained. “In him we live and move and have our being,” St. Paul said. Or this from the theologian Paul Tillich: “The name of infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God.” But where does God’s being leave off and the ground of our own being begin? God only knows.
1 Kings 19
Paul Tillich, The Shaking of The Foundations.