Charlton Heston never received film credit for what was arguably the greatest speaking part of his career: the voice of God in Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. Heston, of course, won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Moses in that film. But the identity of the actor who delivered God’s lines in a tricked-up basso profundo remained a mystery until Heston himself stepped forward. As the actor told it, he and DeMille were dining with the abbot of St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai desert, where they were staying while filming on location. Heston tried to talk DeMille into giving him the part of Jehovah. He argued that when people hear the voice of God, they are really hearing it inside themselves. The abbot agreed, and DeMille eventually went along with the idea. As a result, when Heston did the pivotal Burning Bush scene, he was effectively talking to himself.
Some might argue that the original Moses was probably also talking to himself. According to the biblical account, there were no witnesses to Moses’ encounter with the Lord on the slopes of Mt. Sinai. There is no reason to think he was making any of this up. But neither was there any reason not to think he might have been hallucinating. After all, most of the people we know about who hear disembodied voices are the ones who mutter furiously to themselves while pushing grocery carts down the street.
Anonymous surveys indicate that a sizable minority of the population hears disembodied voices from time to time, far too many for them all to be crazy – at least not crazy enough to tell everyone they hear strange voices. Certainly, one hesitates to be counted in this number, not without offering assurances in advance that we do not mutter furiously to ourselves. I will further impeach myself by admitting that I have hallucinated disembodied voices as a result of youthful misadventures with psychedelic drugs. As a consequence, I think I know the difference between demented magpies jabbering away in one’s head and the still, small voice that speaks from the depths of one’s soul.
Psychologists now use the term “spiritual emergency” to describe transformative experiences that may bear a superficial resemblance to psychotic episodes but are actually the result of sudden and overwhelming encounters with the divine. The classic example is St. Paul’s famous encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Paul, who was then called Saul of Tarsus, set off for Damascus as a notorious persecutor of Christians and wound up as Christ’s chief apostle to the gentiles.
My own first encounter came at a particularly unsettled point in my young life, when I had briefly quit my job in frustration without really understanding what I wanted to do with myself. My boss, a kind-hearted man with an ulcer, calmly urged me to reconsider over Thanksgiving, which had fortuitously intervened. So I packed up my wife and infant son and drove to my in-laws’ house in New Jersey for the holiday. That night I went to bed and dreamed I was among a large group of people who were making elaborate preparations of some kind. The atmosphere was charged with great excitement and expectation. Everyone seemed to be looking forward to some momentous event, and I was only one who didn’t know what it was. I thought I detected something faintly sinister about all these goings-on, until I realized I was just projecting my own sense of feeling left out. I now saw that I had the power to transform the situation simply by drawing on the power of love within me. In my waking life, I knew about this kind of love only from books; in my dream, I had merely to call it to mind and it leapt from my heart as obediently as a genie from a lamp. In an instant, my dream world was filled with light and music. I felt as if life itself had yielded up its secret, and I had been handed the key.
Then I woke up. I lay in bed in the upstairs room where we stayed when visiting my in-laws in New Jersey. The dream dissolved in darkness that was broken only by a faint light shining through the open door of the bathroom near the foot of my bed. The room was absolutely still except for the soft breathing of my wife asleep next to me in the bed that had been hers as a girl. But the love that had been unstopped in my dream was unstoppable now, spilling from my heart like blood from an open wound, gathering up the darkness in its luminous embrace. It’s real, I thought. Thank God.
Fully awake now, I entered into communion with my own heart and began to receive instruction. A voice that no ear ever heard spoke from a place deep within the stillness of myself – deeper, in fact, than the self I knew. I was cautioned not to look outside myself for change. To change jobs or any other circumstance of my life would not change me. To change the world without a change of heart was merely striving for effect, leaving untouched the underlying cause within. Cease striving, the voice commanded. Familiar words from Scripture came to mind, which I now knew were meant to be taken literally: The kingdom of God is within.
We pray, “Thy kingdom come,” without realizing that God’s kingdom lies closer at hand than our own breathing – right here, right now, always. His kingdom comes not with signs to be observed but from the inside out. It awaits only an end to our endless wandering of mind into words of yesterday and tomorrow. Even now I felt myself slipping away. Fear not, the voice assured me. You will find your way. I fought briefly to lay hold of the moment but found myself grasping at nothing. You decide, the voice said, and then I was off to sleep once again.
I never did quit my job; in fact, I continued working for that same company until I retired. Looking back after some 35 years, I realize that I have been inadvertently obedient to the dictates of my heart. Outwardly, little has changed in the circumstances of my life. I am still married to the same woman. I still live in the same small community, although we moved once to accommodate our growing family. I still listen for that still, small voice, although rarely does it speak to me so directly – but then it no longer needs to. Once you have learned how to listen closely, your whole life will remind you that you are rooted in God.