June 26, 2024 at 10:24 a.m.

Hearing God

St. Anthony encourages us to speak less in our words and more through our actions.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

I say more: the just man ­justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his going graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in 

God’s eye he is –

Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the ­features of men’s faces.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

How’s that for “incarnational theology?” And in the form of a poetic paragraph, the second of Hopkins’ “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” What’s he saying? Or maybe the better question is, what’s he singing?

Like a musical score — I don’t know how many of us actually “read” music (can music be read anyway?) — it is only when it is played and sung that the marks on the paper become what they are meant to be. “A song is no song till you sing it …” And a poem has a certain musicality, a cadence and a rhythm. Like every life. One of the first signs that anything is alive is movement. Dead things don’t move. Even a sluggish alligator has a heartbeat if you know where to spot it. Just don’t get too close!

Hopkins is really on to something. How many times we may wonder, is God hearing my prayers? And if he is, why don’t I hear his voice? Of course, we know that God is spirit. Even when we read in the Bible that “God’s speaks,” we understand this means something more than mere people-talk, the words and phrases we use every day in our own languages. Hopkins challenges the notion that words are the only kind of speech. Indeed, the Lord can “speak” even in silence, just as all lovers do. “I only have eyes for you,” as the song goes. People in love can communicate their longing simply by gazing into one another’s eyes.

St. John, as we well know, speaks of Jesus as God’s Word. “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Everything God is manifests itself in what Jesus does. No doubt that is what St. Anthony means when he says, “actions speak louder that words” in a sermon we recently encountered in the Office of Readings on his feast day (June 13). In that homily, St. Anthony is encouraging us to speak less in our words and more through our actions. “We are full of words but empty of actions, and therefore are cursed by the Lord, since he himself cursed the fig tree when he found no fruit but only leaves.”

Strong words from the man whose name we invoke — and expect instant results from — whenever we lose something! But what do we really want from St. Anthony after all: words or action? Well, that’s the point. And Jesus above all is one who acts in time. He makes God’s presence felt in all that he is and does, as his entire life bears witness to.

Disciples of Jesus are invited to speak as the Holy Spirit gives us words to speak, not our own words, the word of God. As St. Anthony exhorts us, “(h)appy the man whose words issue from the Holy Spirit and not from himself!” If we act accordingly, we will be singing the songs of God, not just passing around musical scores to others, but actually inviting a joyful chorus of praise.

There is nothing wrong with passing around a Bible, with giving people literature to read that “explains” the truths and mysteries of the faith. I put “explains” in quotes because can anyone really explain the depth and breadth of a faith that is, ultimately, not a series of do’s and don’t’s or rules and regulations, but a relationship with a real Person, with the Word Incarnate himself.

Another way I have heard the message of St. Anthony conveyed is that “faith is better caught than taught.” Even in everyday life, the normal transactions that may occur at the market or in the course of business, we more often remember not so much what people said to us as how they made us feel. Hopkins also expresses in poetic verse how the actions of God are manifest in human beings through whom God “plays.”

We might not have the eyes to see this action in every person we meet, but if we study the lives of the saints and of artists, musicians and others on the road to becoming saints, we will often hear of their surprise “revelations” of how God “spoke” to them in a beautiful encounter. It is like hearing the voice of God, seeing with delight the beauty that lies, as the poet says in another place, “… the dearest freshness deep down things” (“God’s Grandeur,” G.M. Hopkins).

Yes, God speaks, and we can hear God’s voice, our eyes and our ears may need to be stretched, and tweaked and sharpened by a touch of grace. Grace builds on nature, we are instructed by the theologians. What they say to us is important, since theology is, after all, faith seeking understanding. But the life of faith has to be lived out, day in and day out. It is not just something we can learn from reading a book, no matter how beautifully bound and illustrated. A song must be sung, and life must be lived. 

As St. Anthony says: “We should speak, then, as the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of speech. Our humble and sincere request to the Spirit for ourselves should be that we may bring the day of Pentecost to fulfillment, insofar as he infuses us with his grace, by using our bodily senses in a perfect manner and by keeping the commandments.” In other words, by speaking God’s language through our actions we, in turn, will be hearing God … in and through one another.



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