Jesus’ words in the tenth chapter of St John’s Gospel have shaped the Church’s understanding of priesthood for centuries. Priests are called to work as ‘servants and shepherds’, says the ordinal, and so it is that, as an ordinand – not least an ordinand who is also a brother of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd – I spend a lot of time pontificating about shepherding.
Of course, I know next to nothing about actual shepherding. I can opine about the importance of listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd yourself; of knowing the flock, and of them knowing you; about the need to know where good pasture is and the skills and character needed so that the sheep will follow you. I can talk about what it might mean to exercise a ministry that is life-giving to others and the sorts of sacrifices that might involve. But I would fall into a blind panic if you put me in a field full of actual sheep and asked me to gather them all together and lead them to another pasture.
My rather romantic, bucolic view of shepherding was, in any case, spoiled a couple of years ago when I was out walking near where I live in North Wales. The fields around my village are dotted with sheep and most of the routes I walk at home take you through fields where sheep graze. It was when I was walking along late one afternoon, thinking pious and holy thoughts about sheep and shepherding and how lovely it was to live with these surroundings to contemplate my vocation, that I was rudely brought back to reality with the loud blaring of the horn on a quad bike. It was feeding time, and this particular shepherd roared into the field at about 20 miles an hour, the blaring horn announcing that dinner was ready.
The sheep were a lot less startled than I was, having got used to this rather intrusive call sound. I confess to feeling rather deflated that contemporary shepherding seemed to owe more to Top Gear than to the New Testament!
‘My sheep hear my voice’, says Jesus. ‘I know them, and they follow me’. It is a metaphor that makes sheep of us all, but attuning ourselves to the voice of this shepherd takes practice. He doesn’t always announce his presence with the blare of a horn. Sheep, it turns out, have more asked of them than mere obedience. Discernment matters: distinguishing between voices, and learning whose to trust. Sheep will not respond to any old voice or call: they learn to distinguish the voice of their shepherd: its tone, its inflections, its accents. Someone else, even if they use the same words to call to the sheep, will be met with blank indifference. The sheep know the voice of the shepherd.
In a noisy world, we are surrounded by voices. Seductive voices promising happiness and wealth if we buy the right things. Ambitious voices promising success and admiration if we will work hard enough, achieve a bit more. Political voices conjuring fear and promising security in return for your vote; voices of doubt that say you’re not good enough – we will know, probably, which voices we are most attuned to; which have the capacity to shape us and drive us. But amid the cacophony it can be so very hard to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.
This is where discernment comes in. Occasionally, the voice of the Good Shepherd is heard with such clarity that no discernment is needed: it is so obviously the voice of Christ that it admits of no doubt. This is the sort of situation that Saul found himself in on the road to Damascus, or Peter by the Galilean shore. In these sorts of situations, to hear and respond are all part of the same action. But for most of us, most of the time, the voice of the Good Shepherd is not heard so clearly. We have to tune our ears, learn to distinguish the tone and accents with which he speaks, filter out the other voices that crowd his out.
For the Good Shepherd does speak. ‘My sheep hear my voice’, he says. And there are places where his voice is reliably heard: in the Scriptures, where we hear and read not only his own words, but the faithful witness of those who have listened to the voice of God down the centuries. We hear his voice in the sacraments: speaking words of absolution in confession, of thanksgiving and self-offering in the Eucharist, of love and belonging in baptism. We hear his words through those who know him best: the witness of the saints, the counsel of those who are close to him. And we hear his voice in prayer.
So the first stage of discernment is to want to hear Jesus’ voice; to desire to know what he wants, and not just ask him to bless what we want. Think of the sons of Zebedee, who are more attuned to the voice of ambition than they are to the voice of their Lord, and who ask him for the best seats in the kingdom. At this point, they don’t really want to know what Jesus wants: they are more interested in what he can do for them. If we are to hear aright, it needs to matter to us what Jesus wants. I can usually tell, in my own life, when I’m avoiding his voice, because I find myself reluctant to pray about something – a decision or a situation – because I know that to pray about it is to open myself up to God’s will and desire rather than my own, and I am not always sure I welcome the challenge or disruption that can bring.
So from the desire to hear Jesus’ voice flows openness to what he might say. Think of the Pharisees, who were so certain that they knew God and his ways that they couldn’t recognise that Jesus was the longed-for Messiah. They listened to him speak, but they couldn’t hear properly, because their preconceptions and desire for power and control got in the way. And by contrast, think of St Peter, a good Jew, who has a vision of a sheet full of unclean animals being lowered from heaven, and hears a voice telling him to eat. Everything in his background tells him that this is contrary to God’s law. But he has learnt to discern the voice of the Shepherd, and he obeys it, opening the way for the mission to the Gentiles.
So knowledge of God is important, too, in discerning the voice of the Shepherd. Who is this God who speaks? How do we recognise his voice? This is where testing our discernment against scripture and tradition helps: God does not contradict himself, and nor, as the source of all goodness, does he ask of us that which is not good. So we will not find Jesus telling us to have an affair, or to engage in gossip, or to exploit someone to get what we want. But it is not always straightforward: Peter would have had plenty of scriptural warrant, for example, in refusing to eat the unclean food, but his experience of being with Jesus, who came eating and drinking and mixing with the wrong sort of people, taught him to trust the voice that included the Gentiles. It is easier, in discernment, to resort to the simple tropes of ‘the Bible says’ or ‘the Church teaches’, but we don’t always face situations that are straightforward. ‘Should I marry this person?’, ‘should I leave my job?’, ‘how should I care for my elderly parents?’, ‘how should we bring up the children?’, ‘what should I do with my money?’ – we can’t just lift a verse out of the bible to tell us exactly what to do in such situations. The bible and the Church’s teaching can inform what we think and believe about marriage and families and money and work, but how we use that knowledge in our own lives takes discernment, listening for the voice of the Shepherd.
So we take time to pray, to read the bible, to talk to those whose counsel we trust, especially our brethren, in accordance with the notes. And as well as listening for the voice of the Shepherd, we listen to ourselves. Does the decision bring peace, or turmoil? Does it lead us to God, or away from him? Does it lead to an increase in faith and hope and love, or to anxiety, distress, an absence of faith and hope and love?
The Shepherd whose voice we listen for always wants to draw us to him, to make us more fully his own. For the sheep, discerning the voice of the shepherd is a matter of life and death: get it wrong, and you find yourself responding to the hired hand, or the thief, or the butcher. For us, too, discerning the voice of the shepherd is a matter of life and death: to hear and respond to his voice is to live into the abundant life he promises. To ignore it shuts us off from the life and love for which we are made. ‘My sheep hear my voice’, says Jesus. ‘I know them, and they follow me’. The sheep follow because they are known; because the shepherd is trustworthy. For even when we get it wrong: when we listen to the wrong voices, or fail to discern the voice of the shepherd, he will come and find us and call us home. For nothing can snatch us out of his hands.
God of peace, you raised from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ,
the great shepherd of the sheep by the blood of the eternal covenant.
Help us to know him as our Lord,
to listen to his voice,
and to follow him wherever he leads;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
– A prayer from the Oratory Devotional