The past few years have been very busy for Pope Benedict XVI. In addition to all of his travels, meetings with bishops, and pastoral duties as the bishop of Rome, he has had to deal with a number of challenging crises: sex-abuse scandals in Europe and elsewhere, persecution against Christians in the Middle East, and the AIDS epidemic in Africa, to name just a few. In a recent interview, the pope admitted that all of this is a consuming, exhausting job that demands long hours and intense concentration.
Still, in the midst of all this work, Benedict found the time to write a two-hundred-page apostolic exhortation entitled Verbum Domini (VD), or The Word of the Lord. This document is a detailed summary of the Synod of Bishops that took place two years earlier, and it contains many of the bishops’ recommendations for how to encourage Catholics to hear God’s word more clearly.
Considering all his other duties, we might ask why Benedict would devote so much time to writing this document. He could have produced a shorter, more general one and then moved on with more pressing work. But he didn’t. He took his time because he knew how important the topic is. Benedict didn’t want to just tell us to read our Bibles every day and try to be good Christians. He wanted to teach us and encourage us. He wanted to tell us how deeply God wants to be involved in our lives. He wanted to urge us to open our hearts to God’s word so that we could meet Jesus and be transformed.
Benedict knows that simply reading the Bible every day is just the beginning, because reading can be a one-sided act. And as good as it can be for us to read and learn from the Bible, Benedict wants to tell us that “God becomes known through the dialogue which he desires to have with us” (VD, 6). For Benedict, the important thing is that we enter into a conversation with God, not just pick up information. In fact, he tells us that God speaks to us in many different ways, not just in Scripture. God uses a “symphony of many voices” to speak his words to us (VD, 7). So let’s take a look at some of these voices so that we can become more alert to them.
A Symphony of Voices. The first “voice” that God uses is creation itself. Everything came into existence as a result of God’s word, and that means that everything in creation has the potential to speak his word anew: light and darkness, sea and sky, plants and animals (Genesis 1:3-25). God even made man and woman by speaking them into being. God has also spoken through supernatural occurrences, like the burning bush that Moses saw and the angel who spoke to Joshua. He issued the Ten Commandments in the thunder and lightning of Mount Sinai, and he directed the prophet Elijah through a still, small voice on Mount Horeb.
God also spoke through the human voices of the prophets, using ordinary men and women to proclaim divine words. Through these prophets, he spoke to ordinary men and women as well, not just heroic leaders like Moses and Joshua. Through the prophets, he showed us that everyone could hear his words and be changed by his promises.
Still another “voice” in the symphony is the unfolding of history (VD, 7). Through Israel’s highs and lows, its days of empire and exile, God showed that he would never abandon his people. He used the events around them to speak to them, to tell them about his love, his mercy, his justice, and his kindness. All they had to do was learn how to read the signs of their times.
There is no end to this symphony. God also speaks through the voice of our consciences. He spoke through the apostles’ preaching. He speaks still through Scripture and the church. He even uses our relationships to show us his love and compassion!
Finally, as a way of bringing all these voices together, God spoke through Jesus, the living and eternal Word. And in Christ, something new has come. As Benedict tells us: “Now the word is not simply audible; not only does it have a voice, now the word has a face, one which we can see” (VD, 12). We don’t just hear God’s word, and we don’t just sense it. Now we can see it! Every miracle Jesus performed, every sinner he forgave, every sermon he preached, every parable he told—each of these was a message from the Father, revealing his love for us. The entire thirty-three years that Jesus walked the earth were one vast, living love letter from our heavenly Father.
So Many Invitations. This description of God’s various voices can seem like little more than a historical overview, something that is interesting to think about but not very practical. But Benedict didn’t just want to give us a history lesson. He wanted to stir up in us a desire to hear God’s word in new, fresh, and ever deepening ways.
So how can we become open to the “symphony” that is going on all around us? First, we can listen to the word of creation. St. Francis of Assisi saw how “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” revealed God’s majesty, grandeur, and mystery. In the Scriptures, we see God confronting Job with a catalogue of nature’s wonders as a way to show how powerful and faithful he is. St. Ignatius of Loyola spent hours gazing into the starry night, contemplating God’s vastness and marveling that this vast God became a helpless baby.
Step outside and look up at the sky. Feel the wind against your face. Listen to the singing of the birds. Look at the beauty of the flowers and the sturdiness of the trees. Let the liber naturae, the “book of nature,” show you that the God who made the universe is your Father (VD, 7). Let it show you how creative God is. Let it tell you that God can bring good and beautiful things out of any situation.
Think too about how God used the human voices of the prophets to speak words of comfort and confrontation, hope and direction to his people. Then keep your own ears open. Is someone you know—a loved one, a co-worker, a neighbor, or even a stranger—delivering God’s message to you? Was there something in last Sunday’s homily that stuck with you? Did some word or idea jump out at you? Don’t discount it! It may well have been a message for you from the Lord.
History too can speak volumes, and not just world history. Look back over your personal history. Think about the most important moments in your life, and try to see God’s hand in them. What about times when you felt especially close to the Lord? They weren’t meant just to help you at that moment. They were also ways that God was teaching you about himself, slowly opening your eyes to his presence. What has he been saying? What has he been doing?
In all of these ways and more, God is calling out to you: “Open your ears! Open your eyes! Open your heart!” He wants to speak to you. Even more, he wants to speak with you. Every one of these “voices” is an invitation. He is pouring out his heart to you so that you will feel free to pour out your heart to him.
The Final Word. Our Catechism teaches us: “Christ, the Son of God made man, is the Father’s one, perfect, and unsurpassable Word. In him he has said everything; there will be no other word than this one” (CCC, 65).
This is one of God’s greatest mysteries—and one of his greatest acts of grace. Yes, he has said all he needs to say in Christ. There will be no more new revelation. But at the same time, God is still speaking to us. He isn’t just waiting for us to accept the word he has already spoken. No, his voice is still going out through creation, through Scripture, and through the church. Day after day, year after year, he is constantly pointing us to Jesus. He is forever giving us messages of encouragement, love, correction, and guidance so that we will come to his Son and let him change our hearts.
As he brought his apostolic exhortation to a close, Pope Benedict XVI had this to say: “The Word goes forth from the Father, comes to dwell in our midst and then returns to the Father in order to bring with him the whole of creation” (VD, 121). This has been God’s plan all along. He is forever inviting us to come to him. All we need to do is learn how to hear his word in our hearts.