How do I know God is speaking to me? It’s not easy to tell, and it’s hard to explain to others when it happens. I suppose that’s the question at the heart of spiritual direction and praying the Examen. I recently read something in a memoir that helped me understand something about hearing God.
The book is Lit by Mary Karr. The title has two meanings: “Lit” for literature (Karr is a poet and professor) and “Lit” for drunken stupor. Karr is an alcoholic, and the book is about her descent into misery and her recovery of sobriety. The heart of the story is her spiritual awakening. Karr was an atheist. To get sober she had to find God. (She eventually became a Catholic and made the Spiritual Exercises.)
A pivotal moment comes one night in a psych ward where Karr is confined after hatching a plan to kill herself. This is the bottom, and she decides to talk to the God whom she barely believes in. She goes into a stall in the bathroom, locks the door, and rages at God for all the terrible things that have happened to her and her family. Then something happens:
I feel something stir in me, a small wisp of something in my chest, frail as smoke. It is–strangely–the sweetness of my love for my daddy and my son. It blesses me an instant like incense.
My eyes sting, and I blurt out, Thanks for them.
I feel the stillness around me widen a notch.
Thanks that my son is sleeping safe at home without fever or coughing; and my husband, who may yet take me back.
The boundaries of my skin grow think and I kneel there squinting my eyes shut. For a nanosecond, I am lucent.
Inside it: an idea, the thread of a different perspective than any I’ve ever had. It’s a thought so counterintuitive, so unlike how I think, it feels as if it originates from outside me.
The thought has to do with how God has cared for her even as she drank. It’s the quality of the thought that allows her to see that it’s from God. It’s different. Karr comments: “Vis-a-vis God speaking to me, I don’t mean the voice of Charlton Heston playing Moses booming from on high, but reversals of attitude so contrary to my typical thought–so solidly true–as to seem divinely external. And quiet those thoughts are, strong and quiet.”
Since I read this I’ve been on the lookout for strong quiet thoughts that are different from the way I usually think. I’ve found a few.