“. . .anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate, but gets in some other way is a thief and a brigand. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd. . . .he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice. They never follow a stranger but run away from him: they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”
John explains in the words of Jesus himself, that Jesus is the chosen shepherd and that his followers “know” him and intuitively “know” the thief and reject those that would lead the flock astray.
And we, believers that we are, somehow understand this.
Yet, we also recognize that this is not universally true. We may believe that as individuals, we each “know”, but of course we know that this cannot be actually true.
For almost all of us has had occasion to debate or discuss some element of Christianity and come into serious disagreement. And what is the result? Someone hauls forth the Good Book, and shuffles through its pages and comes off with a verse that warns of “false prophets” or “false teachers.”
Suddenly one person is looking smugly at the other, figuring that they have trumped the other. “Aha, but you are a false teacher!” they exclaim. And the other, if smart and on their toes, would laugh and say, “why thanks friend, that’s the exact passage I was about to quote to you!”
If you are a progressive liberal Christian as I am, then this has happened quite a lot, along with equally smug refrains of “I’ll pray for you.”
Each of us no doubt is firmly convinced that we “know his voice” and we are equally sure that we “would not recognize the voice of strangers.”
Somebody has got to be wrong.
I turn then to the other perennial “knowing” time. The debate between believer and unbeliever. I know this terrain well, from both sides. I was once the smug one who said to my believing friends, “prove to me that God exists and I’ll be most happy to worship Him.” And they, in their strange fundamentalist circularity, would haul out the Good Book and locate verses that “proved God existed.”
Faced with atheists who taunt believers with “prove your God,” I of course know that resort to Holy Script is no answer. Yet, I cannot give the proof requested. For the only proof that non-believers accept is that akin to the scientific method, logical reasoning using deduction, induction and syllogistic rationals. And of course, much as Aquinas and others think they do this, they do not.
Faith is faith after all. It is that which is believed though not seen. Stick in any of the general senses we use to navigate this material world, and the answer is the same. Believed but not heard, not felt, not smelled, not tasted.
Yet, we know.
Some of us actually do know, and in the words of Thomas Merton:
And here all adjectives fall to pieces. Words become stupid. Everything you say is misleading–unless you list every possible experience and say: “This is not what it is.” “That is not what I am talking about.”
Most of us acknowledge that we don’t know know. We believe. Yet this belief is so strong that we are more than willing, even happy and joyous to spend significant time each day reaching out to touch the ineffable yet real presence of God.
We sense in a way not explicable, yet real, that deep within us resides the real “I” that is forever and perfectly connected to its source.
We therefore know that Jesus’ words to us are true, yet we know to that we are vulnerable to mistake. We can never let down our guard and relax in some security that our baptism is “enough” to protect us from the false teacher.
Only by constant vigilance, only by constant seeking in the depths of our being, are we assured that God’s true voice rings clearly enough to let us know we are striving aright–following the true shepherd.
And this effort is not effort at all, it is not frenetic nor frightening, not anxiety provoking. It is our labor of love, it is our goal. We seek that precious knowing not to alleviate suffering or the pain of not knowing, but because that knowing is the truest most authentic living of all. It is what God desires for all his creation.
**John: 10:1-10 Thomas Merton, from “Seeds” excerpted from “New Seeds of Contemplation”
- Fourth Sunday of Easter (prepareformass.wordpress.com)