For the 9:30 am crowd at St. Paul’s in Cambridge on Good Shepherd Sunday and the World Day of Prayer for Vocations:
All of Jesus’ words reveal him to be a keen observer of the natural world: we hear much in the Gospels about the growth of plants, the relative dimensions of camels and needles, the location of schools of fish, and—in today’s case—the behavior patterns of sheep. Jesus draws our attention to one behavior in particular: after the “[shepherd of the sheep] has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice.”
“They recognize his voice.” Jesus seems to have noticed, two thousand years ago, what animal behaviorists would nowadays call “imprinting.” Perhaps the most familiar case of imprinting involves ducks rather than sheep. As soon as a duckling hatches, it looks for its mother, whom it identifies instinctively and follows unswervingly. For the sake of survival, a duckling must be able to pick its mother out of a line-up of other ducks. Hence, it is essential that ducklings spend the first hours of life in the company of their mother. Otherwise, they attach themselves to pretty much anything that moves—a dog, a rubber ball or, in the worst case, a predator. The ducklings follow whatever figure is first “imprinted” on their brains.
Returning to the example of the Gospel, we might say that Jesus’ identification of Himself as Good Shepherd suggests that becoming a sheep of his flock, becoming his disciple, is something like becoming “imprinted” with his person. We, like the proverbial sheep, are born with a survival instinct, a drive to attach ourselves to someone to who can lead us to a more abundant life. So many voices claim to lead us there. Yet, Jesus warns us sternly: every voice except one belongs to a “thief and a robber,” to one who seeks only to “steal, slaughter and destroy.” Hence, it is of the utmost importance that the voice and the figure of the Good Shepherd be deeply “imprinted” on our soul—that we be able to discern his figure in the crowd, that we become as responsive to his guiding voice as we are to our own names.
How do we come to have this imprinted knowledge of Christ, this gut-level recognition? Much as we come to have the imprinted knowledge any person. Everyone knows what it’s like to keep close company with someone—with a mother or father, a husband or wife, a best friend. After a while, one comes recognize that person’s footfall, to “know” that person’s voice, to be “imprinted” with his cadence, intonation, and manner. Through the voice one gets to know the whole person: “I can finish his sentences … “; “That sounds like something she would say …”
Something similar happens when we receive the sacraments and meditate on the Gospels. Through the sacraments we are “imprinted” with Christ at a level deeper than words and thoughts. His life becomes the grain and texture of our souls. Through the Gospels we hear Jesus’ own voice. What makes him angry. What fills him with joy. How he challenges and threatens. How he consoles and forgives. The upshot is that we come to be “imprinted” with the sound of his voice, its rhythm and its tone. Amid all the conflicting advice, all the competing voices presented to us, the sacraments and the Gospels allow us to pick out Christ’s: “That sounds like something He would say …” It rings true.
Exactly the opposite goes for those voices the other voices. Christ himself says that his sheep “do not follow … the voice of strangers.” These voices ring hollow. They go against the grain of a Christian soul. I would suggest, in fact, that we can use our reaction to certain popular voices to gauge how deeply we’ve been “imprinted” with Christ. Do I feel just a little bit empty after watching a film shot through with Hollywood values? Do I cringe just a bit when a magazine at the supermarket check-out line promises me celebrity gossip and greater sex appeal? Do commercials advertising eternal youth and get-rich-quick schemes rub me the wrong way? To the extent that they don’t, we probably stand in need of a deeper imprinting of Christ and His voice.
Noticing this pattern of spiritual attraction and aversion, incidentally, is the foundation of spiritual discernment. And since today is also World Day of Prayer for Vocations, it’s worth pointing out that this is especially how priestly and religious vocations in the Church surface. The same holds, of course, for any more radical following of Christ. We must first become “imprinted” with Christ by praying with him and receiving his sacraments. Our soul begins to develop a texture accordingly. And when life’s decisions come up, some seem to go with the grain of our soul, others against it. We pass our hand in one direction, and we’re left with spiritual splinters. We pass our hand in the other direction, and it glides smoothly.
This “smoothness” of the encounter doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take courage to follow Christ’s voice. Jesus admits that he must still “drive out (ekballein) all his own”—even those sheep that belong to his flock. It might feel like we’re being treated roughly—especially at first. What “smoothness” means is that we can sense greater joy on the far side of that greater sacrifice. Christ is the Good Shepherd, not because his voice is easy to follow, but because he calls only so “that [we may] have life and have it more abundantly.”