Learning to Read God’s Signs

Although our Lord condemns as “wicked and adulterous” the people or generation that seeks a sign (see Mt 12:38-39), there may be a part of us that from time to time would appreciate a sign from God. The need usually arises in times of crisis. Where should I turn? I seem to need a bolt from the blue to enlighten me. We might not consider ourselves evil or unfaithful for wishing so, even for praying so. We may not think it’s particularly out of line for short-sighted and fallible people like ourselves to desire clarity and assurance in following and serving the Lord.

But is this really what Jesus condemns?

In his sermon “The Gospel Sign Addressed to Faith”[1] Newman likewise warns against seeking “for signs and wonders,” asking for “sensible inward tokens of God’s favour,” indulging “enthusiasm,” or becoming “slaves of superstition.” But Newman winds up his warnings with the all-important truth behind them: We are, he reminds us, “children of God by faith.” That is significant. It’s not enough that we walk by faith, but that children do the walking.

What difference does it make? The gospel child, the one whom Jesus literally sets before the Apostles and us as the model of the Christian spirit (see Mt 18:1-4), is one not only free from adult complexity, but also from the wariness of age. The cautiousness that develops as we grow older toward certain people and situations too often carries over into our relationship with the Lord.

The world gives us good reason to be on guard and ‘clever as serpents,’ yet caution’s counterpart of dovelike innocence too easily gets swallowed up by a fear of being taken advantage of. Always on the defense, we close ourselves to the unexpected, unplanned-for workings of God. From inside that hard shell, signs are inevitably regarded as the only ticket out. Newman even prays against this hardening in a beautifully heartfelt way:

O may I never lose, as years pass away, and the heart shuts up, and all things are a burden, let me never lose this youthful, eager, elastic love of Thee.[2]

Realistic and sincere, his prayer captures the psychological tendency to ‘shutdown’ in the wake of hurt or disappointment—especially as time and experiences accumulate.  Faith asks that we take a step back from the difficulties and tragedies of our lives and learn to read the messages written into them by the finger of God. “God may manifest Himself to us,” Newman explains, “yet we not realize that He does so,” but He does so “to the increase of our comfort.” This comfort or consolation is what we most sorely need in our crisis moments.

Entering with calm and trust into a prayerful dialogue with the Lord deepens our faith perspective in a way described penetratingly by Newman. “Let no one think it strange to say,” he says,

that God may be holding communion with us without our knowing it. Do not all good thoughts come from Him? Yet are we sensible that they so come? Can we tell how they come? We commonly speak of being influenced by God’s grace, and resisting His grace; this implies a certain awful intercourse between the soul and God; yet who will say that he himself can tell in particular instances when God moves him, and when he is responding this way or that? It is one thing, then, to receive impressions, another to reflect upon them and to be conscious of them.

Ours is a generation programmed to skim the shorthand of texts and tweets, not to read the handwriting left by the finger of God. Our dependence on wireless devices to direct our travel, dictate our desires, and record our tastes, dominates our affective and imaginative life. It’s no wonder that people struggle to get beneath the surface of life, to contemplate and interpret life events, and why they might look for signs the way we expect an emailed alert about an area of interest.

Children of God cannot live this way—depending too much on what is seen, heard, and easily understood. It is telling that Jesus responded to those who sought a proof-positive sign with the promise of a message written in invisible ink. He pledges no sign except that of Jonah—a hidden passage from death to life, to be witnessed only by those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It would be, as Newman says,

a great sign parallel to those wrought by the old prophets; yet instead of being public as theirs was, it was in the event, like Jonah’s, a secret sign. Few saw it; it was to be received by all, but on faith; it was addressed to the humble and lowly.

And this type of sign fits the Gospel pattern, as Newman further notes:

The Annunciation was secret; the Nativity was secret; the miraculous Fasting in the wilderness was secret; the Resurrection secret; the Ascension not far from secret; the abiding Presence secret.

The hiddenness of everything is God’s way of redirecting our attention inward, not of confusing us. It is inside more than anywhere else that faith provides what sign-seeking really amounts to: our need for the closeness of Jesus. Faith gives us a mysterious but sure sense of His nearness—a nearness described only awkwardly by human words, but known deepest by the ‘humble and lowly.’ Doctors of the Church such as St Thomas Aquinas and St John of the Cross call it an ‘experiential knowledge’ of God that runs too deep for words.

Newman voices as poignantly as human language can the soul’s often confused needs and the sure remedy that the presence of Jesus brings:

Remain, O Light of my soul! The gloom, which is not Thine, falls over me. I am nothing. I have little command of myself. I cannot do what I would. I am disconsolate and sad. I want something, I know not what. It is Thou that I want, though I so little understand this. I say it and take it on faith; I partially understand it, but very poorly. Shine on me, O fire ever burning and never failing, and I shall begin, through and in Thy Light, to see Light, and to recognize Thee truly, as the Source of Light.  Stay, sweet Jesus, stay for ever. In this decay of nature, give more grace.[3]

Faith generates in us this uncomfortable, restless longing for God—and He wants us to want Him in this way. Only by desiring the Lord like hungry, thirsty, and blind people can we learn to receive Him as food and drink, light and life. I can learn to read in my restless yearning for signs the sign of God’s desire for me.

 

 

[1] “The Gospel Sign Addressed to Faith.” Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. VI, no. 9. All quotations, unless otherwise noted, come from this sermon.

[2] Meditations and Devotions: XV. The Holy Sacrifice: The Food of the Soul, pp. 411-412.

[3] Meditations and Devotions: VII. God with us: (3) Jesus the Light of the Soul, pp. 364-366.

 

1 Comment
  • Fr. Juan Velez Posted September 18, 2017 9:34 am

    Here we are encouraged to ask God what he wishes for us, and to be patient. We wish immediate answers, but he speaks to us when and how he knows is best. With Newman we can pray: Shine on me, O fire ever burning and never failing, and I shall begin, through and in Thy Light, to see Light, and to recognize Thee truly, as the Source of Light.

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