Sometimes it's not the sunrise: Listening to the still, small dog
Recently, I was reminded of the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19) in which the Lord was not found in the wind, the earthquake or the fire, but in the still small, voice that asked, "Why are you here?" Rather than wind, earthquake and fire, though, my reminder came in the form of a sunrise, a camera and a dog.
I am what you might call a sunrise fanatic. I find great joy in watching a sunrise develop, breaking through the darkness and sending its colors across the horizon before fingers of light stretch out and seemingly lift the ball of brightness into the sky. Regardless of where I have lived, including my current urban residence, I have had the great fortune to experience the awesomeness of the sunrise most days.
Speaking of my current urban residence, we recently had to install a motion-sensitive camera at our front door. A series of attempted package thefts followed by a successful mailbox break-in have impelled us to pay more attention to what is going on outside. Now, any movement there — such as a person or car coming toward the house — is picked up by the camera, which records the movement and sends alerts to our cellphones and computers.
The camera works well and has made us feel safer. However, its one puzzling flaw seemed to be that each morning just before sunrise, it alerted us to movement that did not seem to exist. After studying several days of video feed to uncover the culprit of these false alarms, we determined that it was the sunrise. That is, when the sun began to rise over the back of our house, the camera sensed the shadow movement at the front of the house and released an alert.
We were further convinced of the truth of our conclusion by the fact that when the weather was bad and the sunrise wasn't readily detectible by the camera, we received no alerts.
Having a camera record the exact instant when the sun makes itself known in the front of the house feeds the sunrise fanatic in me. Not only do I get to watch the sun rising in the back of the house, I get to view a recording of what it looks like at the front of the house at that same instant! Could watching the sunrise get any better than that?
The cause of my excitement seemed logical and scientific, until recently when we zoomed in closely on the video footage and saw at the bottom of the screen the barely discernible movement that was really setting off the motion detector — our neighbor's dog.
It seems that our neighbor lets her dog out at a fairly predictable time each morning, very close to the time the sun rises, except during bad weather. This small, old dog is hardly noticeable in her yard (unless she barks). She does not move far or fast, but she moves just enough to be detected by our camera.
So, it's the dog, not the sunrise!
And isn't that frequently the case when we attempt to understand the movement of the Spirit in our lives? Sometimes, we are so caught up in seeking God's call in the magnificence of the sunrise that we fail to discern it in the still, small dog. At such times, we are in need of renewal — that is, we need to take the time to rewind the video, play it again (even several times), and zoom in on the motion as closely as possible in order to discern the call.
The tradition in our religious community is to observe a retreat day on the first Sunday of each month and to make an annual weeklong retreat. These provide excellent opportunities for such renewing and rewinding. "Replaying a video" of my day in the daily practice of consciousness examen is also an important way to become aware of God's action in my life.
Additionally, once we have taken the time to examine the video feed individually, we sometimes need to share our questions and concerns with others who might help us to see things differently. Having spiritual mentors or close friends who will do this with us is essential to spiritual growth.
I would still be convinced that the sunrise was responsible for the camera's motion alert had it not been for the persistence of the two other members of my community. Together, we delved more deeply into what I thought I saw, in order to see what was really there.
I depend on them to do this in other ways, too. They know that I am sometimes prone to judge a situation too quickly, so they can get me to see another possibility. When I'm misinterpreting something I think I have seen or heard, they are free to ask, "Are you telling yourself a story?" When I'm about to act on something that requires a bit more thought, they can say, "Are you sure you want to do that now?"
There is still a part of me that — regardless of the evidence — wants to find answers in the sunrise, as I'm not that fond of dogs. Sometimes, no matter what I discover while reflecting on the movement within, I want to convince myself that God is calling me toward something I prefer and enjoy rather than toward something that will take time, effort and energy to accept and do.
This is the hard work of obedience — literally ob (through) audiere (listen). When I "listen through" the sunrise (or the wind, earthquake or fire) to get to the still, small voice that asks, "Why are you here?", I must remember that resistance to a call is normal. After all, Elijah's "still, small voice" experience occurred after he prayed for God to take his life.
At times like these, the founder of our community, Pauline von Mallinckrodt (1817-81), would say that we should pray for God to "lead us by the hand through all circumstances of life" and "consider, in God's holy presence, what would be best — but very calmly."
Ultimately, I must remember that the voice of God can be found in the sunrise, in the dog, or somewhere in between. I must be open to "hearing through" the distractions in order to hear God's call, and to discern, accept and act on my obedient response. Otherwise, my life becomes a series of false alarms.
[Ann Marie Paul is a Sister of Christian Charity from Passaic, New Jersey. She is director of the Passaic Neighborhood Center for Women, a collaborative ministry of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, and its religious communities.]