The Good Shepherd as the Voice That Soothes

Posted: April 29, 2020 in Uncategorized

John 10: 1-10

The Good Shepherd as the Voice That Soothes

Call it the desire for life or the impulse of creation, or perhaps the human spirit, inside each of us there appears to be a deep, congenital restlessness. It is as if we are less about being restful beings who sometimes get restless, and more about being restless beings who occasionally experience rest. Karl Rahner, might have had it right when he said that we do not have souls that get restless, but that our souls themselves are lonely caverns thirsting for the infinite, deep wells of restlessness that make us ache to sleep with the whole world and all that is beyond. I don’t want to get into whether or not we have souls here but just to accept that there is something about the human condition that suggests we do. John O’Donohue suggests that we do and that it is perhaps a place where life begins.

The soul… is the place where the imagination lives.
The imagination is the creative forces in the individual.

It always negotiates different thresholds and
releases possibilities of recognition and creativity
which the linear, controlling, external mind will never even glimpse.

The imagination works on the threshold that runs between
light and dark,
visible and invisible,
quest and question,
possibility and fact.

The imagination is the great friend of possibility.
Where the imagination is awake and alive
fact never hardens or closes but remains open,
inviting you to new thresholds of possibility and creativity.

John O’Donohue.

Because of this inner restlessness we can find it difficult to concentrate during the day and to sleep at night. We go through life feeling like we are missing out on something, that life is more exciting and fulfilling for others than it is for us. Our achievements rarely satisfy us because we are always aware of what we haven’t achieved, of missed chances and failed possibilities. Always too, it seems that we are inadequate to the task, that we disappoint those we love.

Ultimately, we reach a point in life when there is an ache and a sadness inside us that no one can still and comfort. For many of us the negative is the first thing we see. It is so obvious it is part of the DNA so to speak. While this is not so for all it does seem pervasive in society. We are always a bit dissatisfied. As Henri Nouwen puts it, in this life it seems that there is no such a thing as a clear-cut, pure joy, but that even our happiest moments come with a shadow, a fear, a jealousy, a restlessness. Inside us, no matter what our age, we are always somewhat lost and full of a sadness that we don’t quite know what to do with. Henry David Thoreau the American essayist, poet, and philosopher. was right, it seems. We do live lives of quiet desperation. What are we meant to do with that?

An analogy might help us here: we might be able to learn something valuable, by comparing these feelings to what a baby feels, at a certain moment, in the presence of a baby-sitter in the absence of its mother. As many a frustrated baby-sitter has learned, there can come a moment, usually later in the evening, when the baby grows tired of being titillated by flashy toys, extra sweets, and the continued cooing of the baby-sitter. The baby becomes irritated, cranky, weepy, and finally disconsolate. At this point nothing will soothe its aches, except the voice and the touch of the mother herself. The baby needs to hear the mother’s voice and the mother’s voice alone. No attempt by the baby-sitter to replace the mother or even to imitate the mother are of much avail. The baby will not be fooled, there comes a moment when only the mother can soothe and comfort. The baby’s disquiet will disappear only when she again hears the mother lovingly call her name.

It’s no different for us really, as adults, when trying to come to grips with our congenital restlessness. We can distract ourselves for a while, be titillated by flashy toys, be soothed and lulled by sympathetic voices, and momentarily even be content in the absence of our real mother. We have done this in these last few weeks as we have filled our isolation and social distancing with on line activities, music playing and emails and texts. But there will come a time, usually a little later on in the proceedings when we are a bit more tired and cranky, when these things will soothe no more. We will begin to miss, in the very depths of our souls, the one voice and one presence that can ultimately bring us rest. We may have even noticed this in our shutdown situation. Our patience is shorter, our willingness to engage in conversation is either stilted or we are less tolerant of differences, more ready to put our point of view. Rumi, the Sufi Mystic calls this “Divine Dancing”
and suggests it is a place where we feel out of sync perhaps with the divine dance of life.

When you dance
the whole universe dances.

The world dances around the Sun.
The morning light breaks,
Spinning up with delight.

How could anyone
Touched by your love
Not dance like a weeping willow?

Today I spin wildly
throughout the city;
I am the cup-bearer,
My head is the cup.
Perhaps a scholar will see me
and drop his books.
Perhaps the world will see me
and forget all its sorrows.

Father Ron Rolheiser the Catholic Author of many books suggests that “Of course, the one voice that can soothe, the one voice that we search for among all the others, is the voice of God, as the primordial Mother. Ultimately, he says; we reach a point in life when there is an ache and a sadness inside us that no one can still and comfort, other than the one who ultimately brought us to birth. Like the baby frustrated with its baby-sitter, we too need to hear our mother lovingly pronounce our names.

Here we have the Emmaus road event, the Resurrection event, the Conversion event so to speak as the moment of awareness. It was always there awaiting conscious expression, a soul in its unveiling perhaps. Or as the writer of John puts it ‘The good shepherd opens the gate and calls, and we respond.

The Gospel of John also opens very differently than the other Gospels. There are no infancy narratives. Right at the beginning we already meet the adult Jesus or the Messiah (Christ in Greek) and the first words he speaks are a question: “What are you searching for?” John’s whole Gospel then tries to answer that, but the full answer is given only at the very end, by Jesus himself.

What are we ultimately searching for? Why the restlessness? What’s its purpose?

A Shepherd playing with the sheep.

The shepherd is so constantly with his sheep that sometimes his life with them becomes monotonous. Therefore, he will occasionally play with them. He does this by pretending to run away from his sheep, and they will soon overtake him, and completely surround him, gamboling with great delight.

On the morning of the resurrection, Mary Magdala meets the newly-risen Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him. He approaches her and asks (in words that repeat his question at the opening of the Gospel): “What are you searching for?” She explains that she is searching for the body, the dead body, of Jesus. He says just one word to her in response: “Mary.” He calls her by name and, in that, she not only recognizes him, but she hears precisely what a disconsolate baby cannot hear in the voice of her baby-sitter, the voice of the mother, lovingly pronouncing her name.

In Jesus’ response to Mary Magdala, we learn the answer to one of life’s most fundamental questions: what do we ache for? Why the restlessness? Yes; it is crucial for human living but what is it that we want? Ultimately, it seems all our aching is for one thing, to hear what we name as God call us by name, for this Good Shepherd thing to break through the sea of negativity, and restlessness and to find it as lovingly empowering and individually valuing. There comes a moment in the night for each of us when nothing will console us other than this, hearing our names pronounced by the mouth of God so to speak.


  1. David Kelly says:

    Thank you!

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