The voice startled me. I was driving down a busy street in Atlanta on my way to the grocery store, when a little voice told me to visit the ornate church on the hill. I had attended a festival at the church, St. John Chrysostom Melkite Church, many years ago. I knew the congregation was Catholic, but that was all I knew.
I struggled against the impulse. “It’s a weekday,” I told myself; “no one will be there.”
But then I recalled a passage from The Inner Voice of Love by Henri J. M. Nouwen. “You have to trust the inner voice that shows the way,” he wrote. “Only by attending constantly to the inner voice can you be converted to a new life of freedom and joy.”
Deciding to heed his advice, I pulled off the road and parked in the church lot. It was a stifling August morning. As I climbed from the car, I reflected glumly that this surely had been the worst summer of my life, and not just because of the heat. I was halfway through seven weeks of radiation therapy for cancer. It seemed that no matter what I was doing, I would feel suddenly overwhelmed with grief and shock over my illness.
I was also fretting over my inability to write. It had been weeks since I had produced anything that I didn’t immediately toss into the recycle bin on the computer. Usually my writing seemed to flow effortlessly from a deep secret well inside me. Usually writing was a form of prayer for me. As I sat at the computer, lulled by the clicking sounds of the keyboard, I poured out articles about my faith journey and felt a sense of closeness with God. But lately inspiration had been in short supply, and the computer seemed to be glaring accusingly at me. Since the word inspiration means “guidance by divine influence,” I concluded that I was in spiritual trouble.
“God has abandoned me,” I thought, as I plodded up the steps to the sanctuary.
The front door was locked, so I rang the bell at the side door. No answer.
“Give up and go home,” my rational mind advised. But another voice, the quieter one, whispered, “Try again.” So I did.
This time the door opened. A stocky, dark-haired man in Bermuda shorts and T-shirt greeted me.
“I’m looking for the priest,” I explained. He smiled widely and gestured toward himself. “I’m Father John,” he said.
Until that moment, I’d had no idea what I would say. The words that tumbled out of my mouth startled me. “I’d like to make an appointment for confession,” I said, “I’m going through some hard times.”
I explained that I was a parishioner at a nearby Catholic church, but had felt a strong impulse to stop in to see him. He nodded kindly and invited me into the sanctuary.
“I’ll be right back,” he said.
I figured he’d gone into his office to consult his calendar for a future date for us to meet. But just a few minutes later, I looked toward the front of the sanctuary and saw him standing there in full priestly garb. He gestured for me to join him in the front of the church.
As we stood side by side facing the tabernacle, he prayed aloud to the Holy Spirit to guide us. When it was my turn, I was startled by the storm of tears that shuddered through me. When I was able to speak again, I told him about the cancer diagnosis. I told him about my inability to write. I confessed that my faith was shaken. I felt abandoned by God.
Somehow the priest said everything I needed to hear. That I was God’s beloved daughter. That God would never desert me, and that he would walk with me, even in the darkest times. When I knelt down for absolution, the priest extended an arm gently around my shoulders. In that moment I sensed strongly that we were not alone. I had a very deep feeling that someone was listening when the priest asked God to bless me.
As I was leaving the church, I asked the priest to recommend a good book for me to read. He didn’t hesitate.
“Read the Gospel of John,” he said. “Read it very slowly and listen to what God is saying to you.”
I drove home and dug out my Bible. I sat at the dining room table and opened to the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
I realized my words had been coming from God all along. And as I ran to the computer to pour out what had just happened, I realized that even if my well had temporarily run dry, it would soon be overflowing. I trusted that God was still guiding me.
But now I had a better sense of where to find him. Not in dramatic bolts of lightning. Not in ferocious claps of thunder. Instead, I would find him in that little voice whispering within my heart.