Several weeks ago I received some of the happiest news of my life: a publishing company contacted me and informed me of their interest in publishing a series of reflections I sent them three months earlier. I was so shocked, I said, somewhat embarrassingly to the editor on the phone, “Are you serious…, really publish it…as a book?’
Laughing, he said, “Yes I am serious, a real book. We really like what you sent us.”
He began to speak about some of the details of publishing, mentioning words like contracts, royalties, and deadlines. As soon as he began speaking, I was swept away by a euphoric feeling of joy and gratitude. “Maybe I wasn’t wasting my time writing these reflections,” I said to myself. “I can’t believe this is happening. Thank you Lord.”
“There is only one problem,” he said.
Immediately, my daydream came to a screeching halt.
“Your manuscript is currently at 20,00 words. We need it to be at 35,000-40,000 words before we can publish it. So, keep writing. We will set a deadline for six months.”
There was a long pause.
“Father,” he said, “are you there?
“Yes,” I said, hesitantly and feeling like I was just punched in the stomach, “I am here.”
“Good. Now, another editor will email you the contract in a few days. Please read through it and sign it so we can begin the process. In the meantime, keep writing. I look forward to seeing how this project progresses.”
“Um, thank you. Me too.”
I hung up the phone and began to experience a dramatic shift in my emotions. My joy and gratitude quickly turned into anxiety and fear.
“How am I going to write 20,000 words in six months?” I said to myself. “I am a priest with other responsibilities. I have homilies and retreats to prepare, spiritual direction appointments to attend to, responsibilities from my own religious community to fulfill, etc. I am not a full-time writer. I can’t do this. Why did I ever start writing this book in the first place? I should have known that I don’t have time for this.”
Whenever I am given a task, regardless of its nature, there is a subtle voice that whispers inside of me, “You can’t do this.” This voice has followed me for as long as I can remember. After my “reversion” to Catholicism at age 18, a voice kept whispering to me, “You are going to lose all of your friends. Everybody is going to laugh at you when they see you praying and going to church. You will never be able to withstand it. You care too much what people think.” When I was discerning joining the Franciscans a voice kept telling me, “You can’t live in New York City. You’re from the country. It will be too much for you.” A few years ago, when I began to spend extended periods of time in hermitage, a voice kept saying, “Who do you think you are spending all this time in solitude? Look how weak and insecure you are, you will go crazy. You can’t do it.”
St. Ignatius of Loyola believes that each person must contend with three voices in their life: the voice of God, the voice of the devil and the voice of one’s own humanity/psychology. Each voice, like each person, has a distinctive character to it. The voice of God, generally, is uplifting, encouraging, and loving, lifting one’s heart and mind to higher things, while the voice of the devil is filled with discouragement, negativity and sadness, leaving a soul entirely earthbound in its pursuits, pleasures and vision. The voice of one’s own humanity is not always so clear. Perhaps it can be a mixture of both, depending on one’s own history and life decisions. Regardless of which voice is speaking, St. Paul’s reminder to the Ephesians is an appropriate one: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12). Hence, reality contains many other powers or forces that are always present, even though we don’t often perceive them.
The real question is not, how will I finish this book, but which voices will I listen to? I will finish this book the way I have accomplished everything in my life: with God’s grace. If God wills something for us, his grace is never lacking. Every time the voice of discouragement has appeared in my life it has always proven to be false. I returned to the Church despite what my friends thought. I spent many wonderful years living in New York City as a Franciscan, and despite my weaknesses and insecurity I have spent a significant amount of time in hermitage alone with God, and remain (at least somewhat!) mentally stable.
What God asks of us at times can seem impossible. How can I forgive that person who hurt me? How can I face life with this disease, embarrassment, or failure that is always before me? Instead of feeling strong and confident before God’s will we often feel inadequate and incompetent. Abraham asks God, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?” (Genesis 17:17) The prophet Amos, hoping to escape his vocation laments, “I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores” (Amos 7:14). Zechariah asks the angel Gabriel, “How am I to know this? I am an old man; my wife too is advanced in age?” (Luke 1:18) In all of these examples, however, these instances are not the last chapter.
This voice that has been telling me “You can’t do this,” cannot be the voice of God. Whether it is the voice of the devil, or my own humanity, or a mixture of both, the conclusion is evident: I must refuse to listen to that voice and persevere in this writing, while relying completely on God’s grace for inspiration and strength.
The same is true for each one of us. Wherever God’s will has us at this moment, we move forward not by asking why or how, but by sifting through the voices until we arrive at the voice of our Father, who loves us, encourages us and strengthens us for the journey ahead. “I am sure of this much: that he who has begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion, right up to the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR