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Hearing Voices

As she entered her second term of psychological studies at university, the now-renowned mental health researcher Eleanor Longden began hearing a voice. Initially, a single speaker would dispassionately narrate mundane things like her ordinary comings and goings.

The voice would say, “She is going to a lecture.”

Or, Longden would hear, “She is leaving the building.”

The voice was not threatening or especially intrusive. She got used to it and even began to find it oddly comforting. As a result of childhood trauma, Longden was an anxious, unhappy teen. The calm, matter-of-fact tone of the voice reminded her that she was getting life done pretty well even while contending with her inner struggles.

Eventually, she hypothesized that there was a connection between the voice and her emotions. Putting that hypothesis to work, she made some progress sorting through her issues. Excited by her discovery, she shared what was happening with a friend.

Certain that hearing voices could only indicate mental illness, her friend insisted that Longden seek medical treatment. That’s when things took a very bad turn.

On the basis of Longden’s voice-hearing, the psychiatrist read everything she said or did as an expression of mental illness. He discounted the voices as meaningless internal chatter to be ignored and, if possible, eradicated. They were merely symptoms of an underlying disorder.

Once Longden received this diagnosis, the psychiatric and academic universe discredited everything about her. Sadly, she not only discounted her voices and also came to doubt her own inherent worth.

After about a decade, she came under the care of a new clinician who led her to pursue a different approach to voice-hearing. It is true that hearing voices can be one of the symptoms of psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. For some, these voices can be violent and intrusive. Medical intervention is necessary and helpful in such cases.

But, as it turns out, many healthy people hear voices. There is a spectrum, a continuum between healthy and unhealthy. There is not a hard and fast line between sane and insane when it comes to voice-hearing. Longden now urges clients in the healthy part of the spectrum to interpret the truth conveyed by their voices.

In an interview with The Guardian, Longden explained, “For the first time, I had an opportunity to try and see my voices as meaningful…. I began to understand the voices … in a more compassionate way. Not as symptoms, rather as adaptations and survival strategies: sane reactions to insane circumstances.” (See her TED Talk here and read her interview here.)

It may seem odd to you, but Longden’s story—and her insights about voice-hearing—echoed in my mind as I read Jesus’ words to his friends. “The sheep follow [the shepherd] because they know his voice.” (John 10:4b) And I remembered what Karl Rahner predicted. If there are going to be any Christians in the future, they will be mystics. They will hear a voice.

Before his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus taught his friends that the Spirit of Truth would come. (John 16:13) That Spirit would dwell within them, guiding them sanely through what would at times seem like insane circumstances.

We are buffeted by many voices every day. Cable TV, social media, blogs, and printed media dump an undigestible amount of information on us from without. We wrestle with competing impulses, desires, anxieties, fears, and half-baked notions within.

Even if we don’t hear voices in a medically technical sense, we are voice-hearers.

The question confronting us is how to recognize the sane voice. The Spirit of Truth. The voice of the living Jesus spoken in our hearts, by a friend, from the depths of nature, and from the words of Scripture.

A few days of ago, Bishop Michael Curry—Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church—urged us to navigate this time of pandemic following a clear rubric. Episcopalians use The Book of Common Prayer to worship, and rubrics are the instructions about how to conduct worship.

The clear rubric for us, he said, is the Rubric of Love. And that is our rubric for recognizing the sane and healing voice of Jesus. If it’s about love, if it propels us to love our neighbor, then the voice we hear is Jesus’ own voice.

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