The Shepherd’s Flute

by Catherine Doherty

Have you ever heard a shepherd’s flute in Scotland, or in Jerusalem? It is so haunting, so enticing, so irresistible that you have to follow the sound and go see where it comes from.

The Good Shepherd’s flute is constantly playing. If we close our ears to it, life will be miserable indeed.

Madonna House is really an apostolate of music. We are listening to the Shepherd’s flute, of which all music is but an echo. The story of Madonna House Apostolate is the story of prayer. Everything that happens to us involves prayer.

Ours is the story of two words, “fiat” and “alleluia.” To say fiat is to say yes to God, and this yes is often painful. We cannot live these words without constant prayer. It is inconceivable to think we can live them by ourselves, but this has always been mankind’s greatest temptation.

Throughout the ages, we have tried to build our Tower of Babel that we might reach up to heaven (Genesis 11:1–9). Every day, every moment, we have polished the same old apple that we might become like God (Genesis 3:4,5).

Because of this strange tendency embedded in our fallen human nature, it is imperative that we, as Christians, hear and put into practice the words of Christ, Cut off from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).

These words, spoken two thousand years ago, have still not penetrated our hearts. We are reluctant to accept them.

“No!” we protest. “It isn’t true! I can do a lot of things without you—just watch me. I can earn your approval, your grace, your salvation—you don’t have to give me gifts all the time. I don’t want to recognize you as the creator of everything. I want to put in my own two cents worth.”

We can contribute our own “two cents worth” and more, provided we realize that nothing is possible without God. Once we recognize this, we can give him a million dollars.

We can allow the idea of total dependence to permeate our life until, like sugar dissolved in boiling water, the two become indistinguishable.

Prayer is my total faith in God as my creator. I am his image, his icon, and without him, I can do nothing.

Prayer is my recognition of who I really am: a saved sinner, capable of breaking my friendship with God at any given moment and even likely to revel in its breaking.

When I recognize this, prayer becomes a basic necessity for my life.

There is a strange, inexplicable restlessness that we all have felt at one time or another. We have restless feet, restless hearts, hearts that are angry and disturbed, hearts that reject the other, hearts that seek but never find.

Praise be to God if we continue to search, but too often we are satisfied with less than the real desire of our hearts.

What is it, fundamentally, that we all seek?

Be careful not to confuse this yearning with the desires for sex and marriage. Sex is powerful and marriage a wonderful vocation for those called to it, but, basically, this is not what we are looking for.

This sidetracks us and confuses the issue. We think that union with another will lead us to union with God.

It’s possible, if it is God’s will for you to be married, but don’t kid yourself that marriage will automatically lead you to God.

You have to go through the same travail of the spirit, the same dispossession and death to self as you would if you were single, a priest or a nun, or in any other vocation. There is no shortcut to union with God, unless God himself provides it.

Normally, however, we have to walk the road to union with God. He is the only one who can quench our thirst and still our restlessness.

Prayer is the passionate desire of a human being to become one with God. It is the slow discovery that in order to reach this union, one must be dispossessed of his very self.

There is a deep mystery to all this, and I am not good at probing mysteries. I wait for God to explain them, if he so wishes, or else I accept them without explanation.

Patience is the key. Day after day, hour after hour, we come to realize the price of this union with God. The images of courtship and marriage in the Bible warn us of this, for love and marriage inevitably bring pain. We don’t often think of it that way, but so it is.

Where there is love, there is pain. But whatever our walk in life, this kind of pain is God’s way of teaching us how to pray. Everything that happens to us spiritually, everything that causes us to grow, will bring us closer to God if we say yes.

Spiritual growth doesn’t come from what we do, necessarily. Sometimes it comes from simply sitting and seeing the shambles of what we tried to accomplish, from watching what was seemingly God’s work go to pot. You can’t do anything about it but watch.

This happened to me. I knew dimly then what I see more clearly today—that this was the moment when God really picked me up and said, “Now I am offering you the union you seek. The other side of my cross is empty. Come, be nailed upon it. This is our marriage bed.”

All we can answer in response to that invitation, is, “Help me, God! I don’t have the courage to climb on this cross.”

Not only does God give us the grace to believe and to ask for help, but he also draws us to himself. His own desire pulls us toward himself until the two desires meet.

The prayer of man and the desire of God come together in one brief moment of union, which only whets our desire for more.

It is an insatiable taste of what we seek, and it will give us the courage to say yes to the next devastating situation that comes along, the next stepping stone to union on the cross that the Carpenter has fashioned for each one of us individually.

Prayer is that hunger for union which never lets go of us. It beats into our blood with the very beat of our hearts. It is a thirst that can be quenched by nothing except God. It is as if one’s whole body is poised on tiptoe, our hands stretching upward as if to touch the cosmos.

The act of praying, like the act of love, involves movement and effort. You don’t pray like a robot any more than you make love like one.

Prayer is movement, stretching, seeking, holding, finding only to seek again: I opened to my Beloved, but he had turned his back and gone! (Song of Songs 5:6).

Prayer is walking up to an abyss, looking down, and being unable to see the bottom for there is none.

You spend years balancing on the edge, almost jumping in, then retreating. At some moment, the hunger becomes too great and the thirst too flaming.

You jump. You jump into the abyss, only to discover that there is no abyss, only God and the depth of his love for you. For a moment, you catch your breath in his arms. Then once again, because he loves you, he seems to elude you, so that again you might go forth to seek him.

Prayer is constant movement. Strangely enough, it is movement into oneself where the Trinity dwells. That’s why dispossession has to come from within, for the obstacles that separate us from God are never outside us.

Nothing that goes into a man from outside can make him unclean; it is the things that come out of a man that make him unclean (Mark 7:15).

Dispossession is like taking a broom to one’s inner being to clear out everything that keeps us from being united to God. If I ask myself what paradise is, I think it must be that recognition of the Christ who has always dwelt within me.

Death will be the breaking of the barrier between myself and the indwelling Trinity. Then I shall know that I was always united with God, that he was always with me.

However, I don’t have to wait for death. I am not trying to reach some distant star. As it says in the book of Deuteronomy:

It is not in heaven that you need to wonder, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and bring it down to us, so that we may hear it and keep it? Nor is it beyond the seas … No, the Word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart (Deuteronomy 30:12–14).

I can have faith that God dwells within me now. God is in me; that is why I must love myself.

Excerpted from Soul of My Soul, (2006), pp. 29-35, MH Publications