In a recent gospel reading, Jesus uses a powerful metaphor for himself—he is a shepherd who knows his sheep. We don’t know much about sheep and shepherds anymore, but we catch the tender, protective relationship the shepherd has for his sheep. For all the times I’ve heard this reading, something registered this time that has a lot to do with discernment.

“…the shepherd walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.” As discerners and seekers, we want to follow him, but here’s the clue from Jesus about how to ensure that that happens—we have to recognize his voice! The sheep follow because they recognize, from all the other voices, the Shepherd’s familiar voice. Jesus goes on with his important instruction: “But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” Wow!!

What an instruction about discernment! When we think of the many loud, alluring, empty voices of the prevailing culture, these are the “strangers’ voices.” They do not know us, they do not have our deepest welfare in mind, they cannot lead us to our true self, our true home.

Only the Shepherd—to whom we belong, who knows us intimately—cares about our true happiness and will safely lead us home to our true self. The core of discernment is listening for the voice of the Shepherd. And the only way we come to know that voice is by spending time listening to that voice, until it is etched in our minds, in prayer. Through the practice of regular prayer we become attuned to the Shepherd’s voice; it becomes unmistakable amid the many other confusing, strong voices around us. The sheep have seen enough examples of the Shepherd’s tender care to know that he will never deceive them or lead them to a place that would not be for their greatest good.

Do you know the Shepherd’s voice?