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The New York Times, of all outlets, had a fascinating column a couple weeks back on hearing voices -- what we call "locutions."

It wasn't a negative piece. It was an interesting perspective.

Just how do we decide when a voice is heavenly -- and when it's simply the imagination?

Interesting it is (as the author, T. M. Luhrmann, of Stanford University points out) that a study once found nearly thirty-nine percent of the population as having had visual, auditory, or other "hallucinations," including out-of-body experiences.

A questionnaire posed to 375 college students found that seventy-one percent of them had experienced locutions of some kind.

When they're "heard" in the mind, they're "interior" (and awfully hard to distinguish from regular internal mental dialogue: that is, thoughts). When heard with the ear -- like actual sounds -- they're "auditory" or "auricular" (and these we pay special heed).

When are the interior ones real -- detached from our own thought processes? And when they are real -- from an external source -- how do we determine if they are coming from God, angels, the Blessed Mother, or deceptive forces?

There can be danger.

Many are the criminals who have said they were told to kill or otherwise commit a transgression by an interior voice (usually "God" or the "devil").

The man who shot John Lennon is just one example.

Voices can also accompany mental illness such as schizophrenia.

Demons? Distortions in thought? Or real?

"I still remember how startled I was when a young woman I was interviewing told me God had spoken to her, audibly," writes Luhrmann. "I was doing ethnographic field work in a quietly charismatic evangelical church in Chicago. This was the kind of church in which people sought an intimate, conversational relationship with God. It was not at all uncommon for people to talk about hearing God.

"This woman, however, said that she had been to a job interview and that later, while tidying up at home, she had heard God say, 'That’s not the one' — and that she had looked around to see where the voice had come from. She told me that she heard from God like that many times. The first time as an adult was when she was driving alone in an unfamiliar part of the city — and God spoke up audibly out of the back seat and told her that he would always be with her.

"After that, I started to ask people in the church more systematically about whether they had ever heard God speak audibly. About a third said yes. They reported odd auditory events in which God said 'Sit and listen' or 'Read James' or 'I will always love you.'

"This woman’s account is a good example: 'The Lord spoke to me clearly in April, like May or April, to start a school' [she said].”

As Luhrmann indicates, however, the woman never did start a school.

So where was the voice from?

Did she simply fail to listen? In prayer, Luhrmann points, concerning those who hear voices, "their senses became more acute. Smells seemed richer, colors more vibrant. Their inner sensory worlds grew more vivid and more detailed, and their thoughts and images sometimes seemed as if they were external to the mind." That happens especially in prayer -- though the most common and powerful means of mystical communication is simply infusion of knowledge.

God speaks to us all. He does so most often through the intuition. When a voice is real and good, it is often an angel.

Of course, out-of-body experiences can tend toward the occult. So do voices that give other people messages for you.

When God wants to tell you something, He will indicate it directly (and most often subtly).

Better to believe, though, than not to believe. However much we analyze, we cannot discern with only the tools of the intellect. Such demands deep and sincere prayer and often fasting (which parts us from deception). When we pray looking to hear a voice -- almost straining for one -- this is when there is contrivance. We should always listen in prayer, but when God speaks, it's spontaneous; it's also usually unexpected; it's not usually loquacious; it's normally nonverbal; when there are words, as Teresa of Avila once said, they are impossible to forget.

[resources: The Sound of His Voice]

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