My early education was by priests and nuns of the Irish diaspora, dispensers of a grim Catholic Jansenism that is now mostly extinct even here in Ireland. The world is a distraction from the true object of your piety, they said; if you would know God, you must shut up your senses and listen to his voice. He will speak to you not through the touch, taste, smell, sight and sound but through the spirit.
So I closed my eyes, stopped my ears, and listened. And indeed I heard a voice, the insistent murmuring of self, easily mistaken for the whisper of God. It is no bad thing, I suppose, to listen to the voice of self. The self is a proper object of attention, for if there are mysteries in the world deserving of our contemplation, among the greatest of these is self. It is perhaps not surprising that so many of us understand God as a person, for if it is the murmuring of self that we interpret as God's voice, then it is certainly the voice of a person we hear.
How different was the message of my teachers from that of the earliest Irish Christians, whose faith assimilated much of the druidic nature worship of the Celts. If you would hear the voice of God, they said, throw open the windows of your soul. Listen to the distant roll of thunder, the crash of waves on the shore, the baying of hounds and the lowing of cattle. Watch the fog slide down the mountain pass, the aurora that lights the northern sky, the gannet that dives like a warrior's dagger into the sea. Smell the aroma of the smokehouse fire. Feel the smoothness of the mare's flank. Taste the yeasty flavor of fresh-baked bread. If you would know God, said the early Irish saints and scholars, attend to the world.