Prayer, Part 4: Faithful Prayer in the Absence of God

Prayer

God, then us.

In meditating on prayer, we have gone through an enormous sweep from Prayer as response to who God is, to what God’s done, and to what God’s doing in us right now. Our prayers and our lives must be understood as responses to the reality of God and God’s grand narrative which began with the universe, climaxed in the advent of Christ, and is leading into a mysterious, but holy and joyous Kingdom made up of God’s faithful people. Apart from the story, our lives and our actions (or even and especially the gospel) become mere facts abstracted from their deepest meaning and therefore from their deepest power. A short man with hairy feet tossing a ring away is not the same as Frodo casting the ring with Gollum hanging on into the volcano of Mount Doom, destroying the dark kingdom of Sauron and bringing peace and freedom to the whole world. (The Lord of the Rings is, after all, a very Christian story, while also being the most popular novel of the 20th century by some polls.)

But what happens when we don’t sense God’s presence? Could it be that we go weeks, months or even years without the sense of God which helps to make our prayers confident? We will look briefly at the writings of Mother Teresa and Saint John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz), both of whom are known to have experienced a deep feeling of God’s absence. We will launch from the response of these two people into Jesus Christ’s own response to this feeling, and offer a short meditation on how we can be faithful despite absence, and even how this faithfulness leads to an unshakable faith and a life which “is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, whose leaf does not wither,” rather than a life which “the wind blows away” (Psalm 1).

If I ever become a Saint–I will surely be one of “darkness.” I will continually be absent from Heaven–to light the light of those in darkness on earth. –Mother Teresa of Calcutta

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”–Jesus Christ of Nazareth

As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God! My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night while they say to me, ‘Where is your God?’ These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you in despair, O my soul?…Hope in God, for I will again give him thanks for the saving acts of his presence… –Psalm 42:1-5

God’s Absence

Even a cursory glance through the Psalms will reveal just how often David and the other Psalmists felt intense anguish at the apparent absence of God. If this experience was normative for a “man after God’s own heart,” then we should not be surprised if it fits the pattern of our spiritual lives as well.

Emptiness in general is perhaps the most ubiquitous experience of human life. Proof of this is found most simply in the Western world by going to the Amazon website and browsing through the millions of items offered as fulfilling for our needs, even when we know a thing will never satisfy us for more than a moment. What we seek, whether consciously or not, is love; specifically, the love of God. Our soul’s hunger and emptiness are infinite, and attempting to fill our hearts with anything else–even the love of a person or many people–will eventually lead to an even further emptiness or frustration and probably the destruction of those finite relationships which could never fully satisfy.

But why, if God is the ultimate and infinite satisfaction for our emptiness, does God not always make himself so tangibly present? Why does he not simply satisfy our whole desire now? Before we get to these questions, we need to explore two other sources of tangible emptiness: pride and ignorance. These lead to an emptiness which is nothing to do with God, but everything to do with us.

Has God Forgotten Me?

A thing’s value is determined by what someone will do for it. The truest measure of value is what God thinks of it and is willing to do for it. Whether we feel undervalued and forgotten by God or we feel no need for God at all, our thoughts and feelings do not determine the truth. Faith does not accept feelings as perfect indicators of the truth, but rather holds on to the truth despite the feelings. This is called faithfulness.

So, what is the value of humanity? What is my value? The Psalmist puts this question directly to God in Psalm 8: “What is man that you remember him? What is the son of man that you care for him?” Compared to the splendor of the universe, or especially to God himself, we are very small indeed. We have already seen in our previous meditations that within this Story of Everything we are not even the main focus: God is. But the Psalmist continues: “Yet you have made him a little lower than God, and you crown him with glory and honor.” Without God we would be of no particular value; we would only be lucky dust which over time evolved to become a human, though a mitigated and irrational human. Instead, with God, it would be more apt to say we are blessed dust, dust raised through time to become God’s crowned achievement.

We see this even more poignantly in the cross of Christ. God, in Jesus Christ, was willing to give up all rights to true glory and honor in order to become a human: the divine and the human coexisting in one person. This Jesus fulfilled the law, which he summarized as loving God with your whole being and then loving others as yourself (in this particular order of importance). He then died brutally in order to secure the redemption of a lost humanity, suffering the physical and spiritual judgment of our sins, and conquering even our death through the resurrection. On Sunday, the high school director of my church spoke to the whole congregation. His son had prayed one night simply for God to give him a hug. He turned to his son and explained that, in Christ, God was always giving us a hug.

If we forget this in prayer, we will be subject to both types of pride: thinking too much of ourselves apart from God, or thinking too little of ourselves despite what God has said and done. Humility is accepting both parts as true, and as the Catholic Catechism states with the brevity of Aquinas, “Humility is the foundation of prayer.”

In Jesus, God is always hugging us. If this sounds too childish for you, remember Jesus’ saying that “unless you become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Have I Forgotten God?

Some have a sense of the divine without formal or intimate knowledge of the true God. Some simply do not appear to know God at all, either through faith, sense or reason. Some, knowing God, take the promise of his presence to mean that they only need occasionally to turn to God and yet the relationship will somehow not be diminished in any way. I have been all of these people, presuming upon God’s goodness and wrongly taking advantage of that goodness to satisfy an infinite hunger with temporary and occasional experiences of God, rather than abiding in God’s presence wholly.

Abusing God’s gift of Christ and his constant nearness to us through the neglect of prayer, loving service, and worship and through failing to gather as the Church in your community will lead to emptiness. There is no exception here. Daniel prayed three times each day and more when times were stressful. Paul tells us to offer our lives as living sacrifices to God, which is our “reasonable worship” or service. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we must not neglect our duty to gather as the Church. Jesus Christ himself tells us to pick up our cross daily and follow him, and that if we love him, we will follow his commands: commands which range from loving God to serving the poorest of the poor, from declaring Christ to the world to denying ourselves. Peter even tells us that through engaging these commands and promises of God, we may be “partakers of the divine nature,” not in that we become God in essence, but in that everything we do and are we are energized, not by our own desires and power, but by God’s desires and power in us.

Now, if we find ourselves empty, but not through our neglect, ignorance of Christ, or pride, we can then ask the further question: why does God not make himself continually felt?

Spiritual Adulthood

John of the Cross

Our relationship with God through faith is just that: a relationship. It is not static, but dynamic. Though God never changes in his nature and character, we are changing constantly. God meets us in this change by continually giving us what we truly need in order to bring us to maturity in Christ. While God wants our faith and desire for him to be like the simple trust and single desire of a child, he does not want us to serve him, know him or enjoy him like children: God wants us to be adults, firmly rooted and unwavering through a faith that has been tested and remained faithful over time. In all of this, God brings us to maturity so that we can more fully know and enjoy him, just as two adults can know and love each other in ways far deeper, more stable, and more complex than two children can or should attempt to.

In the Dark Night of the Soul, the sixteenth century Spanish monk known as John of the Cross describes a type of purgation of the senses and soul by which God begins to bring a person on the path to spiritual maturity. The book is actually further commentary on a poem he wrote while he was kept imprisoned and tortured for nine months. He, like Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, looks at the beginning of a person’s spiritual life in Christ as a time comparable to the birth of a newborn. God keeps his new child close at all times and feeds him a kind of spiritual milk; everything is a delight. Prayer is easy, worship is enjoyable, love abounds.

However, while everything feels wonderful to the new Christian, John writes, he actual harbors a great number of vices. “Sensory pleasure and desire, even in spiritual experience, obscures and obstructs the spirit,” says John. “Vexation makes us see how, through the blessing of this dark, dry night of contemplation, God supernaturally imparts his divine wisdom to an empty and unburdened soul.”

He reads in the story of Job the story of every faithful Christian. There is the beginning when all is wonderful in the service of God, followed by a time when God seems to draw away and the believer is left with a choice: continue to follow a God who seems to have abandoned you but in whom you find all your hope and joy, or go your own way and attempt to construct some meaning and happiness without God. However, even though Job’s pride at times gets the better of him, he does keep his faith in God. At the end, after God “stripped Job naked and left him on a dunghill, vunerable and persecuted by his friends,” God, the one “who lifts the poor man from his dunghill, was pleased to come down and speak to him face-to-face. This is when God revealed to Job the depths and heights of his wisdom, which he had never done in the time of Job’s prosperity.”

There comes a time for every Christian when God must stand the Christian on his or her own feet and walk away, even though he is always with us. God does this so that we can learn to reach out for God at a higher level, one where our worship and love no longer depend on our feelings or desires, but seeks God for who he is.

It is a more perfect love that desires the lover because of who that lover is rather than the love which seeks the lover for the good feelings the lover brings. That is a love which will not, cannot, run away in bad times or in good times. It is a love which will remain and grow stronger even when the world falls apart. This is the love God offers us in Christ, but it must be worked through suffering to become perfect, just as silver and gold are put in the fire to take out any impurities. God is desiring a pure and holy people because it is just that pure and holy people who can and will experience God’s love to the fullest extent, no longer distorted by the sin we cling to.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa wrote in a personal letter:

“Do not think my spiritual life is strewn with roses–that is the flower which I hardly ever find on my way. Quite the contrary, I have more often as my companion ‘darkness.’ And when the night becomes very thick–and it seems to me as if I will end up in hell–then I simply offer myself to Jesus.”

In her regular communication with Archbiship Perier, she pleads after years of this type of void and inner, spiritual pain, “Please pray for me, that it may please God to lift this darkness from my soul for only a few days. For sometimes the agony of desolation is so great and at the same time the longing for the Absent One so deep, that the only prayer which I can still say is–Sacred Heart of Jesus I trust in Thee…”

When Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, declares that, contrary to our thinking, “blessed are those who mourn,” he is not primarily referring to those who mourn for people they lose. Mourning is a sign of the soul’s discontent; in a spiritual sense, it is a discontent that arises from the difference between the the soul’s real state as desolate and inept and its simultaneous desire to be holy as God is holy. It corresponds with another of the beatitudes: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” where the desire for God’s holiness becomes primary to the point that the purely material concerns and addictions of this world become unimportant to us. The reason Mother Teresa first went into the poorest places of India, and lived for the most part in just as much poverty, was that she saw a spiritual need, and met the physical needs of the people because those people were indeed precious to God and would find their happiness in knowing and loving God.

This type of mourning is seen in her statement to Perier, “I want to say to you something, but I do not know how to express it. I am longing with a painful longing to be all for God, to be holy in such a way that Jesus can live His life to the full in me…I want to love him as he has not been loved [before].”

Thus, when we turn to that inner darkness that was often with her, there seems to be more than a literal significance to her statement that,

“When I walk through the slums or enter the dark holes–there Our Lord is always present.”

Here we see something utterly Christological in its deepest meaning. Before he died, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (A quotation of Psalm 22.) In that moment, the human nature of Jesus felt utterly abandoned and humbled beyond his ability to bear it. It is perhaps the most human thing Jesus ever said.

Some have argued that at that moment, because of Jesus’ taking our sin upon himself, God the Father somehow rejected Jesus and the relationship (or communion) between them was broken. Regardless of the problems this theory poses for Trinitarian theology, Mother Teresa, it seems, would say exactly the opposite: that it takes incredible suffering to bring God to people, but in that suffering God is not less active, but the more active; that there is a vast difference between what one feels and what one knows to be objectively happening. In that moment, we see that Jesus was faithful even when it felt like even God had left him. And that faithfulness led to our salvation and the opening up of the promise of salvation to everyone.

Thus, there is something Christ-like in praying even when we feel vacant, desolate, or that God is absent. In the depths of abandonment, Jesus quoted the Psalms, i.e. he quoted God’s own words back to God, even though he was God. The Psalms very often deal with these feelings, but always point the heart to God as the One who is faithfulness and joy Himself. By grace, we can be faithful as He is faithful, because we can share in that very life of Christ through His Spirit. As Peter Kreeft said in a lecture on the topic, this is Blessedness, something far more profound than the modern idea of Happiness. It is a state of being, a type of person, rather than a feeling or something which happens to us. It is the state in which we can trust God for our joy even when everything and everyone we treasured seems to turn against us, when even God seems to be absent.

But He is not. God is never absent. By holding to this conviction, we are brought by God up from crawling to standing on our feet. We never need to search for suffering in this world; it comes continually of its own accord. But we can learn to stop running from it and instead transform it as Christ transformed it: through faithful prayer that led to faithful action. That is a life with Christ in mind; it is a life lived for others. It is a life free from bondage to feelings, a type of freedom that should be more precious to American Christians now than ever before.

The greatest evangelism is this: to be found full of continual joy (blessedness, not contentment) in the midst of suffering, because that is a supernatural state whose only reason and cause can be God.

Wrapping Up

I hope you do not think this is something I have achieved. What I have stated is foremost what I observe in the lives of those who have persevered. While I find it all sometimes frightening, nonetheless their lives are somehow incredibly free and powerful. I want what they have, which means I need to want what they want most: God. This isn’t something I can do alone, just like you cannot do it alone. We need each other as Christian brothers and sisters; we need the Church, its history and lives; we need Jesus Christ, in the words of Scripture and His present, resurrected life; we need God’s grace, a grace which is given all the more abundantly in prayer.

Here we have the power to live no longer bound to feelings. Just as an alcoholic can never enjoy wine, so when we are addicted to feelings we cannot truly enjoy them. But, paradoxically, when we are free from them, our feelings become all the more enjoyable. We can rejoice anew at the gifts God has given, is giving, and will give, and more than anything else look forward with a renewed anticipation of that coming day when we “will see Him as He is,” knowing and loving God in his presence as never before.

Prayer, Part 3: Responding to What God’s Doing in Us

Prayer

God, then us.

So far, we’ve seen prayer as a response to both who God is and what he has done. God’s previousness, in both our creation and the possibility of our salvation, is paramount to understanding ourselves and to creating the right heart, or spirit, out of which we can most effectively launch into prayer. Now, we want to go further to see how, in Prayer, we are responding to God’s current regenerative and sanctifying activity within us, and how that extends beyond us individually to whole communities.

If we do not abide in prayer, we will abide in temptation.—John Owen

A minister may fill his pews, his communion role, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.—John Owen

So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God. (Philippians 2:12, 13 NET)

God at Work in the Individual

How do we pray? I do not mean as a technique, in order to master the art of prayer, but rather, how is prayer possible? In the original statement on prayer, we said that Prayer was made possible and successful by God. In experience, then, we find that God is effecting, even creating, a desire for what is good and giving us power to do it (Philippians 2, above). Humanity is not only very small within the Story of Everything, of which we have spoken, but also fallen; this gravely restricts our ability to ascertain what it is that is good, and, not only this, but, disconnected from God, we are unable to do any works which could merit salvation or be regenerative (Romans 3; Ephesians 2). Therefore, if prayer is communion with God, defined as being-in-God or living within his presence in a regenerative relationship, then it is the most fundamentally good thing we can do; everything afterwards is set right out if this relationship to God. “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6).

But, if prayer is the most fundamentally good thing, out of which we find all of our sanity, sanctification and energy for good (because we are connected to the Most Good), then that means as disconnected beings we cannot make prayer effective on our own, nor even seek it on our own. So when we find the desire to pray, we understand that there is a power in us which is greater than us at work.

Prayer is fundamentally opposed to the mindset of this world because it seeks above all else that which is not itself. It continually denies the self in search of the one priceless pearl. It is Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha is busy doing a thousand other things. Jesus’ rebuke to Martha that Mary has chosen the one, best thing in seeking Jesus did not mean that he criticized Martha for been busy per se, but rather that without Jesus, that’s all it is: busyness. It was constant motion and action without any true understanding of its meaning and without relation to the One who can make our actions good, worthwhile, helpful, fruitful and fulfilling.

Our small part in prayer is not to strain so that our prayer will be heard, because God is always present to us, but strain so that we might live continually in God’s presence. It is a continual assent to God’s continual work in order to share continually in perfect communion with him, with all the manifold blessings which this brings. Of course, regardless of whether we assent to God’s working in us, he works faithfully (and previously) all the same, because he will bring to maturity that which he has begun (Psalm 138, Philippians 1:6). Of this we need have no doubt.

But by a lack of prayerful assent to God’s work in us–the work that leads to repentance and transformation of our hearts and minds (Romans 2:4, 12:1-2)–we lose the manifold blessings and blessedness which are to be found by being in willing subjection to God. This subjection is not part of an arbitrary power play, but is an acceptance of our human reality as contingent upon the Absolute.

The blessedness we lose is exactly the blessedness talked about by Jesus in Matthew 5. The Greek word translated “blessed” is sometimes mistranslated “happy” in English texts. “Happy” comes from the earlier English word “hap,” from which we get the word “happen.” “Happy” is something that happens to you by chance, not a result of who you are. But the Greeks thought of it entirely differently. One could not be “blessed” without first being a good person. One could not experience joy without enduring the rigors of virtue. Thus, while one cannot be wrong about being “happy,” one can certainly be mistaken about being “blessed.” You can find an excellent lecture on the difference and the meaning of the beatitudes from the great, and humorous, Peter Kreeft for free here.

Jesus taught that true joy was not to be found in money, popularity, sex, power, being accepted, being loved, or even survival, but instead in being poor, not just literally but spiritually as well; it is to be found in those who are hungry for God, those who deny any sort of competition with others and instead are peacemakers, and even those who are ridiculed constantly for the sake of the truth, among several others (Matthew 5:1-12). Thus to be happy, we must be holy. There is no disconnect.

We will not attain true virtue, and thus fail to attain joy, without prayer. The two are intimately connected in the Bible, and in all of ancient thought. But this is what God brings about in us and for us, but not without us. We must “strain to enter the narrow gate” (Luke 13:24) and work out our salvation, all the while knowing it is God who is producing the desire and ability. Prayer is necessary in our lives, but it is also impossible without God. The good news is that God has provided a way, through faith in Jesus Christ, to know that our prayers are heard and made powerful by God.

God at Work in the Community

When we accept Christ, we thereby accept Christ’s people just as immediately (Rom 12; Ephesians 2:12-22). We are part of his Holy Church, which Christ himself is purifying by the washing in the Word (Ephesians 5) and which the Spirit is also purifying by burning away that which is dead and refining that which is good. As we have seen, God has sent this holy community into the world in order to manifest His image through conforming our imperfect image to Christ’s perfect and holy beauty. By the Spirit, Christ’s declaration of the Kingdom of God is being worked out in the renewed lives of the faithful, those who are faithfully praying and living out the life which God is working in them.

We are to be known by our love. God’s faithfulness is made real and wonderful to this lost and dead world when Christians are faithful to speak and act in love towards the weakest members of society onward up to the very leaders of this world. This is the extension of God’s grace we explored previously, extended from God into the believer, and through the disciple into the world. It is the truest meaning of being in the image of God, of being his ambassador to the universe. We saw that this was humanity’s purpose in the Story of Everything which God inaugurated as related in Genesis 1.

God’s love, which is his strength and power, is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), and our love must mirror Christ’s love, which poured itself out for the sake of us who were opposed to it (Philippians 2). Christ counted his own life as nothing for the sake of the whole world and denied himself any rights to power and glory so that many might share in his glory by his sacrifice and new life.

We see and respond to the faithfulness of God in our communities through love and by prayerfully seeking out where we are to be active in that love within our communities, all in order to overturn this world’s order through faithful, self-sacrificing love. In this way, a darkened world is given glimpses of God’s Kingdom. Through prayer, our communities continually bring to remembrance the plan of God’s salvation, and are thereby more equipped to effectively communicate it in unity, through the various gifts of each member of the community.

Prayer as a world changing activity begins with each individual, but we will neither be unified in the love of God nor will we change the world unless we are regularly praying together. Prayer begins at home in secret, but it is also the power of the church and of every church group to announce Christ to the world. To change the world as Christ did and does still, we must love the world; to love the world, we must deny ourselves and pray for the world. “Pray without ceasing,” says Paul.

Where Prayer Leads

Prayer as Response leads to a working out of all of this–the virtues, hope, love, joy and unity–in our lives, from our intellects into our hearts, or wills. While this working out is primarily spiritual, such spiritual blessedness and transformation as is given by God in his grace transforms not only our spiritual lives, but also our intellectual, volitional, emotional and social being; in effect, it changes everything we are into that which God intends for us to be: the God-proclaiming, holy, blessed, joyful, self-sacrificing and unified people who love God as God, and love people by pointing in all words and actions towards God in Christ. This is what begins in a regular prayer life.

What begins in prayer never ends at the end of the prayer, but is carried by God’s grace into our whole lives, the whole life of our community, and into the whole of the world. Prayer needs strong legs, and a strong back. Prayer is work, but it is the best work any of us can do.

Next, we will look at Prayer as not only a response, but a faithful response to God’s faithfulness, even when he feels wholly absent.

I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’ Psalm 16:2

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken. Psalm 62:1-2

Prayer, Part 2: Responding to What God’s Done

On the previous meditation, we got a vague idea of what prayer is as an attempt at response to God. I want to jump off of that idea from Prayer as a response to who God is, into a response to what God has done.

Just as faith is born from the gospel, so through it our hearts are trained to call upon God’s name.—John Calvin, Institutes 3.20.1

It is the adoration of You, dear God, that most dismays me. I cannot comprehend the exaltation that must be due You. Intellectually, I assent: let us adore God. But can we do that without feeling? To feel, we must know. And for this, when it is practically impossible for us to get it ourselves, not completely, of course, but what we can, we are dependent on God. We are dependent on God for our adoration of Him, adoration, that is, in the fullest sense of the term. Give me the grace, dear God, to adore You, for even this I cannot do for myself.—Flannery O’Connor

What God Has Done

Last time, we began a meditation on who God is. This included what has been termed the “previousness” of God: that in all things, both material and spiritual, God is there both before us temporally, since we are in the flow of time and he is not, and before we realize or know who he is or what he is doing. He created us and gave us purpose when he inaugurated the great Story of Everything at the very beginning of what we consider time and space.

In the advent of Jesus Christ, in his life, death and resurrection, God inaugurated the promised renewal of all things, called God’s Kingdom: at present, its spiritually regenerative powers are limited mainly to the Church and its witness and work as God’s ambassadors to the world; ultimately, it will come in a dramatic way in the total recreation of heaven and earth and the uniting establishment of God’s spiritual kingdom within the physical dimension.

Thus, God loved us before we thought to love Him (1 John), and even when we despised him constantly, though miserably, in our own misdirected self-appreciation and corresponding self-judgment. We must understand that this love was made manifest in the perfect image of God, an image we were meant to be, but the continual failure of which is narrated in the whole of Old Testament, as well as the story of God’s faithfulness not to let humanity fall completely. This image was Christ Jesus, and the perfect image of love was in what, in the world’s standards, looks like just the horrible opposite: innocent Jesus upon the Roman cross, bearing the sins of the world and suffering beyond human capacity.

The beauty in the cross is not in the cross per se, but in the Cross combined with the Resurrection, in which we see God take death and suffering and turn them on their heads; both defeated and turned simply into means for the end and purpose of the Salvation of Humanity. This is the most dramatic and breathtaking climax in the Story of Everything, the point at which what we fear the most, both God’s judgment (as failed image-bearers) and death, or becoming nothingness itself, is made into that which is no longer our ultimate end, but that which is a further step into something brand new to us, though it has always existed: The Kingdom of God, where sinners are made saints, and life and passion have no cessation or even opposites. It is where the fullness of God is seen clearly, a reality into which we can now only see “as into a mirror darkly,” through faith in Christ, as Paul put it.

Because of Christ’s work, which is God’s work (for Christ is God), God is calling us as a community to share in this new life and kingdom by the empowerment of His Spirit, by being born from above “by water and spirit,” as Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3. When we have seen all God has done–all before we were yet even awake–and that our meager assent to his right and righteous rule in our life was effected by God’s grace, rather than out of any need on his part or merit on ours, then we will rightly see ourselves as absolutely dependent for everything good on God Himself, and further that our whole being, at every moment, rests upon his power and his inscrutable love.

The Mystery of Grace

When we have seen both who God is and what God has done, we will come deeper into the mystery of Unconditional Love that is God. This is love despite and against our corruption and contingency, that has known this corruption intimately and has yet elected to not flee from it, ignore it, or even destroy it, but rather to create something beautiful from it. We see this tendency of God initially even in Genesis 1, where God sees the chaos of the oceans before he begins to form the earth and responds by sending his Spirit to hover over the surface, preparing it for his “good” works of life.

God’s Unconditional Love which reaches out to us and renews us is called grace. It was grace which created us, grace which sustains us despite our failures and self-inflicted wounds, grace by which God’s supreme and divine nature become united with a contingent human nature in order to secure our restoration and the restoration of the world. Without grace we cannot pray. Without recognizing the necessity of grace we cannot appreciate the gravity of prayer, of entering unmerited into that presence of God which continually purifies and recreates us as beautiful.

The Response to Grace

These concepts lead to two very important reactions: Adoration and Confession. By grace, we have begun to see and grasp that in the Story of Everything we were created to be beautiful and alive in God, but rejected that purpose out of jealousy for God’s power and the arrogant, and foolish, understanding that we could exist apart from Life itself; and yet, and yet, God. One of the most important turning points in Biblical history happened when God considers (in a helpful, anthropomorphic metaphor) destroying humanity, but instead comes to Noah with a task which will lead humanity and the earth to renewal.

Therefore, we praise God that he both created (and is creating us), and that he became incarnate and defeated death and sin in order to bring us back to our original calling, but ultimately in an even greater world. In Genesis we have a small garden, but in Revelation, we have an enormous city, a center of human activity and flourishing united in and by God’s intimate and life-giving presence, that is, united in adoration of God. As Flannery O’Connor discovered above while writing in her prayer journal, we need God even to teach us how to praise; and, as John Calvin noted, the same good news of Jesus which we come to by faith and grace also gives us the desire to praise God. (We will speak later of the necessity of being immersed in scripture in order to build a good vocabulary of prayer.)

Therefore, also, we confess to God our failure to live up to our calling and our utter inadequacy to take on the task before us apart from God’s totally restoring presence and power. We feel the sting of our sins, which remove us from the immediacy of God’s presence, but also see the beauty of Christ, the one who submitted to God in love, even to the point of death on a cross, whom God has now glorified (Philippians 2). In this beauty we become small and see our brokenness more clearly, but also are drawn to it and by it, to experience for ourselves a piece of this beauty and self-forgetful life.

Confessing to God clears away the power of sin to take us from that immediate presence of God, and God is faithful to cleanse us from sin when we do so (1 John). It also helps us remember who we are, who God is, and the real difference that exists between us and God. Therefore, Confession helps guide us into both Sanity, or recognizing reality, and Sanctity, or becoming holy, (see Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity).

In practice, adoration and confession are themes found throughout the Psalms. Dive into the Psalms to see how David so poignantly expresses both of these in prayer. As Bonhoeffer wrote, the Psalms are the Prayerbook of the Bible. If we want to know how to praise or confess our faults, it is the best place to start, along with the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s account of the Gospel.

Next, we will look at what God is currently doing in us and in our communities through the Holy Spirit. Feel free to comment with any helpful comments or questions as we work through these topics!

Finally, here is a more full version of Flannery O’Connor’s priceless prayer:

“My dear God, I do not want this to be a metaphysical exercise but something in praise of God. It is probably more liable to being therapeutical than metaphysical, with the element of self underlying its thoughts. Prayers should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication and I would like to see what I can do with each without writing an exegesis. It is the adoration of You, dear God, that most dismays me. I cannot comprehend the exaltation that must be due You. Intellectually, I assent: let us adore God. But can we do that without feeling? To feel, we must know. And for this, when it is practically impossible for us to get it ourselves, not completely, of course, but what we can, we are dependent on God. We are dependent on God for our adoration of Him, adoration, that is, in the fullest sense of the term. Give me the grace, dear God, to adore You, for even this I cannot do for myself. Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You. Give me the grace to adore You with the awe that fills Your priests when they sacrifice the Lamb on our altars. Give me the grace to be impatient for the time when I shall see You face to face and need no stimulus than that to adore You. Give me the grace, dear God, to see the bareness and the misery of the places where You are not adored but desecrated.”—Flannery O’Connor

Prayer: What is Prayer?

I know almost nothing about prayer. I have prayed; I have read about prayer; I have fallen short. In God’s humor, I was asked to lead a prayer group on the campus of my seminary this coming fall and spring. So I have spent much of the past few months trying to put a few words on a trajectory towards a right understanding of prayer. Over the next several days, I hope to offer a few meditations on, though no comprehensive definition of, Prayer.

Prayer

God, then us.

So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God. (Philippians 2:12, 13 NET)

Pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Prayer is called a virtue, but in reality it is the mother of the virtues. St. Mark the Ascetic, 5th c. AD

Prayer, it seems, is always an attempt, ultimately made possible and successful by God rather than by any merit within the form or content of the prayer itself or merit within the one praying, to respond to God: to who he is, to what he has done, to what he is doing in you and in your community, and to what he intends to do with us and this world.

To Who He Is

All we are in reality begins with God, and every true thing we know ourselves to be, or anything else we know for that matter, begins with our understanding of God. And so, when God delivers his scriptures to us in order to give us everything we need for salvation, he begins, not with an understanding of humanity, though the scriptures are written for humanity, but with “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is puzzling to the new Christian, and downright bizarre for anyone who does not know God. Why not begin with simply telling us, “Do this and everything will work out,” so that we can do that something and move on with our lives? Here we find one of the most crucial truths to ever realize:

Humans are a part of a story, the greatest story, but we are not even the main focus of that story; God is. Our role is not central; the story is not about us. And yet, while the Story of Everything begins (and ends) with God, and moves on to the bringing-about of all that we can perceive, i.e., the universe, the creation account does have a climax: the creation of humanity. So while we are neither the point of the story nor its focus, we do play a major role in its action. But this honored role (honored, because, after all, we are made in the image of The Playwright and Center Character) is not a role we have picked up and auditioned for, but a role given to us. This is the grace of creation: to be tasked with carrying out the good and totally fulfilling work of proclaiming God’s goodness to all the universe, through word, character and work, which in all these ways act as signs of the Signified, or incarnated metaphors to help creation, and each other, comprehend the divine Life-Giving One as far as it is possible for creatures to do. Our objective meaning is wrapped up in The Objective, the necessary essence who is Life and Being Himself, God.

What does this have to do with Prayer? Without the story, we will miss the point of prayer. We must put first things first, or else we will have neither the first things nor the second things (CS Lewis). Without the knowledge of who God is as revealed to us, our lives will necessarily be shadows of life: shallow, misdirected and enslaved to sin. Prayer, like an arrow, must be rightly aimed, and to aim rightly we need a target.

But, peering into this mystery as God has unveiled it by His Spirit throughout the world in every heart, but most purely in His Word (both scripture and person of Christ), we have access to the most fundamental and important facet of Reality, that which necessarily exists in the universe and transcends all we know and are: God Himself. God is the aim of our lives and the aim of prayer; we are not aiming foremost at a knowledge of God, nor at collecting isolated experiences of God, nor at petitioning him for our needs or the needs of others, nor even at being happy or fulfilled in God, but at being with God Himself, being-in-God.

What we most lack, and what we most desire, is a continual encounter with the Divine, with the very one who is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is the creator not at a point in time, but eternally; this means even now he is creating and sustaining who you are from the deepest point of your being. Therefore, to know God is not to know an abstract idea, but to come to a full realization of the very Reality of the universe about which you formerly knew nothing; it is to shed every false notion of our sanity and sanctity, our understanding and our ability, and to realize, in a growing and maturing realization that is bound up in a whole life of unceasing prayer, that God is, and that we are merely contingent.

There is no more self-sufficiency, there is only God. And I am not God, and neither are you, and neither is God us. But God is with us, above us, in us. And prayer, in all its seeming simplicity, is the process which God has ordained in order that we can come to know him as intimately as he knows us. And in living in the midst of God, which Paul calls praying without ceasing, we will be fulfilled, but only by seeking with our whole being and all attention that One who supplies all life.

Humility is the foundation of prayer.—Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2559

“In the darkness, then, of this world, in which we are pilgrims absent from the Lord as long as ‘we walk by faith and not by sight,’ the Christian soul ought to feel itself desolate, and continue in prayer, and learn to fix the eye of faith on the word of the divine sacred Scriptures, as ‘on a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in our hearts’ (2 Peter 1:19).”—St Augustine, Letter to Proba

This is a life-long process, so please don’t be intimidated. It all starts with the right heart toward God, a spirit of humility. Just start with reading something like Psalm 51 or the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. And remember, above all else:

The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.—Jesus, in Matthew 19:21-16

Next, we will explore what God has done that is calling us to respond.

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The Mystery of Beauty: Part 1

Part 1: Beauty as Philosophy

This is the first part of a two part work focusing on the nature of beauty, and the practical consequences of that beauty. The first part looks at beauty through philosophy, abstracting a few its principles after interacting directly with something beautiful. The second part will look at beauty through theology, and how our idea of God fills out or impoverishes our ideas of beauty.

The Mystery of Beauty

“A Mystery in short is an invitation to the mind. For it means that there is an inexhaustible well of Truth from which the mind may drink and drink again in the certainty that the well will never run dry, that there will always be water for the mind’s thirst.” Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity

Beauty is a mystery. A mystery is not a problem to be solved, but the reality that there is something greater than us that we cannot ever fully grasp, but into which we may enter. As Aquinas recognized, there are levels of imperfection and perfection in both our knowledge and its corresponding object; we either strive for perfect knowledge of imperfect, or lesser, things, or for imperfect knowledge of perfect things. Thus, scientific enquiry (perfect knowledge) is directed toward that which is less than human (imperfect things, such as plant cell structures), and therefore that which is fully comprehensible to our minds; psychology takes one step away from “mere matter” into the uniquely human, that which is body and mind together, and thus psychology is part science, part philosophy, part perfect knowledge (about neurology/physiology) and part imperfect knowledge (motives and desires); finally, philosophy is the discipline of the more than human, of such things as the reality and nature of beauty.

Just as we ourselves are mysterious, much more so is beauty. Beauty transcends even the human mystery into a greater, perhaps infinite, mystery. We cannot define beauty in totality by offering propositional statements, “Beauty is A, B and C, and nothing else!” No, we can only describe it and intuit it, but we can never deduce it as if it were a mathematical proof waiting to be discovered (there is nothing which is its equal). Frank Sheed, quoted above, also offers this metaphor: a mystery is not a series of rungs on a ladder to be climbed, but a gallery to become lost in, falling deeper and deeper, including the mystery of beauty. This means that in entering into a mystery we will begin to lose ourselves, but in doing so will somehow come to understand all mystery more clearly. This includes the mystery of the human self, where we are both producers of and participants in beauty.

There is nothing here to conquer, only to know and love. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Idiot, “Beauty will save the world,” which, like a teenager, is so terribly concerned with only itself; beauty will teach us how to leave self-concern behind us, and therefore save us. Any reader of Dostoevsky’s will know that we are all saved from ourselves by this principle, which he calls love, or the total identification with another who is more perfect than we are. Beauty leads us to love beyond the self, and through self-denying love we will be able to see ourselves and each other clearly for the first time. And then, perhaps, if we are not yet completely happy, we will at least see joy’s peak upon the dawn horizon, a beckoning silhouette whose true form and power is greater than we ever before imagined. As you read, step into beauty with your whole mind, heart and soul; anything you keep for yourself might just be lost forever.

In Unity, We Find Beauty

Some of the more practical things I have ever done involve spending evenings listening to very good music, music that could send me through the entire range of human experiential response, both intellectual and emotional. This included symphonies by Beethoven (5th and 9th, of course) and Tchaikovsky (6th) to modern masters such as Sufjan Stevens or Sigur Ros, or even the liturgical music of the Eastern Orthodox Church. And, yes, I said practical. This was music which affected me, which has stayed with me day after day, moving my thoughts constantly back to its beauty, producing a paradox: I gained both emotional satisfaction from the music and an anxious desire to return to it. This paradox is resolvable because I know that when I return to the music, my desires will be continually fulfilled in a healthy and life-giving way, and this knowledge only serves to heighten that satisfaction. This is the objective effect of the beautiful, that it draws one out of oneself and towards, or into, itself. This is a perfectly natural and fundamental aspect of reality: human, animal, molecular, physical, spiritual­—all obey to a greater or lesser extent the principle of unity, of desiring union with the desirable.

We by necessity desire unity, and as Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval philosopher mentioned above, wrote: there is no fundamental desire in the world for which there is not a satisfying reality (CS Lewis said much the same). Hunger has the reality of food, sex has the reality of a mate. We desire unity because it is the most logical solution to the fundamental problem of existence, which goes something like this, in two parts:

Existing is an active thing, which means that I cannot choose whether to interact with the world. For example, I am sitting on a chair which is not myself, thinking about ideas of which either most, or more probably all, have begun outside my mind and have found their way into it. Existence is activity, never passivity. I must interact with other people: ideas, emotions, bodies and souls. I can avoid someone or avoid a choice, but as a smart sitcom mother probably said, “To avoid choosing is still a choice.”

On the other side, I cannot help being me. I can imitate someone or through love find my identity in other things and people, but I am all the while an individual, me. Existence means being active and seeking our identity in others; being a person means being unique and indivisible.

Unity, our solution, is not two things. It is not sameness, which is the attempt to lose one’s self entirely, to give up one’s personhood, as this is impossible. Objectively you are always you, no matter whose you are subjectively or what you take part in.

Secondly, beauty and unity are not, and strive against, individualism, defined as any activity which does everything with the focus on the good of the self. If existence means activity, then it means always refusing to be nothing, consciously or unconsciously, and thus always moving oneself away from the darkness of nothingness towards other people and things. These are the only directions towards which we can move: outward.

To eschew others completely is to attempt to do the impossible: both to get what you want from the world and avoid what you do not want from it. But no one is ever really alone. Every time you see a billboard, an idea comes into your mind and you must fight it or accept it. Even reading this essay is, in one manner, an act of love, by which you seek out something which is not yourself. You found me here, or a piece of me. We have shared something, entered into communion. Whether this is comforting or terrifying depends on whether you are open to others or closed to them (and on what you might know about me), which is a vital thing to know about yourself. Unity creates peace through the acceptance of a person’s value, love to the point of wanting them to be better, and the employment of an individual’s unique expression of self-giving, but all towards a common end; therefore, the whole transcends the part without the loss of individuality. In fact, the individuals find themselves more fulfilled by giving up some of their individual desires to fulfill their greatest desire: unity through love.

Example

This is the greatest principle one can learn from a Beethoven symphony: that beauty means diversity in unity. Diversity in unity, at the most practical and human level, includes the meaningfulness of every part, no matter how small it is, no matter how random or sudden it appears to us, how slow or quiet­—in a symphony, nothing is random, it only seems so, and this is part of the greatness of the experience; we need not to know everything in order to enjoy something to the fullest extent. Beauty, therefore, needs weakness as much as strength, the low as much as the high, the male as much as the female. The symphony, as beauty incarnated in small, teaches us that it is foolish to always prefer the strong or always prefer the weak, but there is reason to insist absolutely on the both together.

In the same way, a society must not be or seek to be all men, nor all women (remembering gender is really not the most fundamental thing about a person), nor all some third thing in the version of “equality” which is really sameness, but must be both together working perfectly in unity of purpose, but by nature working differently. Again, to insist on sameness at any level (physical, intellectual, emotional, or personal) is to do away with an integral part of beauty. Man and woman are not nothing alike: our commonality of human nature and existence amidst our differences is the basis for unity, for comm-union. We are much more similar than we are different. But it is this diversity in nature in cooperation which is beautiful because it does not dissolve into chaos, but works itself out from the past to the future.

Diversity in Cooperation

This diversity in cooperation is a principle which ultimately cannot be violated if we are to experience the true love or happiness, which are found in that which is very much not us, in the other, but also in that which can align in union with us. Can an oboe ever be a clarinet? No, they are different in inherent and necessary ways, especially in reed type, despite similarities of function and purpose. Can an oboe player ever be a clarinet player? Surely! But this presupposes a community-focused, rather than simply individual-focused, aspect and choice: that the whole orchestra will make arrangements either to successfully fill the spot now vacant, or that they will by creative means overcome that which is missing and make space for something new. We cannot be different on our own. Finding our place in life means learning how to be different in a way that is the most beneficial to society and to us.

Creativity

Diversity in cooperation, then, also necessitates creativity, another obvious aspect of any symphony. Creativity gives purpose and beauty to change, to those who are different. It wraps its arms around the different and creates a whole new space for it; a unique space for a unique individual. It highlights both the inherent individual beauty, but also sets the individual in a place where she will flourish within the purpose of the whole, therefore gaining both objective and subjective meaning, meaning which the individual knows and feels. Creation is a divine act, and is seen by all people as good. Creativity engages our whole being—our intellect, our sensitivities and talents, our bodies and souls (who we really are)—and it gives us joy when we overcome change through new solutions. It is not a stability summited through sameness, but through commonality in purpose and in the humility (adaptability) of its members. It is neither same form nor function, but common ultimate purpose, goal, end.

Practical Consequences of This Theory of Beauty: Meaningful Suffering

If giving meaning to every person, weak or strong, damaged or whole, is not practical enough for you, then I will finish by going a step further; feel free to agree or disagree. What can we learn about pain and suffering through beauty? What can we learn about the place in society of those with disability or disease, who are so often cast aside?

Perhaps most importantly, can such an abstract idea as beauty save those who need most to be saved?

When we experience great joy in listening to a symphony, we suppose the meaningfulness and worthwhileness of a great amount of suffering: the suffering of the listener in his part spending the requisite years studying music so that he might appreciate it to its fullest extent; the suffering of the musician, who has been practicing to perfection his or her part, in spite of the personal hardships or even tragedies which occur; the suffering of the musical author during the creative and refining processes. (Beethoven was almost completely deaf by the time he wrote the 9th, and yet he did not stop creating and participating in the beautiful for its own sake, just to save himself the effort and stress).

If all of these come together, then the product is worth the pain. Ten poor concerts are eclipsed and forgotten after a very good one. If we never spend time practicing, we can never expect to experience the greatest joy. If we never spend the hard effort of practicing virtue, individually and with others, our lives will never become the symphony they were meant to be. An initiate glances the Mona Lisa and moves on, receiving little of worth. The woman who has spent her life contemplating and studying artistic beauty will look at it for days on end and not grasp the totality of its beauty. Just so, the moral initiate will see the quick gratification available and take it without another thought, supposing it to be happiness. The man who has spent his lifetime cultivating virtue will give his life joyfully to save one small child, or even one cruel and unappreciative man.

Can we really believe that a society is not better for having most of its people willing to give their lives for one another, that it is really better to have a society where people are only concerned with themselves? Most will say, “Yes, it is better,” but fail to see that the lofty ideals are only reached by starting at the lowest step and with the minutest task.

There is a small child whom my fiancé spends time with every other week who has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder which causes developmental and intellectual delays. He carries with him the label “special needs.” If you know anything about Down syndrome children, they are often incredibly sweet and happy. Some have a habit of running up and hugging strangers, sometimes to the fright of their parents. I heard of one boy recently who ran up to a homeless man and hugged him, and the homeless man began to cry. Why? Because the boy longed to share himself with that which was inherently beautiful, and created beauty itself in that moment.

The Questions We Ask

We as a society are asking these questions: Why is this child like this, when he did nothing wrong? Can this child ever really be happy, especially if most of his or her life is spent in constant pain? Should we abort children who we know are going to have special needs?

For the last question, we should see by now that even existence itself means self-giving, and thus to take life, no matter how we classify it, does not obey even our essential human nature (nature, in philosophy, is that which makes us real and human). If we think physical suffering is enough reason to cease living life, then we have again missed the point of the beautiful. Beauty teaches us that true joy is not in the absence of suffering, but comes when suffering is given meaning, when we believe subjectively and objectively that suffering serves a greater purpose, even if we cannot see all of it, for beauty is ultimately beyond us.

If we wish to give people joy by getting rid of suffering, that is simple: all we have to do is get rid of all people and all life. However, every child, as every adult, or even every microbe, is meaningful in life’s symphony. The weak by effortless existence teach the strong the beauty and value of life. The strong, in turn, create new spaces for people to find their purposes and express their individualities in ways which are meaningful and beautiful to the whole. Each finds joy, and freedom, through service. The idea is not to be free from one another, but to free ourselves of the addictions and attachments which keep us from being free for one another.

Beauty teaches us, no matter who we are, that our purpose is the same: to give ourselves to and for one another, to love. A very Dostoevsky-like principle is this: We are saved or damned by what we love, because we become most like what we most love, whether material possessions, people, or our idea of God. Beauty shows us a way out of ourselves, and is therefore teaching us how to truly love in a way which will perfect our human nature and experience, and which makes each small part, each breath we take above the waves of struggle, both meaningful and beautiful.

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The Blank Prayer, or, Singing from Apathy

I wish that I were as Blank as the title of my prayer,

that I were not wanting this moment to break away from you,

that I were not failing to force the right emotion for this offering,

that I had words fitted together to meet such a Reality,

I wish that I had anything in me to give to you

                             that was not moldy, crumbled, infected with apathy,

                             that was not forged in chasmic darkness when I pretended to be alone,

that survived the seven-time purifying fire,

but there is nothing left but dry bones heaved upon the pile,

still shuddering with crude desires and smoldering from burned bridges, tunnels and roads.

The cigarette-laden asphalt beneath my feet sings your praises more perfectly

               proudly, purely, poignantly, punctually than what sound sputters out

               from such hollow tubes and between the rows of sharp teeth.

 •

What little thing do I look like? A molecule of water balancing at the edge

                                                                                                                          of this moment.

How is it that when you lift me up to peer at myself

through your own, personal eyes

that, suddenly, I appear and become

Real? Truly Human?

that such a plastic heart, such a tepid mind becomes

Awake? Critical! Piercing! Deep!

that such rubber-entombed, callous feet become

Sensitive to this small blade of grass’ each movement and sway?

Alert to a silent cry for help twenty leagues away?

Feeling! Supple! Malleable! Swift!

that these wandering hands and entertainment-seeking eyes

Hold the sad? See the lonely? Heal the oppressed?

Climb a mountain searching, searching, searching

for the single precious pearl which will save a single soul

for a single day but which is

nonetheless

worth every drip

drip

drop

of blood and sweat? Sweetly I eat this bread,

and this bread alone.

Yet you make it taste sweeter every day.

You add love upon love, happiness upon happiness, grace upon grace

Until every piece of every day, every relationship,

Is meaningful! Is Light! Is heartening! Fiery!

O, Apathy, where is your anesthetized sting?

Death itself dies anew in a prayer.

O, but let this soft second,

which could level a mountain,

stay.

 •••

Amen.

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A Dark Road and a Bright Light

I write as my heart is broken, as I anticipated it would be. It was broken by reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. During the many hours I have spent not only reading but also meditating on the message and meaning of this work, I have been, as Dostoevsky might say, drawn into a terrible feeling which has been attempting, for the most part unsuccessfully and frustratingly, to become a thought. Two thoughts, specifically, and I would like to share them.

A very short background to the novel: Dostoevsky’s intent for the novel was “to depict a thoroughly good man,” as he wrote in 1868 to a friend. He saw this as an almost impossible task. Ultimately, the obsessions, intrigues and vices of the world in which the epileptic and kindhearted hero, Myshkin, shows up to in St Petersburg leave him out of his mind in an institution, the only place in this world which seems a fitting abode for such a saint. It is an incredibly moving novel with not a little insight into the human heart and mind. Dostoevsky himself, like the character he created, suffered from epileptic fits during the composition of the novel, and lost his newborn daughter not long after that letter.

The First Thought: A Painting…

In the novel, there is a recurring painting in the dimly lit house of Ragozhin, one of the darkest characters in the novel: it is Holbein’s “Christ Entombed.” One of the characters, Ippolet, reads out to a group gathered for the birthday of Myshkin an incredible critique of the painting. Ippolet is dying of tuberculosis as an 18-yr old boy and reads this excerpt from a longer essay delivered shortly before he fails to commit suicide in front of the party (his gun does not go off and nothing happens).

He reads: “I believe I stood before [the painting] for five minutes. There was nothing good about it from an artistic point of view, but it produced a strange uneasiness in me. The picture represented Christ who has only just been taken from the cross. I believe artists usually paint Christ, both on the cross and after He has been taken from the cross, still with extraordinary beauty of face…In Ragozhin’s picture there’s no trace of beauty. It is in every detail the corpse of a man who has endured infinite agony….It’s true it’s the face of a man only just taken from the cross—that is to say, still bearing traces of warmth and life. Nothing is rigid in it yet, so that there’s still a look of suffering in the face of the dead man, as though he were still feeling it….Yet the face has not been spared in the least. It is simply nature, and the corpse of a man, whoever he might be, must really look like that after such suffering….

“But, strange to say, as one looks at this corpse of a tortured man, a peculiar and curious question arises: if just such a corpse (and it must have been just like that) was seen by all His disciples…by all who believed in Him and worshipped Him, how could they believe that that martyr would rise again?

“Looking at such a picture, one conceives of nature …in the form of a huge machine of the most modern construction which, dull and insensible, has aimlessly clutched, crushed and swallowed up a great priceless Being, a Being worth all nature and its laws, worth the whole earth, which was created perhaps solely for the sake of the advent of that Being…” (380-1, from the Wordsworth edition).

We seldom look upon such a Christ, if ever. Even the feeling which arises from viewing Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” seems small when compared to the painting, in which the body lying there could be any man’s, emaciated, destroyed, hideous. For the same reason, I do not like to think of what I have been through with my depression, the depths to which it has taken me. There is an abyss within the mind where there are no walls, but only what seems to be infinite blackness where one falls and falls but cannot grab hold of anything. For the same reason again, you and I rarely consider the lengths we would go to have what we want, or that the deepest part of our self is that part which considers nothing but itself important, meaningful or worthy, even while whispering to itself that this is most likely untrue.

This was my first thought. It was to meditate upon simply how dead Christ was, and what that death looks like face to face.

The Second Thought: An Abyss of Goodness

This is my second thought: It was that exact emaciated, destroyed and decaying body which lied there after the moment of the most horrible death of the most innocent and loving man, and it was at that exact time, when hope, after being dead for three days, was invisible and hidden behind a total darkness, that God raises up that body at that time as glorified perfection and the embodiment of hope.

My thought is that there are dark valleys which we have not known, but which exist in the human soul and of which only God knows, and that God is already bringing life to these places which are so dark within us that we cannot perceive them.

God has trod the path of absolute darkness, has been in its cave entombed, and has tasted the tasteless lack of all sensation and the terrible, ultimate slipping away.

God not only knows the evil which we also know of and for which we may or may not feel guilty, but the evil which we do without realizing and whose consequences extend innumerably. He sees that death which comes upon us from nature herself and that death which we pursue headlong in the great, wild hunt for that which will assuage our own soul by means of fulfilling its small and petty desires.

God has been there. God has seen it, and understood it more perfectly. God did not shrink from death, even a death as haunting as Holbein’s portrayal. Knowing it, he walked such a path willingly. Knowing us, he follows us persistently. God has reached deeper into my soul than I can ever know to tend to a garden he has planted in a place as barren as West Texas, so that not only can I eat of the fruit which he grows, but also so I may share of the fruit which all but drops into my hands and whose roots I cannot see.

I Didn’t Ask for This…

Overcome by depression a few days ago, I prayed. I wish I had always taken this first step so immediately in my life; it would have saved years of agony. I told God that I didn’t ask for this depression, and that it leads me to a place of spiritual horror where I never wanted to go. I told God that he gave me this, and that he did it on purpose. I said I that this was illogical and from my perspective causeless. But I also told God that he has never done anything but tend to that dark-soul-orchard, whether or not I put up the “no-help-wanted” sign. I concluded that if he wanted me to endure so much pain, he must have a darn good reason for it. And he does.

The greater the death we see, the sweeter will be death’s own death. The more agonizing the portrayal of Christ we can bear by God’s grace, the more the grace of God will be free and beautiful to us. The greater depths of darkness we perceive within ourselves (because they are there), the more joyous and valuable the friendship with this merciful God becomes. If you suffer, I understand, and we can certainly talk about that. But God understands better.

Holbein and Dostoevsky perfectly portrayed the beginning, the first half of the story. But the rest of the story is why the New Testament is obsessed with resurrection: it is the only true starting point for beauty, for hope, and for selfless love, that is, for life. God does not simply wait for his people to do what is good: He is already at work. Praise God.