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
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?
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.
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.