Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dealing with God's "Absence"

The former Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, whom we now know as Pope Benedict XVI, writing in his Introduction to Christianity (pp. 223-230) about Christ's descent to the dead observes that "not only God's speech but also [God’s] silence is part of Christian revelation."

The experience of God's silence, or absence, is one of the most frustrating human experiences, as both the writers of the book of Job and of Psalm 22 so eloquently tell us. We’ve always been taught that the loving God is everywhere and in all things. It’s something you and I bank on in order for comfort when afflicted and to help us endure great suffering.

Yet, we’ve all experienced those times, in one form or another, when nothing seems to keep our comfortable world rightside up: in the death of a relationship, in the suicide of a loved one, in face-to-face confrontation with unspeakable evil, in the realization that our own death is approaching, or even in such lesser tragedies as having one's home broken into or getting a traffic ticket. At those times, far from feeling God’s closeness, we feel, rather, God's absence.

The story of Job in Scripture is a sort of dark comedy, in which God allows a seemingly just man to be tested by a host of snowballing tragedies, one after another, so that it becomes almost ludicrous. What makes the mess even more poignant are Job’s friends and the trite, useless advice they try to give him. Through it all, Job remains convinced that he’s been and is faithful to God, and he’s even determined to press his case before the Almighty.

Today, my complaint is bitter...Oh, that I knew where I might find [God]...I would lay my case before him...I would learn...what he would say to me...” But, he observes, “...If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. God has made my heart faint...” and Job all but despairs.

Pope Benedict, in the same book which I mentioned above (pp. 229-230) points to Jesus as the way out of Job’s, and our, dilemma. He says: "Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, . . . in his passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer... because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it".

Where, in the times that you and I feel God’s absence, are we to encounter Jesus who is Love? The writer of Hebrews suggests that our starting point is “the word of God” which is described as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” It’s in the meditative reading and absorbing of the message of Scripture, and in learning to pray over it, that our hearts begin to encounter the living Jesus, the living Word, our “great high who in every respect has been tested as we are...”. This One who ministers to us in the midst of God’s apparent absence in our spiritual lives is not One who is “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses...”, but One who brings us “mercy and grace to help in time of need”.

Many people often refer to the “problem of God’s absence”. The founder of the monastic Order of Julian of Norwich, Fr. John-Julian, calls this “bad theology and bad prayer...” One of Scriptures’ most pointed and comforting messages is that of the prophet Isaiah who represents God as saying: “...Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you...” (Is 49:15) God can never really be absent to us or we’d simply cease to exist. Nevertheless, we often “feel” like God is absent.

In reality, this feeling of “absence” might mean a number of different things:

1) It might mean that we feel that God isn’t meeting our expectations. You and I all have great “plans for God” for our lives, don’t we? Clearly, we’ve not yet learned to “
be still and know that I am God”, as the Psalm says.

(2) It could also mean that we’re experiencing
a different kind of presence of God:

- Sometimes God is present to us
as silence/aloneness. Michael Christopher, the ex-monk character in a novel by San Francisco author, Timothy Farrington, The Monk Downstairs (2002) reflects on this in a letter: best moments...[in monastic life] came when all our revitalizing monastic activities seemed irrelevant and far away, like a hectic dream, and a perfect silence came upon me. It seems to me that
all I ever really did in prayer was stay with that silence, while my grand religious career crumbled into ruins around me, while [the]Abbot...cracked the whip of good works above my head and the choir sang incessantly, proclaiming God’s loud glory. It seems to me that I have never gone anywhere except deeper into that silence, which is a kind of nowhere. Even now, once in a long while, the grace of that silence comes upon me anew, at the heart of my broken morning prayer, and everything seems all right. I sit quite still, with nothing moving in me and nothing, blessedly, wanting to move. It is a feeling so quiet that to call it joy seems a kind of distortion. It is peace. There is nothing else: no direction, no desire, no particular clarity about my place in the world. Just peace. I don’t see how I could possibly offer that peace to the world...It is only in dying to the world that such peace comes. Nailed to the rude cross of our inevitable failings, helpless and abandoned, we see the world slip away, in spite of our best efforts to cling to it...and that peace comes...God is the nail that splits our palms to break our grip on the world. He is an unfathomable darkness. He’s not what you want to hear...

- Sometimes God is present to us
as barreness/emptiness. Because we’re so much more interested in the consolations of God, rather than in the God of consolation, God is consistently cheating us of our dreams, says Louis Evely, in order to teach us hope. Unwilling to give us less than Godself, God allows us to feel the emptiness which can only lead us to seek the One Whom we know that we can’t do without. The novel’s character, Michael Christopher, again: “...My prayer life has run aground. I am lost, disheartened, demoralized...My mind is a stretch of barren country and swirling dust; my heart has shriveled to the size of a dried pea...The emptiness of prayer is deeper than despair. Preparing us for a love we cannot conceive, God takes our lesser notions of love from us one by one...
Have you never once seen all your goodness turn to dust? I tell you that until you do, all your prayer is worse than useless...
” (pp. 65-66)
...I am a futility. The life of prayer begins with that...” (p. 166)

- And sometimes God is present
as quiet undemonstrable love. In the novel, The Monk Downstairs, Michael, the ex-monk, and his upstairs landlord, a woman named Rebecca, at one point both finally attain the inner courage to admit that they, indeed, love each other, at the same time acknowledging a mutual, and very scary, feeling of the unknown toward which this relationship is drawing them. In the midst of this, Michael gives a wonderful commentary on God’s presence to the soul as “quiet undemonstrable love”: “...But there are richer fruits of prayer. Deeper than a sense of sin and unworthiness, deeper than the self-contempt, the dryness, and the futility of will, the truest revelation of the endless fall through the self toward God is a sense of genuine nothingness. This ‘humility’ is no affectation; it is no false modesty calculated to ease the usual traffic of egos; it is simply realism. I am nothing. I have looked within, long and hard, for the soul that would hasten into God, and in the end I was not there. What is left when we get to the bottom of the self, when we have exhausted all our tricks? Real prayer is a disappearance, a surrender to the embrace of deepening mystery, in darkness. In that darkness, finally, God alone is. And God is infinite surprise. So say that I have been surprised by love, surprised by desire...say that I have finally found a reason to struggle with myself...” (pp. 192-193)

Real prayer is a disappearance, a surrender...” to the embrace of the mystery of Love, of God who alone is and is present in us, the God of “infinite surprise”. In prayer we need always hold our preconceptions of God in abeyance, lest we miss the Reality of Godself which God chooses to give us. In accepting that gift, whatever and however it may be, we choose to live with contradiction. We refuse to refuse. We let go of all our expectations of God and how God “should be” for us, and simply, humbly accept what IS.

The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel describes this whole process we’ve been talking about as one of handing over all, handing over our will, in order to “
have treasure” in the reign, the kingdom, which Jesus is establishing. The young man who approached Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is shocked and put off by Jesus response, Mark tells us, “because he had many possessions...” And even the Apostles, who’d been with Jesus for some time on the road, who had seen him in selfless action -- even they are put off by Jesus’ words. But Jesus leaves no doubt about what he is asking of anyone who truly wants to follow him, to live in his Presence: “ hard it is to enter the kingdom of God...” You must give ALL; there can be no priority above God in our life. Impossible?? - because that’s what the young man and the

Apostles (and we, if we’re really honest) thought/think. “
Yes,” Jesus says, “For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible...” And if you’re willing to take the risk, to endure, in your giving, what feels like emptiness, like God’s absence, then you’ll find yourself, strangely, having all you need and, most importantly, “in the age to come [which is, paradoxically, already beginning now], eternal life.

The choice, as for Job, for the Psalmist, for the young man, and the Apostles, is yours and mine.

My Lord, You have heard the cry in my heart
because it was You Who cried out within my heart.
Forgive me for having tried to evoke Your presence in my own silence.
It is You Who must create me within Your own silence!
Only this newness can save me from idolatry!...
(Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island (p. 232)

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