Several friends have shared with me recently their perception of God’s absence in their lives. One struggles with depression, another is mourning the loss of a loved one and the third is in a spiritual dry spell.
Those conversations drew me back to the dark night experience of Mother Teresa, articulated in the book “Come Be My Light,” which revealed that, in her youth, Mother had prayed to feel what Jesus had experienced on the cross and then was plunged into a decades-long feeling of being abandoned by God. Only gradually did she come to realize that this painful place of spiritual darkness was a participation in the mystery of Jesus’ suffering and death.
Every Advent we hear the beautiful passages from the Old Testament prophets, filled with hope and longing for the coming of the Lord, for the restoration of justice and peace, for a universal salvation, for God to rend the curtain and come down to dwell with his people. As Christians, we know and believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of those deep desires for union with God; he has come to save us and unleash the Kingdom of God into the thick of human history. Christmas is the fulfillment of Advent.
And yet, we sense a deep incompleteness oftentimes in our lives. Peace, justice, mercy and respect seem to elude us more than ever as we scan the morning headlines. Every institution, whether it is the government, the church, the economy, education or health care, seems to be in a profound crisis.
In our own lives, we bear the weight of our human fragility as we cope with unemployment, addictions, broken marriages, sickness, old age or the loss of loved ones. Deep in our bones, we sense that we cannot fix any of this completely on our own, that we need a savior, that God must somehow intervene to set things right.
Here is the struggle. Much of the time, for many of us, God appears to be silent and mysterious, far away and not readily tangible. At times, I have prayed to the Lord in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, pouring out my fears and troubles and I have actually called out loud to God, “Say something! Give me an answer!” But there is only silence. So often, in the despair of our fallen human situation, God seems disturbingly inert. Suffering can break our faith because it feels like divine punishment or, at best, spiritual abandonment.
For me, saints like Mother Teresa, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux offer the solution to this spiritual dilemma through their experience of the dark night. All of them were tested in the crucible of a profound inner suffering during which they felt that God had abandoned them.
Therese went so far as to question the reality of heaven and the existence of God when she was in the tormented throes of her tuberculosis. Mother Teresa, at the height of her spiritual fruitfulness, when she was traveling the world to grow the Missionaries of Charity and serve the poor, felt that God didn’t love her at all.
This terrifying sense of God’s absence seems to be an integral part of the spiritual life, a needed purification on the path of holiness. The mystics would say that God wants to strip us of our false illusions about him and ourselves by seeming to withdraw and remove all consolation. On an intellectual level this makes sense. How will I ever grow deeper into the vast mystery of the divine if I remain content and complacent with spiritual clichés and childish concepts of God? If I want to grow up spiritually, God will have to remove the toys from my playpen and lead me to a more mature sense of his mystery and purpose.
But on an emotional level, this feeling of distance or silence or absence is distressing. We long for a word, an intuition, a caress from God to assure us that he is indeed with us and loves us beyond our imagining. We want to know that we are not alone. Like the prophets, we want God to rend the curtain and come down here in a definitive way that is clear and unmistakable. Yet, the Lord seldom does that on our time schedule or on our terms.
Can we come to see that the mysterious, elusive, silent reality of God is a good thing for us? That the Lord wants to lure us into a quiet and dark place where he can speak to our hearts in a fruitful dialogue of silence? That if we persevere long enough in a disciplined prayer life, we will gradually sense an overwhelming divine presence, even in perceived absence, that the Word will speak in absolute stillness, that God is slowly and gently setting the world and the human heart aright, even when we know nothing about it?
In this holy season of Advent, we dance between the darkness and the light, hope and despair, silence and speech, promise and fulfillment, Christmas and the Second Coming. When you think about it, it is a great place to be.