The Silence of God

"Pieta," van Gogh

I am not the only one and certainly not the first, to experience “the silence of God.” St. John of the Cross, the Counter-Reformation divine, wrote of his experiences in The Dark Night of the Soul. When I read the book, about twenty years ago, I could understand it intellectually, but I had never experienced it. Even in depression and grief, God was a living Presence within me. I knew that I had to go through the valley, and He was guiding me. I would make it, despite moments of horror when I feared I wouldn’t.

Chris Armstrong (http://gratefultothedead.wordpress.com)  has written three posts on the experience of losing sight of God as it affected three famous and dedicated Christians, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther, and C.S.Lewis. They were afflicted as mature Christians, with years of faith behind them. Mother Teresa’s “dark night” lasted most of her years of ministry.

When I referred to Chris’s posts on facebook, I got a lot of puzzled responses from friends. “How can God be silent?” “God is still present, even if we don’t see Him.” Yes, true. God is always present; God speaks to us in scripture. But for a Christian who has known the ineffable joy of the presence of God for years, the withdrawal of intimacy is devastating.

If one expresses this loss, Job’s comforters come to visit. “You must have an unconfessed sin.” “Why did you ever think God favoured you in such a way?” “It is your spiritual pride, you have to kill that and humble yourself, or God wouldn’t need to do it for you.”

And if I now say, “This is my dark night,” someone will rush in with a solution to make it all go away. But it doesn’t work that way. I have spent almost all my life with the sense of the presence of God, and He has stepped away now. I had prescience, and insight. I could pray for guidance, and get it. I was confident in God’s will. And that is gone.

At first I blamed the church. And I may be right; so often the whole congregation, priest included, is going through the motions of worship, as if that is all faith is. The liturgy, music and sermon are about something else rather than the presence of God. It is about politics, or modernity, or praise of ourselves and not God. There is no centering, there is no epiclesis, a calling down of the Spirit, even when one is said. The Holy Spirit goes where it will; it cannot be tamed or commanded. When the gathering becomes about where the altar is placed, or which hymnal is used, or if we call God “you” or “thou,” we are there for our own purposes and not His. (“You shall have your reward,” He said.) When it becomes about us, it stops being about Him.

It’s been three years since I have felt the Spirit flow through the gathering like a cool wind from the ocean. I have gone through the motions myself, attending divine liturgy and receiving the sacrament often. That is where we meet Him, isn’t it? But all that focus hasn’t helped. To say, “What were you doing before that changed?” will net no answer. I don’t know what has changed. We moved away from more traditional services and being among those who have a more spiritual understanding of the church, but my own attitude is still traditional and spiritual. The church is still a hospital for sinners, not a tent for saints.

The presence of God has left my daily prayers and disciplines. I go through them obediently, but it is simply an exercise. I know it is efficacious to pray, and I see the results of prayer around me, but God has moved far enough away from me that He is no longer visible to me, as if He decided one night to fold His tents and encamp across the river, out of my sight.

Mother Teresa realized that the long silence of God was teaching her empathy. She entered into a poverty of spirit that matched the poverty of those she served. This is how the poor always feel, that they are excluded from the deserving righteous. The truly poor have no expectation that tomorrow will be a blessing, and almost certainly expect it to be at least as fraught with rejection as today. Since we are living in great poverty ourselves, I am aware that the blessing we may get, if not tomorrow, but sometime soon, could be illness, starvation, and homelessness. God’s children do not always prosper in this world, and many will die as martyrs to this holy war we call supply side economics. Those who cannot produce will die; they are superfluous.

I am denied the altar still. I find that almost unbearable. And then I wonder if the bishop is justified; that indeed I have committed an unforgiveable sin, that even God has turned from me. Discipline is just discipline, and not a path to renewed spiritual energy. Even my body is rebelling, rejecting modern life and its chemical matrix.

We live an isolated life, and yet I wish it to be more isolated. My self-criticism gets imagined as the critique of others, and it is not favourable. I wish to avoid Job’s comforters, who will call up Psalms and gospel lessons, offer platitudes and hollow encouragement. What I really need is a Virgil to guide me, or at least to say, “It’s a dark road; I’ve walked it, too, and someday you will reach the end.”

 

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7 thoughts on “The Silence of God

  1. I can only speak for myself. In the past it seems whenever I have become complacent and cool in my faith or even at other times when I have felt Gods presence joyfully like Peter on the mountain wanting never to come back down into the valley I seem to loose that closeness. It’s like Jesus has stepped into the boat and traveled across the lake, leaving me behind with only my discipline and obedience as a guide. It is then that I become the seeker racing through the the secret garden searching for my Love. I discover that I am being propelled into another level or depth of my journey to God. All unaware to me except for that emptyness felt within. And so I wait. These have been of short durations some from a few months to a few years. Sometimes I think that there may come a time that this could last a very long time but I don’t know. I have reflected on these periods and this is what I have come to believe. He said “Follow me” and I did. He said “Pick up your cross” and I did. I feel these times of not feeling His presence have been a preparation. A preparation for the gift of sharing in his passion as He also felt that abandonment of the Father as he hung on the cross. The Lord has a place for us and its through the cross that we get there. This too shall pass and all will be well, all will be well.

  2. Magdalena,

    I find myself constrained to comment, though the vast majority of words at this point would be counter-productive at best; ‘Jobish’ at worst. As you travel across the valley floor, yet to reach the first indications of incline, it will be my privelege to journey a spell with you, even if words are not forthcoming from your side of the ocean…feel free to email me off list; I know the telephone is largely onerous for you, but I would be happy to speak to you (feel free to email me details if you wish).

    As for the unforgiveable sin, for what its worth, an old retired SDA pastor once said of it, if we even remotely wonder if indeed we might have in fact crossed the line and committed it, ‘if the bishop might be right after all’, this in and of itself is a clear indication that we have not. (counter-intuitive I know, but it is the most sensible answer to this vexing question I’ve ever heard). I cannot imagine the emptiness of spirit that is troubling you – ‘the ‘clean but empty and silent room’, as Hemingway puts it.

    It is an honour to journey with you, if such is not an invasion on my part.

    Love and God’s blessings to you always,

    Sarah,
    Australia.

  3. I have no answers to your questions or anything of much value to say.
    But I want you to know, Magdalena, that I sense your pain and will pray for you. I am going to my house bible study group tonight (I live in England and it’s the clock on my computer says 18:39 as I type this) and I will pray for you there with my Christian friends.
    God bless you.
    Kay

  4. I Kings 19:11,12 …And behold the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

    I pray that after the appointed time, you again will hear that still small voice in which the Lord speaks.

    I agree that we are not to warm the pews. We are to disciple. You still are doing that even though you may not “feel” you are.

    Continue to be genuine and trust that which God has given you, He does not take back (the Holy Spirit).

    Colossians 1:26,27 tells us that “The mystery…hidden for ages…is now revealed to His holy people (the saints), To whom God was pleased to make known how great for the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ within and among you, the Hope of [realizing the] glory.

    He is still with you. Don’t let yourself be deceived, regardless of what you may or may not feel.

    I don’t mean to sound preachy, I am concerned for you. I see what you are going through physically. I pray your spirit will not suffer so.

    This past year you have been such a blessing and answered prayer to me.

    Love
    Milli

  5. What you write about here has also become familiar territory for me. The sense of pointlessness is what I feel most acutely. It has altered not my faith but my experience.
    The only thing I find helps anything ever is always simplifying – simplifying anything I can in any area of life.
    Also I sniff the air of depression in your writing sometimes, and exhaustion. I notice how hard you work and how your good and wonderful lifestyle choices have yet left you hemmed in by work to be done on every side. Your health problems have raided your rest. A person needs the triad of work, rest and leisure to do well, and our work is fuelled by money, time and energy. You are low on money, your energy has been cruelly sapped by illness, and your time is finite – hence I here and now cry to the Lord for you for His provision of resources to lift and cheer and energise you, in Jesus’ holy Name, Amen, You have work a-plenty, but less rest than you need and not nearly enough leisure – things to divert and amuse, fill your imagination, make you laugh, give you a holiday from the everyday. I here and now cry to the Lord for you that He will provide for your rest – deep, peaceful, refreshing rest, the cool waters and gentle sleep of the soul – and that He will provide for your leisure; friends that make you laugh, diverting pastimes, inbuilt vacations, restorative fun; in Jesus’ holy Name, Amen. And I ask that He will send you help, tailored to your needs, so that you can walk your chosen path but not so burdened.
    I and you both know He is close, He is near, He has not gone anywhere, regardless of our ability to feel Him present. God bless you Magdalena.
    “Thou, O Lord, art a shield about me; my glory and the lifter of my head”. x

    • The Lord has anticipated your prayers, and granted rest and healing. This is the season of my life, and it is only a season. I am storming heaven with prayer that I will once again have the productive life in the Church I had, and perhaps better, since I believe I am much improved! Pray that once Synod is over the bishop will feel more inclined to undertake the needs of his forlorn and outcast priests – as we are not the only ones hanging fire.

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