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.”