Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Cloak of Darkness

She was in her late forties when it all seemed to start crumbling within. Ever since she was a little girl growing up in Macedonia, she'd had first a fascination, then a burning passion, to serve God as a missionary, bringing his hope and love to those who needed to meet Jesus in a concrete way. And now, here she was, a quarter of the way around the world, pouring out her life for God in the service of his poor and ill. Not only had she gone into this radical surrender to service, but her mission had gathered others as well, all looking to her as their spiritual example. “If only they knew,” she thought to herself. She certainly didn't feel inwardly like a role model.

Once, God had seemed real enough to reach out and touch. She'd heard his voice. She'd called him her friend. Now she called him her 'Absent One.' “There is that separation, that terrible emptiness, that feeling of absence of God,” she wrote.1 “I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no one on whom I can cling, no, not one. … Where is my faith? Even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. … When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.”2 “In my soul, I just feel that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”3 “Heaven from every side is closed.”4 “Darkness is such that I really do not see … The place of God in my soul is blank.”5

Those were not the words of a failure or a spiritual drop-out. They were the words of Mother Teresa, not just for a season, but prolonged over years and years. And while we Evangelicals might be tempted to instinctively judge her – or anyone who feels that emptiness inside – as not the saint she's reputed to be, there's the thorny complication that the psalmists in our own Bible say things that sound just like that. “How long, O God?” asks one of them. “Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Don't reject us forever! Why do you hide your face?” (Psalm 44:23-24). “O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14). Show any one of those psalmists the writings of Mother Teresa, and they nod with a real understanding of that pain of loss, of separation, of perplexing absence and emptiness. The psalmists hadn't asked those pained questions on a lark. They asked God why he was hidden because they couldn't sense him. They asked why their soul had been cast aside because they felt abandoned and forgotten in the dark.

These past few Lenten Sundays, we've been taking a look at some of the ways in which our spiritual lives might meet a real struggle – obstacles presented to our spiritual activities, like a sense of dryness, like distraction, and so on. But now we come to the granddaddy of spiritual struggles. What if you've just lost your sense of God? What if he seems nowhere to be found? Or what if, when you pray, it feels like you're throwing words up in the air and watching them smack the ceiling and come crashing back down? What if praying feels like talking to yourself with extra steps? The appearance of God's absence, the darkness and emptiness, the temptation to doubt whether he's available to you or even real at all – now that would lend itself to a spiritual struggle.

And, okay, maybe that's not you. Maybe that's never been you. Maybe God has always been completely there, totally obvious, to the eyes and ears of your heart. Maybe you just can't identify with this. That's great. But for others, and maybe some of you here this morning, it isn't so. Maybe you wrestle with those doubts, maybe you can't find and perceive God, maybe your spiritual activities go unconsoled. Maybe you know what the psalmist meant when he said, “Darkness is my only companion” (Psalm 88:18). I know I've been there. When I read those psalms, when I hear Mother Teresa, I've known those doubts and questions and fears and pains, I've known that emptiness and that darkness and that crushing absence. If you've been there, you are far, far from alone.6

Before we get to explaining that experience, there's a reminder I want to give you first. In times like the ones we're talking about, it may be tempting to doubt that there is a God, to have a sneaking suspicion that above us is an empty sky. But, irrespective of what you may feel or not feel, hear or not hear, see or not see, there is a God. It's just that he isn't one of the things inside the universe. He's over and above the creation he made, and under it, too, at its roots, “for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36). It's in him that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Everything you see around you is something that could have not existed. There's a difference between what it is and that it is. But in God, what he is and that he is are the exact same thing. God is Infinite Existence, the one who essentially just is Existence. “I Am That I Am,” is how he defined himself at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). And since God is Infinite Existence, everything else that exists does so by borrowing existence from God, by sharing what he generously shares with it.7 That's why, as Paul said, “he is actually not far from each one of us,” no matter who or what we are (Acts 17:27). Get to the root of your very existence, and God is there, closer to you than you are. Once we understand, then we know God exists and isn't absent. How do you know? You exist, and existing means borrowing existence from God, who is present at the root of you. He carries you around, sustaining you above the abyss of non-being, and that's an act of love. It's his love that wills you into existence at every moment, that chooses to share existence with you. God's reality and God's love are, in that sense, the most obvious facts about the universe or your life.8

With that assurance in mind, there are at least nine possible explanations for why you sometimes might feel like God is absent, why you might not be able to perceive him when you pray or read your Bible or come to church or just go about your daily life. The first of those reasons could be unrepented sin. Isaiah says to some people in his day, “Your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). If we're carrying a burden of sin that we haven't set down, then it can act as logs in our eyes and plugs in our ears. Spiritually, it can mess with our perception, and block God from view. Micah says something similar, that “they will cry to the LORD, but he will not answer them; he will hide his face from them at that time, because they have made their deeds evil” (Micah 3:4). If our actions set us at odds with God, he might himself choose to veil himself from our perception. In either case, the obvious solution is to repent.

A similar second reason why God might seem absent would be approaching with a wrong attitude. In Proverbs, it's said: “Because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof..., they will seek me diligently, but will not find me” (Proverbs 1:25, 28). Hosea wrote that “with their flocks and herds they shall go to seek the LORD, but they will not find him; he has withdrawn from them” (Hosea 5:6). And Jesus himself gave thanks to his Father for having “hidden these things from the 'wise and understanding'” (Luke 10:21). Suppose there's a person who's looking for God, but coming with a mistrustful heart, or an angry heart. Suppose there's a person who's determined to judge any encounter with God by his or her own standard. Well, God's goal isn't just to make himself known. His goal is to turn us into people of pure love. And it's possible that, if we found God with the wrong attitude, we'd become less loving, not more. Where that's the case, it would make sense, in light of his goal, for him to withdraw from view.9 The same is true if we're prone to take God for granted. If we are, then his silence could be a wake-up call for our own good, to break our pride or our complacency.10

Those first two reasons are, admittedly, things where it's sort of our fault if God seems absent. But they aren't all like that. There's a third reason God might seem absent, and that has to do with our body, our brain. Don't forget, we aren't just spiritual people, we're physical people, and the two are all tangled up together. There are areas in our brains that seem connected to religious experience. Experiments have been done with it, to see if those can be triggered artificially. So, if something gets in the way of those brain areas functioning well, then unless a miracle occurs to bypass that faulty system, our soul might have trouble recognizing God. Maybe this happens sometimes in depression.11 It can certainly happen in dementia. I once read a memoir by a pastor who got diagnosed with Alzheimer's, who wrote: “This personal and tender relationship that I had with the Lord was no longer there. … O God, I cannot see you through the darkness that fills my mind and so terrorizes me, but please see me and take care of me in my absolute confusion.”12 Such brain issues can artificially obscure him from view, though he's there.

In that, I'm reminded of the story of Bartimaeus from the Gospels. He was that blind beggar at Jericho, sitting roadside, when he caught a rumor that Jesus would soon be passing by (Mark 10:46-47). Now, Bartimaeus couldn't see Jesus. To him, looking toward Jesus and looking away from Jesus were indistinguishable. But in spite of the darkness, Bartimaeus was convinced Jesus must be there, or at least might be there, even though the impairment in his body obscured Jesus from his senses. So he kept crying out (Mark 10:47-48). When Jesus got close, it wasn't even his voice that Bartimaeus heard; it was the disciples, telling him Jesus was speaking, even when Bartimaeus couldn't hear it (Mark 10:49). Believing, Bartimaeus leapt into what to him was a blank void, groping his way until he reached Jesus (Mark 10:50-51). But until a miracle happened, Bartimaeus' body kept him from perceiving the Lord who really was present to him, attentive to him. So it can be for us.

But apart from brain conditions, a fourth explanation enters play when we consider other kinds of interference. People today aren't the same as they used to be even a few centuries ago. Before the modern era, people looked in the mirror and saw fuzzy boundaries between self and world; they looked to nature and saw acts of God, looked at their kingdoms and saw organic realities rooted in higher purpose, looked around at a world obviously charged with invisible powers – and this all made sense, especially with no major alternative story telling them they could be fulfilled in a godless universe. But in the past five centuries, all that has changed. People look in the mirror and see a self sharply bounded from the disenchanted world outside. Our education teaches nature as if it were a machine system. Our society looks like a human undertaking, however noble its principles. And we can't forget there's a popular alternative story that claims to fulfill human life without God.13 Growing up in this world, we can imagine what it'd be like to disbelieve, so even when we do believe, it feels more vulnerable, because it's a conscious effort where once it wasn't.14 To add to that, we've become increasingly reliant on technologies that promise control of the world – so we see the world as that which, in principle, we can observe and manipulate. This might make us to understand 'reality' in ways that obstruct our perceiving God as real.15

So all those influences can interfere with our spiritual perception when we pray. But we're also so designed that even without any particular neurological, psychological, cultural, or environmental blocks to perceiving God, it's still something that often asks skill from us. Put a cuneiform tablet from ancient Babylon in front of me, and if I didn't recognize it, I might not even understand that it was writing, let alone know what it means. But if I study and practice, then one day I might see the same tablet and see the meaning right on its surface. Just like that, learning to perceive God is something we might need to practice, maybe through consistency in prayer, and meditating on God, and practicing spiritual disciplines of the type we aim to discuss next Sunday.16 The point here is that this fifth possible explanation for why you might pray and not detect God there is that it might call for some disciplined practice before you can learn how to recognize him, notice him, perceive him.

Then, there's a sixth reason: maybe God deliberately makes himself appear absent for the purpose of training us in patient faith. Isaiah says how God is “a God who hides himself” (Isaiah 45:15), so that Isaiah personally had to declare, “I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face..., and I will hope in him” (Isaiah 8:17). Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), and Peter praises those who don't let their imperception get in the way of believing and loving Jesus: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice...” (1 Peter 1:8). Faith in the darkness is learning to rely on what God has already done, and celebrate it as sufficient to outlast this season of unseeing.17 And the point of this is to help us strengthen our faith and our patience – it's something good for us, and that benefit is why God may hide from view a lot of the time.18 Mary and Martha couldn't understand Jesus' absence when Lazarus was dying, why Jesus hid himself far away – but it was to work a greater miracle, a greater gift.19

There's a seventh explanation that might come into play when God seems absent to you, and that's that God has chosen to meet you in the dark for your own protection, for the sake of a kind of special intimacy. When Moses went up the mountain, he was confronted there by “the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21). Then, when the tabernacle was ready, “the LORD descended in a cloud and stood with him there” (Exodus 34:5). Even Aaron, as high priest, was warned not to barge in, “for I will appear in a cloud over the mercy seat” (Leviticus 16:2). And when Solomon dedicated the First Temple, what happened? “A cloud filled the House of the LORD (1 Kings 8:10), which Solomon explained by saying: “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8:12). Hey, do you see a pattern? “He made darkness his covering” (Psalm 18:11), perhaps because, as he told Moses, “man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Sometimes, God wants to do intimate work on us, and just like a surgeon might sedate you or at least anesthetize you and put up a curtain so you can't see him at work, so God makes our spiritual senses fail and meets us, spiritually, in a cloud of thick darkness, like an intimate night. Entering the dark cloud is then actually getting closer to God, not farther away. “One who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and... believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.”20

But then, after Moses spent time in the thick darkness, he came down and, without even knowing it, his face was shining brilliant light (Exodus 34:29), to the point where his own brother Aaron was scared (Exodus 34:30). The darkness Moses saw was, in reality, making him shine, because the apparent darkness was brightness. And this is our eighth explanation. Sometimes, a light can be so intense that it blinds us and makes things seem dark – or a sound can be so intense that it deafens us and makes things seem quiet. Just so, when God opens himself in ways that press the limits of our ability to receive, the eyes of our heart see his brightest light as a darkness, the ears of our heart hear his loudest voice as a silence. So if God seems absent or distant, it may be that he's actually gotten so close that you're overwhelmed, left to hold on in faith while your spiritual senses adjust.21

Now we're in a realm of paradox, and the last explanation strikes us as even weirder. It may be that God's own Infinite Existence is why we think we can't see or hear God. God is so dynamic that it looks to us like he's just static, standing still, because, in fact, infinite motion is perceptually identical to zero motion. That silence you think is God's absence? It might be the purest expression of God's voice, uttering an infinite number of 'I love yous' so infinitely fast and unceasingly that, to your ears, they're the background noise of the universe, that which Elijah heard simply as a “sound of fine silence” (1 Kings 19:12). That dark void you think is God's absence? It might be the direct sight of God's unveiled face, so vast that in it's bottomless we've never seen anything else – what one spiritual master called “the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge.”22 That emptiness you feel inside? It might be the intimacy of the cross fixed in God's heart.23

Mother Teresa, praying for hours alone in the streets when she didn't think she was praying, eventually came to say: “For the first time in this eleven years, I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is part – a very, very small part – of Jesus' darkness and pain on earth. … More than ever, I surrender myself to him.”24 “I am not alone. I have his darkness. I have his pain. … I know I have Jesus in that unbroken union...”25 She came to recognize the darkness, not as God's absence, but as his mysterious holy presence, the presence of a crucified Christ who is Infinite Existence unimaginably made flesh. Of course, she knew – and we know – that when at last we reach heaven, we'll “see him as he is” (1 John 3:2), see him more vibrantly than our present awareness of anything around or within us. But until then, this cloak of darkness, or even God's own dark face and silent voice, may sometimes distress us with fears of his distance, absence, even falsity or unreality. But he's never even so much as an atom's width away. One day you'll see. Until then, we can only heed the counsel of the Apostle Peter, to “believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9), in Jesus' name. Amen.

1  Mother Teresa to Archbishop Ferdinand Perier, letter dated 8 February 1956, in Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta (Doubleday, 2007), 164.

2  Mother Teresa to Jesus Christ, letter dated November 1958, in Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta (Doubleday, 2007), 187.

3  Mother Teresa to Jesus Christ, letter dated 3 September 1959, in Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta (Doubleday, 2007), 192-193.

4  Mother Teresa to Fr. Lawrence Trevor Picachy, letter dated 20 October 1960, in Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta (Doubleday, 2007), 202.

5  Mother Teresa to Fr. Joseph Neuner, letter dated April 1961, in Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta (Doubleday, 2007), 210.

6  Timothy Gallagher, Struggles in the Spiritual Life: Their Nature and Their Remedies (Sophia Institute Press, 2022), 104.

7  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q.44, a.1.

8  Thomas Acklin and Boniface Hicks, Personal Prayer: A Guide to Receiving the Father's Love (Emmaus Road Publushing, 2019), 127-129.

9  Paul K. Moser, The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 20-21, 76-77.

10  Paul K. Moser, The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 108.

11  Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Brazos Press, 2006), 112-119.

12  Robert Davis, My Journey into Alzheimer's Disease (Tyndale House, 1989), 47, 50.

13  Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap Press, 2007), 25-28.

14  Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap Press, 2007), 13-14.

15  Joseph Minich, Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism (Davenant Institute, 2018), 61-66.

16  Michael C. Rea, The Hiddenness of God (Oxford University Press, 2018), 94-95.

17  Joseph Minich, Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism (Davenant Institute, 2018), 90.

18  Paul K. Moser, The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 108.

19  Timothy Gallagher, Struggles in the Spiritual Life: Their Nature and Their Remedies (Sophia Institute Press, 2022), 76.

20  Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses 1.46, in Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, trs., Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press, 1978), 43.

21  Thomas Acklin and Boniface Hicks, Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father's Love (Emmaus Road Publushing, 2019), 133.

22  Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses 2.163, in Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, trs., Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press, 1978), 95.

23  Thomas Acklin and Boniface Hicks, Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father's Love (Emmaus Road Publushing, 2019), 147.

24  Mother Teresa to Fr. Joseph Neuner, letter dated 11 April 1961, in Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta (Doubleday, 2007), 214.

25  Mother Teresa to Fr. Joseph Neuner, letter dated 23 October 1961, in Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta (Doubleday, 2007), 233.

No comments:

Post a Comment