Those Long Seasons of Divine Absence
Long ago, a psalmist wrote that weeping or mourning may linger for a night, “but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)
Nice thought. Great promise. I like it. I believe it.
But, sometimes it doesn’t seem to work.
Sometimes the weeping, the mourning, the sadness, the pain, the suffering, the bereavement, the depression or anxiety, the malaise or melancholy, the loneliness and loss, lasts for months or years. Sometimes physical or emotional suffering is chronic rather than acute. Not everyone breaks free of the cycle of poverty. Sometimes, we go to bed mourning and wake up weeping.
America loves a winner. American culture resists chronic suffering. We tend to blame the victims, or ignore them by shuffling them off the scene. Friends stop calling. We despise what we label a “pity-party.” The quintessential American message: “Buck up; build a bridge and get over it; pull yourself together; have faith; trust God.” All of which drives the lamenting person deeper into isolation.
Exploring the causes of our despair gives us some understanding and insight, thereby relieving a bit of the confusion, but it does little to alleviate the pain. We’re still left with the heart-cry, “God, where are you?” Is God unable or unwilling to step in? Is God uncaring or distracted? Does God even exist? What happened to all those biblical promises? Exactly which morning will bring joy? Or, is it all pie in the sky by and by?
I once knew much.
Now, I know almost nothing.
I was so much older back then.
I leapt into the slough.
My companion was tossed there by circumstances
And still a third was shoved by the heartless
Thick gooey saturated organic matter has a will of its own –
Demonic and deadly, it sucks us down, imprisons—
We are helpless to extricate ourselves
Our efforts lead to greater adherence
Abandoned, we weep
Our comrades moved on
Aloneness closes in
Prayers bounce back undeliverable
No inner voice of love
A universe cold and empty
Marching relentlessly to
Splinters of a life.
Why, O, God?
Where are you?
Why have you abandoned us
At such a time when we need you the most?
Do you not see us stuck and slowly sinking?
Are you blind and deaf?
Or, don’t you care?
Is this any way to treat your friends?
Our harps hang on the weeping willow
John of the Cross (1542-1591) wrote of dark nights of the soul, by which he meant extended periods when God seems absent, when prayers go unanswered, when no joy comes, morning after morning.
Among many other things, he wrote:
“In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God.”
“In the inner stillness where meditation leads, the Spirit secretly anoints the soul and heals our deepest wounds.”
“Love consists not in feeling great things but in having great detachment and in suffering for the Beloved. The soul that is attached to anything, however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of Divine union.”
A salient point John of the Cross is making, and one reiterated by Christian mystics throughout the ages, is that in those times when God seems absent, we need to learn to release anything and everything to which we are attached.
Before John, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) called this “indifference.” He did not mean a “Who cares?” attitude; he meant learning to hold everything loosely – being so in love with God that our circumstances don’t affect us.
It’s what Rumi was getting at in his Guest House poem:
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond
How do we let go? How do we come to Ignatian indifference? To a place where we can welcome and entertain even sorrows, disappointments, and defeats as guides sent from God? If “bright flows the river of God” in those times when God seems most absent, how do we learn to see it, connect with it, flow with it?
Could it be that God is not absent? Could it be that God is speaking to us in an unknown tongue? We may be used to God speaking to us in scripture or prayer. Perhaps God is now speaking in restlessness, tears, anxiety, and sorrow. Is it possible that what we are feeling is God?
I do not mean to imply that God causes pain and suffering, nor that the Holy Spirit afflicts God’s Beloved children. Sorrow and suffering result from the freewill of humans, angelic beings, and nature itself. All that God created is free – free to rebel, free to inflict, free to misuse, free to mutate.
The question is not who or what caused the suffering, but where God is in the midst of suffering. If we can learn from the great saints, the answer is that God is suffering with us, choosing solidarity with us.
If we listen deeply, we may feel God’s tears mingling with our own; we may hear the sob of Deity in our own cries; we may even find a whisper of Divine Eternal Comfort in our own thoughts.
Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) said, “When prayer reaches its ultimate, words are impossible.”
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)
There have been times when my only prayer was a convulsive sob.
And that is enough.