When God Feels Absent
Based on Job 23:1-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia, in late August 1910. By the age of 12 she knew she had a calling from God to be a missionary. At 18 she left her family home and entered the Order of the Sisters of Loreto – an Irish group of women religious that did missionary work in India. She took her vows in 1931 and taught and worked for the rest of her life in Calcutta with the poorest citizens. From 1950 until the end of her life she founded and ran the Order of Missionaries of Charity; the world knew her as Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta.
Pictures of Mother Teresa most often showed her smiling, especially when surrounded by children. Yet, from 1947 until her last breath fifty years later, with one brief month of respite in 1958, she endured a “darkness” in her spiritual life. A spiritual desert where she could no longer feel God at work or know the consolation and joy of the feeling of God’s presence. Her words describe this experience: “…In the darkness . . . Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love — and now become as the most hated one. The one — you have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer . . . Where 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. Love — the word — it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul….”
Our scriptures for today offer us glimpses of this kind of spiritual experience. From Job’s cries to an apparently unresponsive God, to Jesus’ dialogue with a rich man, and the writer of Hebrews speaking of how it is we can and should come before Jesus in our time of need, we are offered different views of spiritual darkness, and the hope of our faith. Let us go to God in praise and thanks that we are never left to face the darkness alone…
St. John of the Cross wrote about the dark night of the soul almost 400 years ago. The “la noche oscura” is less a crisis of faith or abandonment by God as it has often been characterized, and more a letting go of preconceived notions and idolized attachments. Oscura in Spanish means “to be obscured” as the world appears when we are in the dark without any light at all. During a spiritual dark night, what is being obscured from our intellects is the activity of God removing our cherished idols. It doesn’t mean that God is far away or absent altogether, it just means that the activities of God are not readily apparent to our senses. God may indeed feel absent during this time, and this can be highly unsettling and painful especially if, like Mother Teresa, in previous times the presence of God was strongly felt. This is where we pick up our scriptures today…
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is interacting with a rich man who tells Him that he follows what the law teaches and he has done this “since my youth”. Jesus loves the rich man for his dedication and tells him that in order to inherit eternal life he must detach from all his things and then come and follow Him. The rich man cannot detach from the idol of all that he has acquired and goes away from the encounter “grieving”. The follow-up interaction that Jesus has with the Disciples and with Peter suggest that they too are struggling with detaching from some idols that are getting in the way of their spiritual growth.
We encounter Job this week as he is replying to Eliphaz, the third of his friends to offer their views on his situation. Job feels oppressed by God, in spite of his prayers for relief. Job would seek out God if only he knew where God was. He doesn’t feel the presence of God at all – consider verses 8 and 9: “…If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him….” Yet, Job would plead his case that he has “…kept his [God’s] way and have not turned aside…” in all that has befallen him. Sounds a lot like what Mother Teresa wrote, doesn’t it?
I have come to learn, through spiritual direction and continued spiritual growth that God is never absent – it is only my inability to perceive God’s presence. This altered perception can make the feeling of the absence of God acute and quite painful. As we have heard from Saint Teresa of Calcutta, she endured fifty years of feeling that God wasn’t near and didn’t care. What was happening to her? I believe that she was experiencing her “dark night of the soul”, and that God was working to transform her into the saint that she was to become.
St. John of the Cross and his spiritual mentor and friend Teresa of Avila had much to teach about dark nights. Their main teaching is that we all go through times of spiritual pain and obscuring of the activity of God and the Holy Spirit in our lives. There are times when we will be overcome with emotion and gratitude, or alternatively, where spiritual life is so difficult that we have to really be intentional about attending church and to our spiritual disciplines. Both of these are dark nights and it is at these times that God is removing something we idolized…allowing us the freedom to deepen our love for God.
You see, we are all like the rich man. We acquire many things and they attract and hold our attention and our loyalty. In spiritual terms, they become idols. They may be strongly held viewpoints, routines that become rigid and inflexible, attendance to the needs/wants/desires of others to the neglect of self, upward mobility no matter the cost, the list of our idols is endless! Even our religious beliefs can turn into idols where we worship the belief/doctrine/dogma instead of the One to whom those things point (Jesus had much to teach about this). God asks us to give all this up so that we can grow into love of God and all of God’s creation.
How might this apply to Job? Well, we might posit that Job needed to be weaned of his many possessions, even though he was a righteous man. We can argue the way that it was done was truly harsh, but in the end we will see his deepened faith. Saints Teresa and John had many decades of obscured relationship with God, but they both came through with a freedom to love God more fully and well. This transformation happened to Job as well. I wonder if Job saw the world and his replaced possessions in a different way than he had before? I wonder if he regarded them all in a different way – with a lack of idolatry, than before everything was taken away? This is what “la noche oscura” does for all of us. It weans us from the things that have become idols and replaces them with the freedom to deepen our love for God. Less and less do we seek to replace God with things, more and more we seek the presence of God.
In our spiritual growth we must endure times where God seems absent, where the work of God is obscured from us, where prayer is challenging and worship seems dry or uninteresting. We must understand that this is God’s way of pruning us so that we might be fruitful; of transforming us into our God image. Jesus said to the rich man, “…You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me….” Likewise, St. John of the Cross wrote: “…To achieve satisfaction in everything, desire it in nothing. To possess everything, desire to have nothing. To be everything, desire to be nothing. To know everything, desire to know nothing….”
Does God sometimes feel absent? Hear the truth good people of faith: God loves us and will never leave us the way we are. Sometimes God must feel absent so that the work of God can happen without our awareness – so we don’t get in the way of our transformation; like Job’s deepened relationship or Agnes’ transformation to sainthood. In this way, absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, and more capable of loving God. Thanks be to God! Amen.