July 16, 2009

Prayer and the Absence of God

In his work, Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom reflects on the experience of the Absence of God. Not only do ordinary Christians struggle with this, but even ministers of the Gospel, even priests are not exempt from this haunting experience of faith. This experience as suffered in the priesthood is explored in fiction in, among many other works, Endo Shusako’s Silence, Miguel de Unamuno’s St. Emmanuel the Good, Martyr, and Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest. In the world of non-fiction, this same experience is a striking feature of Jean Bernard’s autobiographical reflections in Priestblock 25487: A memoir of Dachua and Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan thoughts about his own imprisonment in Testimony of Hope. Anthony Bloom’s insights into prayer and the absence of God provide a reference point for interpreting and dealing with what these authors describe as part of the experience of priests - and this is very consistent with the Carmelite Spiritual tradition.

Only when we really begin to pray, begin to deal with the seeming absence of God in our lives, are we ready for the gift of prayer. Along these lines, Anthony Bloom explains that prayer is a free, personal relationship, and at the same time, a moment of judgment – a crisis in which the truth about ourselves is revealed to us. This means prayer involves both freedom and suffering.

In terms of freedom, this means prayer begins as something I must freely choose as a priority of my heart. If it is not a true priority, there is simply not the freedom of heart that prayer requires. Real freedom is the ability to choose something with passionate determination rather than merely a resigned sense of duty. We can only make something a priority by love. Real freedom is rooted in love, purposeful surrender to the promptings of love within us.

Compared to the loving desires of God, we must be careful to bear in mind that human freedom is only a small part of the equation. It is a drop of water thrown upon the rushing wave of Divine Freedom. This means true prayer precludes all conscious and unconscious attempts to manipulate God. He is free and sovereign to relate to us as He wills, when He wills, for his own purposes. We must learn to go to Him in humble trust, with empty hands, wholly vigilant for his Coming.

This does not mean to refrain from presenting the Lord heartfelt anxieties and concerns. In each of the works above, profound anxieties drive priests in their search for God, even in the case of Unamuno's anti-hero who has an aversion to prayer. Some assert that God allows us to suffer some trials because He knows that we will not remember Him when we are too comfortable. Crisis, anxiety, stress - these are things that drive us to God. But giving primacy to God's freedom sometimes means patiently dealing with what feels like his absence.

Respecting the primacy of God's freedom in prayer means trust in his love even when He does not seem to respond to our concerns. Sometimes, we want the comfort of his presence, but it seems absent. Those who have experienced this know what the absence of God means. John of the Cross calls it a dark night. This night is so important to true Christian prayer he also calls it “sheer grace.” It is a very vulnerable place to be when we come before the Lord with our anxieties and concerns while attempting to trust Him and his plan for us.

Anthony Bloom gets to this same aspect of prayer when he calls it a moment of judgment, of crisis. The mask needs to come off. The prosaic myths we have surrounded ourselves with must fall to the wayside. We need to suffer the truth about who we really are before the face of God.

The characters in the works by Shusako and Unamuno do not deal with this dramatic moment of prayer. In different ways, the anti-heroes of these works judge God and the faith of the Church, but they do not have a personal encounter with the Lord that goes beyond the prosaic. Instead, they avoid or desert what could be a profound encounter as what is merely prosaic in their lives is stripped away from them.

Bernanos on the other hand allows his character to drink in such an experience, even to what seems to be its absurd last drop. This is also what happens in the real life experiences of Bernard and van Thuan. Unlike Shusako and Unamuno, these authors are able to get to something of the truth of human greatness, of the heroic precisely because they enter more deeply into what seems to be the absurdity of faith in the face of the absence of God.
John of the Cross has much better images for what we have explored here as the absence of God and the absurdity of faith. We have already glimpsed at “the dark night.” In Spiritual Canticle, he speaks of God and faith as “hidden.”

This poem begins with an anxious search for the bridegroom who has awaken his beloved from slumber but then ran off into hiding. She must find him who waits for her in their secret trysting place. But to find someone who is in hiding requires that one enter into hidden places. What St. John of the Cross is describing is the search for the Lord who can only be discovered in faith. Faith goes beyond prosaic myths we have produced in our own imaginations about the Lord. We all have these, and for most of our lives, they go unquestioned. But then there is an awakening and we find ourselves searching for something which no myth can satisfy. We soon discover that this something is really a Someone who is waiting for us, yearning for us to find Him. St. John of the Cross explains that when our hearts are awakened in this way, we find ourselves calling out, “Where have you hidden?”

Now on this point, we reach a beautiful convergence in the teaching of Anthony Bloom and St. John of the Cross. Both of them deny that the experience of the absence of God is really an experience of God not being present. He is always present, but in a hidden way, a way that requires us to seek him in faith. Where is he present? St. John of the Cross says that he is present in our own heart.

“Come, then, O beautiful soul! Since you know now that your desired Beloved lives hidden within your heart, strive to be really hidden with him, and you will embrace him within you and experience him with loving affection.” Spiritual Canticle, 1.10