Monday, February 14, 2011

Signs (Reflections on Mark 8:11-13)

Why were the Pharisees denied the signs they had asked for? The answer’s quite simple: Jesus denied them the signs they wanted because no matter what sign he gave them, they wouldn’t have recognized and believed it anyway. Their stubbornness, insincerity, and hardness of heart would have prevented them from seeing what ever sign Jesus provided.

But what if we were to ask a different question: Could God deny us signs, even if we were sincerely asking for them? What if no sign is given, not because of the hardness of one’s heart? What if there is no sign, simply because there isn’t any? “Why am I not feeling anything?” was a question a very thoughtful but struggling seminarian asked me a couple of months ago. “What do I do, I feel nothing? Where have all the signs gone?"

The great Christian mystics tell us that the spiritual life involves two distinct but related phases: a period of consolation, and that of desolation. God, they say, sends us both: in prayer, in our vocation, in our day to day living, in our relations with people, and yes, even in our relationship with God himself.

Think of those moments when you feel everything’s alright; when your heart feels like it wants to sing God’s praises because everything’s going well. You’re able to concentrate in prayer, focus on your work or your studies, your relationships are good, and life in general is the way you want it to be. Such moments of consolation, the mystics tell us, are God’s gifts.

But then, these moments pass, and instead of feeling on top of the world, you suddenly feel barren, arid and dry, not only spiritually, but in the other areas of your life as well. And no matter how hard you try to snap out of it, no matter how hard you pray and ask God to rid you of the dryness and restore your zest for things, no matter how hard you work, you can’t seem to get rid of the feeling of emptiness.

These are the moments of desolation that come to us all; the saints sometimes call it “the dark night”.

But they also tell us that it is at such moments that we must remember that for one who sincerely desires to know God and love Him, the absence of signs could very well be itself a sign. The absence of signs is itself the sign. At such moments, paradoxically, the presence of God is known through his very absence; and desolation, like consolation and the fervor we once felt, is also God’s gift.

It is during such moments of dryness, when we don’t seem to feel anything, when the usual consolations and highs of prayer, life and ministry suddenly seem absent that we have to recognize the invitation God is putting before us. And it’s the invitation to ask ourselves why we chose to follow Him in the first place. Was it because of the consolations and highs that we felt? Was it because of the signs God had given us? Or did we seek to follow, know, and love God because of God himself?

For it is when we experience the dryness and desolation of the spiritual life that we are able to discern the gifts from the Giver, the consolation from the Consoler, the signs from the One they signify. And as we slowly distinguish the two, we come to realize that it isn’t the gifts, or the consolations, or the signs that must ultimately matter to us, but God himself, and Him alone”.

The occasional absence of signs—the spiritual dryness we all go through every so often—is an invitation to deepen our faith and mature in our vocation to follow Christ. “Father, why am I not feeling anything?” Why are there no signs?

The answer is simple. Christ wants us to follow him, know him, be intimate with him, and slowly learn to give up looking for signs.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)