Monday, February 13, 2012

What if God sends us no "sign"? (A brief reflection on the Pharisees' demand for a sign, Mk. 8:11-13)

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

“Father, why am I not feeling anything?”
was a question a very thoughtful but struggling seminarian asked me awhile back. “What do I do? I feel nothing.”

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, but also in other areas of our life: in our studies, in our daily work, 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 singing God’s praises because everything’s going well. You’re able to concentrate in prayer, focus on your studies or work, your relationships are good, and life in general is the way you want it to be.

These moments are God’s gifts. They represent the 'peaks', the 'mountain's and 'high points' of our day to day lives. We must enjoy them, and be grateful for them. Yet we must also bear in mind that we cannot remain in them forever, no matter how great our desire to do so. For they, like everything else in life, eventually come to an end.

They pass, and the 'peaks' turn into 'valleys', where instead of feeling on top of the world, you suddenly feel barren, arid and dry, not only spiritually, but in the other areas of 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”.

And they tell us that at such moments, we must remember that for one who sincerely desires to know God and love Him, the absence of signs could very well be a sign. In fact the absence of signs is itself the sign.

Paradoxically, the presence of God is known through his absence. And we realize that desolation is itself 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 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 desire to follow Christ.

"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)