Tuesday, October 18, 2016

When Absence is Presence: Praying to God for Signs and Seeming to Receive None (A Brief Reflection on the Experience of the Grace of Desolation in Prayer, in Life, and in our Vocation).

"Father, why am I not feeling anything?” was a question I was once asked by a struggling young seminarian. “What do I do? I feel nothing. It’s like all my zest has disappeared and the fire has died.” There was a hint of slight panic in his questioning. “I’ve asked God for help, but he doesn’t seem to answer. I’ve asked for a sign, any sign, and there’s none of that either.”

This was a good young man I was talking to, a sincere, hardworking young man whose commitment to his vocation (and his spiritual life) was beyond question. And yet here he was, struggling to make sense of what he called the "absence of signs”.

Was God denying him what he was asking for? He wanted to know. At the same time, he said he didn’t want to be presumptuous and think that since he had been doing everything he thought God had asked of him, that God would somehow feel obligated to answer his prayers, make him “feel something” again, or at the very least, show him a sign.

“I remember that the Pharisees kept pestering Jesus for a sign,” he says to me. “He didn’t give them any. Am I being like them? Should I just stop asking?”

He wasn’t, of course… being like the Pharisees, that is. They wanted signs to test Jesus. Which in itself wasn’t wrong, by the way, since it was, at that time, one of the ways by which people could tell true prophets and holy men from false ones. Besides, Jesus denied them the signs they were asking for, not because he just didn't want to be tested, but because it didn't really matter whether he granted their request or not.  Their hearts and minds had already been closed; this would’ve prevented them from seeing whatever sign was given them.

Even if Moses or one of the prophets were sent back from the dead, they still wouldn’t have believed. Jesus was already standing right in front of them; how could they miss that sign?

My young friend was simply asking for some kind of response to his prayer, a response that would somehow allow him, in his words, “to feel enthusiastic and on fire again”. This young man’s situation was different from that of the Pharisees.

Was God denying him then? Or was he, in fact (not unlike the Pharisees) also somehow missing the sign that was right in front of him though (unlike them), not because of hardness of heart, but on account of something else?

What if the absence of signs were, in fact, the sign? What if the absence of the feeling of fire, zest, and enthusiasm (which he once had) were in fact the very sign he had been begging God to give him? Perhaps the absence of a sign was the answer to his prayer.

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 in other areas of our life as well: in our studies, in our daily work, in our relationships with people, and yes, even in our relationship with God himself.

Think of those moments when we feel everything’s alright; when our heart feels like singing God’s praises because everything’s going well. We’re able to concentrate in prayer, focus on our work or studies or ministry, our relationships are good, our discernment is proceeding smoothly, and life in general is the way we want it to be. These moments are God’s gifts.

But then, they pass, and instead of feeling on top of the world, we suddenly feel barren, arid and dry, not only spiritually, but in the other areas of life as well. And no matter how hard we try to snap out of it, no matter how hard we pray and ask God to rid us of the dryness and restore our zest for things, no matter how hard we work, we 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.

The absence of signs may, in fact, itself be the sign.

Paradoxically, the presence of God is known through his absence at such moments. And we realize that desolation is itself God’s gift. Mother Teresa went through it for almost half a century, and the 18th century Italian mystic, Paul of the Cross, went through it for an even longer period. Both persevered, both held on, with faith, confidence and trust, that God was there, in the dryness, in the absence, in the night of their souls.

It is during such moments of barrenness, when we don’t seem to feel anything, when the usual consolations and highs of life, of prayer, of our vocation, and our 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?

The dark night can be one of the most profound invitations to an even deeper intimacy with Him.

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 are slowly able to 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?” Perhaps the answer is simple; and it’s right there before us. Jesus wants us to follow him, to know him, to 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)