…. Mostly I feel that God is very far away. When I was young God was very near. I could talk to him and tell him all my troubles. We said the rosary every evening and we would stay kneeling down for a good while afterwards for private prayers. He seemed like one of the family then. All that is gone. Sometimes I think he's not there at all, or he’s not interested. We go to Mass of course and we still say the rosary, but not every night. It depends what’s on television. I miss God. I miss the warmth of religion in the past. My niece put me on to your website when I was telling her this lately. She said you’d be the right person to help me…. Am I after losing the faith, or what? Eilís
Read this from St Thérèse of Lisieux: “How astonished everyone would be if the martyrdom I have endured for the past year became known…. [Jesus] allowed pitch-black darkness to sweep over my soul and let the thought of heaven, so sweet to me since infancy, destroy all my peace and torture me. This trial was not something lasting a few days or weeks. I suffered it for months and I am still waiting for it to end. I wish I could express what I feel, but it is impossible. One must have travelled through the same sunless tunnel to understand how dark it is….”
This is a normal part of the journey with God. Here are a few words from the 14th-century German mystic, Johann Tauler. He spoke of ‘going into one’s house’, by which he meant going into one’s heart, or soul. “When we go into our house and look for God there, God in His turn looks for us and ransacks the house. He behaves just as we do when we are searching for something, throwing aside one thing after another until we find what we are looking for. This is just what He does to us. When we have gone into our house, when we have searched for Him in the depths of our souls, God comes and searches for us and ransacks our house.” This was Tauler’s graphic way of describing Jesus’ teaching about “dying to oneself” (see John 12:24-25).
When your heart feels ransacked and desolate, and you long for the warmth of your earlier religious experience, know that you have a lot of company. I could quote many more Christians who said and wrote similar things. You are in the company of the greatest saints and mystics. Everyone goes through seasons of joy and seasons of sorrow. In fact that theme is like the DNA of Christians: it is called the Paschal Mystery – the dying and rising of Christ repeated in us. St Paul put words on it many times:
- “When we were baptised we went down into the tomb with Christ, and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead… we too might live a new life” (Rom 6:4).
- “If we have died with Christ, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:11f
- “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God” (Col 2:12).
- “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:19).
This is the outline shape of the Christian faith; the rest is filling-in. These and similar passages are the best places to bring your mind when you hit rock bottom. Hitting rock bottom is probably a pre-condition for understanding them. Only when you hit rock bottom are you personally at stake; short of that, it’s only about beautiful thoughts. These passages (which are simply expressions of the Christian faith) don’t try to explain anything or suggest ways of escape; they don’t try to charm or distract you; they hold out no promise of early release; they bring you directly to the heart of the matter – to the place where you are trapped, with no escape. They don’t even try to console you. Instead you begin to sense, over time, that in that very place where you felt trapped, there is a vast opening that changes everything. If we could talk about a Christian ‘koan’, this would be it. Many have been there before us, but most never wrote about it. Here’s one the greatest, who did. “We are now dying with Christ on his cross, in his pains and Passion,” wrote Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century English mystic, “and when we deliberately remain on that same cross, holding on to the very end, with his help and grace, then suddenly we shall see his expression change…. Without a moment’s break we shall pass from one state the other – and we shall be brought into joy.”
‘Pie in the sky’ is by now a customary caricature of religious faith. The phrase was coined by Joe Hill, a labour organiser in the US in the first decade of the 20th century, and was a send-up of a very pious hymn called ‘The Sweet By and By’ (1836):
There's a land that is fairer than day,
and by faith we can see it afar;
for the Father waits over the way
to prepare us a dwelling place there.
In the sweet by and by,
we shall meet on that beautiful shore….
Joe Hill’s version made a mockery of this:
Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right,
But when asked about something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet
You will eat, by and by
In that glorious land in the sky.
Work and Pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.
Piety quite easily becomes a sitting target for caricature; but the piety of that hymn was itself a caricature of piety. ‘By faith we can see it afar’: that's enough! When it is about something far away and in the future, you know that it is avoiding the acid test of faith: the here and now. A meditation teacher was asked how one can recognise genuine teachers. “Ask them about God,” he said. “If they say God is far away, they are imposters; but if they say God is near, listen to them.”
God could not fail to be near. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom [the presence] of God has come near,” was the very first teaching of Jesus, according to Mark’s gospel (1:15). God is nearer to us, St Augustine said, than we are to ourselves. When you feel nostalgia for your earlier sense of the nearness of God, Eilís, turn your mind to the nearness of God now – here and now. Even in the pitch darkness experienced by St Thérèse of Lisieux, God is intimately present. God may be more genuinely present in such darkness, if one could use that expression: when we have a comforting picture of God, we may be clinging to that picture and not to God: but when we are deprived of all images, then we may well be clinging to the real God in darkness. "Whether we go near or far,” said Meister Eckhart, “God never goes far away but always stands nearby; and even if he cannot remain within, he never goes further than outside the door." You probably remember the Irish proverb, "God's help is nearer than the door." Is gaire cabhair Dé ná an doras.