“One day while I was praying, I lost all sense of God’s presence,” he said, and I could hear the pain in his voice. “It was just me, alone, talking to an empty room. Just talking to myself.”
We were at coffee, talking about faith, and about how sometimes spiritual growth can feel more like spiritual collapse.
His experience resonated with my own. There was a time in my life when the light of God just went dark. It was during those early and anxious days of parenting, and I was trying to endure all the adjustments that entails while navigating both job stress and chronic back pain.
I’d lay there at night, next to a crying baby, my back screaming in pain, and I’d pray. But where God, and guidance, and consolation used to be, there was only silence.
“Behold, I will seduce her and lead her into the desert, and speak to her heart,” the book of Hosea tells us. But the desert is dry, and at times very dark, and at times very lonely.
These experiences of growth and purification are a part of the spiritual path, and St. John of the Cross calls them the Dark Night of the Sense and the Dark Night of the Soul. Both prepare you for deeper union with God, and both involve a withdrawal of the usual consolations in prayer and an aching sense of God’s absence.
For many (but not all), this process can coincide with other life events: divorce, death, illness, or some experience of pain, persecution, and isolation. It can be caused by or can cause a depressive or anxious event. The importance of a good support system, a solid spiritual director, and even a therapist, cannot be understated.
Sometimes it feels like the ground opens up, as consolations and coping skills withdraw, and our sense of God in prayer is lost. Dogmas and certitudes become clanging noises. Silence and sighs reign supreme.
But it gives you a necessary perspective: you are not God, nor is God your plaything to call upon only when you need help. Suddenly the utter, incomparable transcendence of the divine nature, and sheer qualitative difference between the finite and the infinite, become strikingly clear. You know yourself as creature, not Creator, and as fully dependent, fully contingent, and achingly fragile in the face of the God of the Cosmos. You feel a bit like Job before the whirlwind.
Thomas Merton wrote in his journals: “A saint is not so much a man who realizes that he possesses virtues and sanctity as one who is overwhelmed by the sanctity of God.” It’s a bit like that: to be overwhelmed by the sanctity, the mystery, the goodness of God, even in the midst of all you have suffered and are suffering.
But it’s hard to see that when you stand before a mountain of grief, when the world as you know it has utterly unraveled.
And then the craziest thing happens. It feels like you just fall into an ocean of love, an abyss of care and compassion envelopes you. Something has shifted but its covert, hidden, and subtle, as the God you have been waiting for is gradually revealed as the sustaining presence that has been there every step of the journey.
Or as St. Teresa of Avila says: “It is all about melting in love.” We were made for God and nothing else will do. Only now we really know it.
After coffee, I was parking my car and considering all of the above, when a harsh east wind tore the leaves from the oak tree above, and they fell around me and crinkled as they swirled upon the blacktop parking lot. In the distance, framed by grey gold clouds, a red-tailed hawk soared towards the horizon and disappeared behind copper orange trees bathed in soft clouded sunlight.
And I could hear the waves of that ocean, lapping at my feet, holding and sustaining everything beneath and between and bathing everything in peace, life, and presence. Binding up all the darkness and all the wounds that often seem to be omnipresent and without end, and burying them all beneath the waves.
And then I knew that I was somehow home. That at each step of this journey through darkness and light, through hope and despair, I had already in some fundamental and real way already arrived at that which I seek, at that which I’ve been seeking my whole life.
I hope someday you experience this and know it deep in the marrow of your bones: You have never been alone, and you will never be alone, and all along whatever journey you are on, you are already and always will be, home.