A few months ago, I made an eight-day silent retreat. Following St. Ignatius’s advice, I began my prayer trying to “see myself standing before God our Lord.” Sitting in silence with closed eyes, I tried to concentrate and see God before me. Image after image slid through my imagination like an old picture show: the old father, the wise mother, the waterfall, the sun, anything. Each one, however, was insufficient, and I was left unsatisfied. To the blank darkness of my eyelids I prayed, “God, just let me see YOU.”
Nothing appeared. There was no vision, no way to see myself standing before God. The image in my mind was no different from the image before my naked eye: air and objects, none of which supplied the full essence of God. With a knot in my stomach I began to wonder, “have I been praying to nothing my entire life?”
I began to feel like the ground had vanished beneath me and yet was still firmly standing upon something. Nervous, frightened, and confused, my mind became flooded with questions of what God’s existence really was. I was sensing something whose essence was ultimately beyond my senses. I was experiencing the poverty of my eyes, of my imagination, my words, and my spirit. God, though beyond my grasp, was still somehow present. Perhaps reality and visibility, reality and comprehension are vastly different things, I thought.
“Nada, nada, nada, nada, nada.” Nothing.
‘Nothing’ is how St. John of the Cross, one of the most famous mystics of all time, described his vision of God. This description could perhaps seem discouraging. So could recalling Mother Teresa’s prayer life. She once wrote, “I feel that terrible pain of loss…of God not being God, of God not existing.”
This admission of blindness and confusion however is deeply consoling to me. The ability to comprehend God only as “Nothing,” somehow did not deter John of the Cross from devoting his life to it, did not stop Mother Teresa from sacrificing everything for Jesus dwelling in the poor.
God’s transcendence, His invisibility is a painful paradox. It can tempt me to believe something lacks within me because I cannot see God. The invitation to live in faith can be scary and confusing. For it is, at times, an invitation into Nothingness. It is a mystery to me that even though I want God to be clear as the daylight, visible, and audible — “nada” can somehow be enough.
I find encouragement in the life of others. Sister Aelred, a Poor Clare nun, shares, “I say to God sometimes, if you would just let me see just for a moment, I would be quite satisfied, how beautiful you are, how wonderful you are, how amazing. Just let me see you just for a minute.”
Then, with a confident and warm smile she adds, “But He never does.”
Why then after so many years is Sister Aelred still wearing those silly clothes? Why didn’t she marry the man she loved, the one she could see and touch in a human body?
Grappling with God’s invisibility has allowed me not only to make peace with my limitations, but to understand prayer differently. I was not following St. Ignatius’s advice that day on retreat. I was trying to imagine God before me, not myself before God. The prayer reverses itself. The initiative is with God.
God is the pray-er. I am the object before God. My invitation is to simply sit defenseless, completely exposed to His gaze. And, noticing every flake of skin and cell of blood He smiles upon His creation.
Sitting cross-legged on my prayer chair, kneeling in the chapel or walking down the sidewalk, I no longer wait for the right image of God to appear. Rather, I sit, stand, walk, kneel trying to become conscious of how exposed I am to God. I become defenseless not only to His gaze, but to my wild and confusing desire to love Him.
As I sit exposed to the air, the fabric of my clothes, the trees, the sunlight, and the heat I realize that God recognizes all of it, down to the very protons. All of it upheld by God’s invisible but intentional work. Although not God, each created object becomes a sign-post plastered with the love and the call of God. Creation reaches for my attention, as if its purpose is to say on God’s behalf, “Come here. Just let me see you.”
Everything in my life is much simpler when I’ve been conscious, even for a moment, that Almighty God stares at me with intense love.