I know God loves me. And I know this not in a merely abstract way. I know it in my heart, in my bones, through consistent experience. My memory witnesses to this truth in my own particular circumstances in innumerable ways.
Lately, however, as I sit in the silence to pray, I do not feel that I am resting in the goodness of God’s love, or receiving his graced guidance. Rather, that felt experience of love is now absent. I feel empty, and I hear nothing but silence, which leaves me unsatisfied and uncertain.
This experience extends beyond explicit times of prayer. I lack motivation in my ministry, and am struggling with how exactly to teach the content of my courses. Back in prayer I seek some light to guide me, but receive none.
I don’t understand God’s silence. My intention in prayer is true; I am expressing myself to God honestly, and trying to listen consistently with as much indifference as I am capable of. I am not seeking my own self-interest or a lower good. I am seeking God and how God is calling me to serve; and yet, I am left with this silence.
I feel like a hypocrite. I tell people that if they engage intentionally in their spiritual lives, God will indeed answer their prayers, bless them, and guide them. I tell them that they will experience this. Yet now, in my practicing this very thing, I am left with no “experience” of God’s blessings.
Why would God allow this? Wouldn’t God want to give as abundantly as possible to those who seek him with a sincere heart? Does not Scripture tell us that if we seek we shall find; that if we knock the door will be opened?
“Your ways are not my ways, says the Lord.”
As much as I want to blame God, I know that God has indeed allowed this to take place in our relationship, and I know that God does not allow anything unless it is for a greater good. How, though, can this silence and emptiness be a gift for my growth in relationship with God? What is its spiritual logic?
My best answer at this point is that all of the questioning and frustration above betrays a misunderstanding on my part in imagining what following God is like. The mistake is this; I imagine that somehow I know what it is I need for my own redemption and service of God, and for my ministry with others. The truth is, however, that in many ways I do not know what I need.
I know this is true when I look back at how God has been at work in my life in the past. Often, almost always in fact, God’s work in my life was something I could not have expected. It is as if a river’s current caught me and carried me to a place I didn’t expect to go. All I was doing was trying not to resist as best I could.
But what more precisely is the “spiritual logic” of this kind of work of God? Is it even possible to discern more clearly what this experience of being led by God “in the dark” is like?
I imagine the dynamic this way; I am always being influenced and directed by desires within me. Very often, there is an object (physical, psychological, social, or spiritual) that I at least vaguely recognize as that which I desire but do not yet possess. This could be a feeling, an answer to a question about ministry, a felt experience of consolation, etc. My own intelligence suggests that this object would in fact be good for me. There is no reason to think that I would be indulging in a disordered attachment in this desire. It seems morally and spiritually good.
However, the fact that I think it will be good for me does not mean that it actually would be. I have to remember that, given my fallen nature, I suffer from both ignorance and misguided desire. Because of this, it may very well be the case that this desire I have in this particular situation, if satisfied with its object, would not in fact lead me closer to God, even if in my mind I believe it would. It may in fact move me further toward self-reliance and distance from God.
The principle here is this; part of being a sinner is recognizing that I am ignorant of my flaws, and even of temptations away from God. I am ignorant of the purification I need in the particular mystery of my own heart. I do not know the way to my own sanctification. I must be led.
I think the more we seek God and are freed from more obvious disordered attachments, the more God begins to free us from disordered attachments that we cannot see. God knows us better than we know ourselves. And God will never give us something that will distance us from God, even if the thing we seek seems to us to be perfectly appropriate. In these more mysterious depths of our personality, what we think would be good, even holy, may in fact be the opposite.
And so, God’s beneficent refusal feels like God’s absence. God’s silence, however, may in fact be precisely what it is like to be drawn closer to God in greater purity of heart. It is a dark night that will bring us to a day that we could not possibly have imagined, because we could not have possibly known the way.
And so, in these situations, we are called to surrender. We are called to accept this way of God’s love, God’s cruciform love. We are called to remember and trust in God’s love, which is so great, that it will purify us in fire so that only our true treasure will remain. We are called to persevere in prayer, in reception of the sacraments, and in loving service to others even more fully, with greater self-abandonment, ever more unconditionally. We are called to a love born of poverty of spirit, as Christ did, who loved even when it pained him beyond our comprehension.