Steve the Builder:
At the risk of turning the podcast into kind of an Oprah voyeuristic shameless bare all narcissism festival, I’m going to talk about something I rarely talk about because when I do sometimes it means something to a few people, not everyone, and frankly, hardly anyone at least in the Orthodox convert internet realm seems to talk about it, maybe partly because they’re all so happy to be here.
I suppose I could talk about this from an academic perspective and quote books to you and talk about other people’s experiences and stand with the listeners as outsiders looking in on other people’s lives, but I’ve decided to avoid the omniscient professorial point of view and just be personal. So, I guess I’ll just have to jump right in…
You probably wouldn’t have guessed it listening to my podcasts, but I have wrestled with an ever present emptiness and lack of a sense of the presence of God throughout my Christian life. Dealing with this was particularly difficult in certain churches when personal heartfelt spiritual experiences and overt happiness was deemed to be the mark of the “true” believer. In that environment, Christians were supposed to be chipper as a sign of the “joy joy joy joy down in your heart”, and if you weren’t happy welll, I got this feeling people were looking at me and thinking….(Darth Vader). So, I tried to conjure up spiritual feelings and do things to bring about a spiritual experiences. There was the pressure to fake tongues in the Jesus Movement to fit in, and in other churches, to talk certain ways and use certain phrases and language to express that I was “glad in the Lord”. But, I have to confess, to this day I have never had a spiritual experience, and I just found it impossible to make myself fake being anointed by the Holy Spirit to fit in.
But, I will say I’ve enjoyed spiritual activities, fellowship and worship at times. Over the years, I’ve participated in spiritual disciplines and have read and heard things that have brought me closer to what I understand God wishes me to be, but I’ve never had a clear spiritual experience or feeling that I can look back on and say, “That was clearly God speaking to my heart, or that was a transformative spiritual moment in my life.” As an Orthodox Christian I accept the dogma of a sacramental world view and, intellectually, I can account the sacraments as grace filled events, but in terms of having an emotional or heart felt spiritual event connected to them, it hasn’t happened yet. And I admit, sometimes I still feel like a defective Christian when I see other people who seem to enjoy emotional responses to prayer, the sacraments and the presence of God in their life. But, as dry as my spiritual existence has been for nearly 50 years of living consciously for God, I look back on it and count it a blessing, not a defect.
But before I go on, I need to define some terms. When I talk about this dryness or emptiness, I’m not talking about situational sadness in reaction to the problem of evil and pain. In my 56 years I’ve seen my share of extraordinary evil that made me doubt God’s love and power. I’ve lived in existential crisis, I’ve been clinically depressed, and I’ve experienced desperation sometimes as a consequence of my sins and sometimes from other people’s sins, and sometimes either from the hand of God or perhaps from Satan. Sometimes I don’t think it’s important to know which it is because it all hurts and basically either way I have to overcome myself to get over it no matter where it came from.
So the spiritual shadowland I’m talking about is not clinical or situational depression as a reaction to extraordinary events or even piled up ordinary life. Nor is it what the spiritual Fathers call despondency, the absolute rejection of hope due to unrepentance that leads to spiritual or sometimes physical suicide. It is not a heretical or philosophical rejection of the beauty of creation, the blessings of life and human or divine love. On the other hand, it is not psychological anger and narcissistic depression at the world’s incapacity to fill the void in one’s soul with happy and passionate experiences. And these are two important ones: It is not a “spiritual” excuse to avoid life and normal relationships and responsibility. Nor is it a sad face on the street corner badge of super-spirituality. These are extremely important distinctions because these symptoms are all rooted in either the biological consequences of the fall as in the case of clinical depression, or in the other cases, the psychological and emotional consequences of evil or sins done to us, and sometimes its just overt sin, pride, delusions and lies. As a caution, I’ll have to say here that the discernment of which it is is the job of a competent spiritual director or in some cases a good therapist, not this podcast…though I may unpack some of these issues in future episodes. Suffice to say for now, the true experience of the spiritual desert is rooted in a clear understanding that God is love, that all creation is good, and we are created to be united to Him.
At the beginning of Matins we hear what the Psalmist says, “My soul thirsts for Thee in a waterless land”. There is a state of spirituality that is life in a spiritual desert and there is a thirst for God that is never quenched in this life, or perhaps even in the next because as created beings we can never fully apprehend all that God is. The spiritual desert is a life characterized as the Beatitudes say, by a kind of spiritual poverty and an undercurrent of perpetual mourning even during the best of times. But it isn’t a sad face while everyone else is enjoying a good meal together, it isn’t a doom and gloom cloud over a birthday party or life’s normal joys. It is life in which there is an underlying melancholy, in a sense, a homesickness, that brings one back to the truth about the reality of what the fall has done to all things, that we are missing something, and perhaps it is ourselves that are missing. Ultimately it is about longing to return to our true home where our Beloved awaits to see our true face. It is life where the experience of spiritual joy and contentment is an occasional respite but is, for the most part, elusive.
Unfortunately, no one likes to talk much about this kind of thing. “Victory, Joy, Light, and being Spirit filled,” are the measures of the modern Christian’s depth of faith. I know most people know what I mean when I say they put on the “Church face” on Sunday morning because there is a cultural expectation within the walls of the sanctuary, but it’s a different story in the parking lot. When I was part of that culture, I sometimes wrestled with a kind of twisted guilt for faking the happy Christian life in public while having a hollow place within that no sermon, no prayer, no Scripture, and no spiritual exercise, and no fellowship has ever filled, not even in Orthodoxy. But that empty place has not and does not keep me from serving God, giving alms, or praying, or listening to sermons or reading books or fasting, because all these things are a light to my soul, even if my soul is incapable of perceiving it fully. Amid all my spiritual activity done out of a sincere love for God for all these years, there is still a constant and dull aching sorrow that I know only death will end, not so much as an escape from life but an apprehension of my true life. Imprinted on my heart are St. Pauls words: To live is Christ, but to die is gain.
Lest you get the wrong idea, I don’t sit around and pathologically ruminate about this 24-7. I’ve lived with it for decades and frankly, I consciously thought about it a lot more 25 years ago when I began to understand that perhaps it was not I that was defective, but perhaps it was my understanding of what the spiritual life is “supposed to look like” that was lacking something. One of the books that introduced me to what is called in the popular spiritual literature, the “dark night of the soul” was Martin Marty’s “The Cry of Absence, Reflections for the Winter of the Heart” in 1983. It was the first time I encountered the idea that God sometimes withdraws spiritual warmth from us and that, like in nature, the cold and dark winter is part of the natural cycle of spiritual growth.
Grasping that concept intellectually and working through it spiritually was a long, hard and dark time for sure, but now on the other side of that time, it’s seldom in the forefront of my thoughts. It is kind of like living with the dull aches and pains of doing construction for 26 years, its just part of the fabric of my existence now.
Looking back, I think it is ironic that even though I could quote scripture backward and forward at that time, I never grasped that this is a state of being others have experienced as lovers of God. Now, every Sunday morning I’m reminded of it in the Psalms of matins when I chant, “I have cried out to Thee O Lord, in the morning my prayer comes before Thee…, O Lord why doest Thou cast off my soul why doest Thou hide Thy face from me, I am afflicted and ready to die from from my youth up, I suffer thy terrors and I am overcome.” St. Paul says to the evildoers in Hebrews it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God but the Psalm reminds us of what God told Jeremiah: it is equally terrifying for the one who loves God to fall into the Potter’s hands. It is truly a terrifying thing to be skillfully broken and shaped by God’s omnipotent hands, to be left in the dark by the light, and to be abandoned by the omnipresent one. In all my Bible study, I always assumed I knew what the Potter would do to the clay and what shape He intended for my life, and even in all my fantasies about submitting to the wheel, I never imagined God would do that. The reality is, none of us can imagine what God is really doing, and I think, until someone personally goes through a spiritual winter, it isn’t something that makes any sense. Some of the Roman Catholic faithful were scandalized to find out that Mother Theresa confessed to have lived in spiritual darkness and the sense of being abandoned by God for most of her ministry even though many of the Catholic saints have written eloquently about this spiritual state. When I became Orthodox I found that this is not just a “western spirituality” thing as some believe. St. Silouan the Athonite and many other saints of the Church describe the state of godforsakenness, the sense of abandonment by God that they experienced. I believe it was St. Gregory of Nyssa summed up what all the saints who speak about this tell us: There comes a time when God removes the breast, we are weaned from spiritual experiences, and we must learn to love God Himself from a pure heart, not the experience of God from a darkened heart.
So, it is truth that there is a joy that can only be had from believing in God, but it’s also truth that there is a holy sorrow that comes only from believing in Him.
In the end all TRUE spiritual experience is about loving God and being loved by Him. The saints unanimously tell us that our experience of godforsakenness is ultimately an act of the love of God. But the problem is we often define for ourselves what we want love to look like and what it should feel like and it is more about feeling good than about true love. The Song of Solomon speaks of the bright hope and the dark despair of loving God. In chapters 3 and 5 The Song says
On my bed night after night I sought him whom my soul loves, I sought him but did not find him. I must arise now and go and search the city, in the streets and in the squares I must seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him but did not find him. I opened to my beloved but my beloved had turned away and gone. My heart went out to him as he spoke. I search for him but did not find him, I called to him but he did not answer me.
The Song about the experiences of the passion of human love is universally understood by Jewish and Christian saints to be a metaphor of our relationship to God, it is the story of the Divine Romance, about love that is stronger than death. It tells us that just as in human love, there is a dark side to divine love. But it tells us that the darkness is not an evil thing that is the end of love, but it is a true witness to the very presence of love. We all understand that there is a certain joy we have in the arms of our beloved, and this affirms within us the strength of our love. But we also know that there are times that the pit of desperation deep in the night at the absence of our beloved bears greater witness to the depths of the love we share than the joy we feel in one another’s presence. Whose heart has not gone out into the darkness, night after night, blessing the closeness and cursing the distance between us? If love were not present, absence would be painless. If the light of love were not shining in our heart, the empty marriage bed would not be a darkness too great to bear.
This is true of human love and it is true of divine love. Who is a lover of God who has not desperately longed for his presence? Who has a heart for God that has not gone out into the black night seeking his face, longing for his voice and hoping to find him also seeking us. Who has not at some time, night after night, curled up in bed, face buried in the pillows and sought Him out in sighs and curses and tears. Who has not opened to God and found that He was not there, that He had mysteriously turned away. Who has not called out to him and his silence was as deep as the stars. Who has not wondered when God will return, or if He hears or perhaps if He even cares that we are calling.
It is not enough to just know intellectually that we are loved by him. “God loves you” and Bible verses and promises of future joy ring hollow to the heart that is ravaged by despair at the absence of God. Have faith we are told…But faith is not enough. Faith may be the assurance of things hoped for and it may give us boldness and confidence before the throne of God, but it is love that is the holy joy in His presence, and it is love that is the all-consuming darkness we experience when He is not there. Faith may be the assurance and knowledge that He is still out there somewhere, but love is the pit in our stomach as we stare into the void where we once saw Him standing.
Only those who love God desperately can know the forsakenness of missing Him. To love God passionately is to suffer a holy longing for Him. When you face the nights with dread and seek His face through eyes clouded with tears you are not far from Him. He has not forsaken you, He has not abandoned you. And though your heart breaks with doubts and fears that you cannot name because of His absence, it is ultimately because of love that your heart is aflame with pain. The Song of Solomon and all the saints tell us this is the truest witness to love and the hardest to bear, but to have a great love is to suffer greatly for it. Even if it means going to a cross in hopes the beloved will some day return and see your face and weep for joy.