When There Are No Burning Bushes: The Absense of God

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997)...

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Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. — Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979[1]

In my last post I wrote about those wonderful moments in which God feels so close that we can feel God’s presence in our bones. I also wrote that I thought the difference between us ordinary folk and the great saints is that for them the world is filled with burning bushes and the reality of God is transparently, perhaps blindingly clear.

I have thought about that a little more. I have realized that that is not quite true. The great saints of the church often speak and write about another religious experience, often devastating,  but no less real: a spiritual dryness in which God is nowhere to be found.

I remember first waking up to the reality that the spiritual life is not always joyful or exciting. I have shared about the many years that I denied God and the joy of returning to a life of spirit and worship. I was so excited I was insufferable. I could not pass by a church without walking inside to see the sanctuary and spend time in prayer. On my days off I would visit Catholic churches, and would literally spend two and three hours in prayer. I was driving my wife a little crazy.

Then suddenly something changed. I started getting bored and restless. I could not sit more than fifteen minutes in prayer before getting fidgety. I went to my Priest, Father Immanuel, and asked him about it. I thought maybe I had lost whatever it was that I had found. I didn’t understand why my prayer time felt so empty, or why church no longer excited me. He laughed, and said “Good. Maybe now God can use you!”

Father Immanuel taught me something I had not known at that time: our relationship with God  is  exactly that: a relationship. It goes through the same kinds of phases that our human relationships go through. Just like falling in love with my wife, I had fallen in love with God. The first exciting flush of romance had come to an end. Now came the building of something with more substance, something enduring, something that required commitment, endurance, faithfulness. Both in my relationship with my wife and in my relationship with God, there are wonderful moments when romance is real, but there is something deeper that endures and is richer: real love, person to person, person for person.

We’ve all known people who fall in love with love rather than with a person. When the initial flush of romance recedes, they begin to look elsewhere for that emotional high. Some people go from relationship to relationship, chasing that feeling, the excitement of romance. Sadly, they may never experience the beauty of mature love. Romance is fun, but real love, mature human love, is intended to be directed toward the person, not the emotional high of romance.

Life, love, and faith all include harder, more difficult, and even tragic experiences.

Richard Felix writes about the last years he spent with his wife, Vivian, who died from cancer. In a wonderful book The School of Dying Graces: Lessons on Living from Two Extraordinary Journeys Toward God, he writes candidly about the emotional and spiritual turmoil of the experience. He quotes from Vivian’s diary:

I am trying to rejoice and praise you in the midst of my difficulties and fears, but at the same time I don’t like it and I want everything to go back to how it used to be – When all was well with my world. Now my world and my future are different. I will live with cancer as a reality for the rest of my life.[2]

We know that these things are devastatingly real. We can wonder where God is in the middle of all of this. Some find God very close. For others, God seems distant, if not absent. We can feel angry at God, disappointed and even betrayed. For many, the reality of suffering makes belief in God difficult if not impossible.

Mature faith, faith that endures, must somehow grapple with the reality of suffering, our own, and that of others. Mature faith even challenges us to embrace the suffering of others in the work to end it; there is where God’s love needs to be expressed and experienced most.

The mystery we inhabit includes the reality that God does not protect us from suffering, but rather walks through it with us. It is often in suffering where God is most present, even when we are not able to see, feel, or sense it. Something deep in us and in our relationship with God changes when we discover God with us in the middle of the dark and even tragic experiences.

Vivian wrote in her diary: “Jesus I cling to your cross – if this is your cross, let me take it joyfully and be worthy of the cross you have chosen for me.” [3] I don’t know that I have her vision or courage, but I hope I can learn from her, and others I have met like her.

Even apart from the tragic side of life, those who seriously pursue a spiritual life experience those periods in which God simply seems far away, and prayer itself is difficult and without consolation. The saints like Mother Teresa write of devastating periods of spiritual darkness. St John of the Cross wrote an extended prayer/poem on this side of the spiritual life titled “The Dark Night of the Soul.”

I do not consider myself to be anything close to saintly, or to be a model of the spiritual life. I am an ordinary pastor trying to be faithful and to serve the church. Please know that I do experience periods in my spiritual walk, sometimes extended periods, in which my prayer life feels dull and is difficult. It feels as if I am talking to myself. Studying scripture is dry. Church is good, but not terribly exciting. I would guess that those who read this know what I am talking about.

Most of the great spiritual writers say that this is normal, to be expected, and is perhaps even an important experience through which we mature in faith and grow closer to God. Periods in which there are no burning bushes to be found, when God feels painfully absent, are woven into the texture of our spiritual lives.

Gerald May, another writer on the spiritual life suggests that this experience is essential, if we are to grow closer to the living God, rather than stay attached to images we carry with us that need to be left behind. He writes:

It is not God who disappears, but only our concepts and images, and sensations of God. This relinquishment occurs to rid us of our attachment to those idols and to make possible a realization of the true God who cannot be grasped by any thought or feeling. At the time though, it seems like abandonment or even betrayal.[4]

These periods of spiritual dryness are important to our spiritual maturity and growth. Old things must give way to new. They are times of purging and pruning.

The same way caterpillars enter a chrysalis phase, and snakes shed their skins, to mature in faith we have to shed what no longer fits, to let go of some things we hold dear,  to change. We cannot stay locked into the same images and experiences of God; God is more than all of them. We cannot cling to our feelings. We must learn to cling to God. Maturing is not always easy.

What are we to do when we are experiencing spiritual dryness? Most recommend being gentle with ourselves. They advise not forcing ourselves to do more than we are able to, but to continue with our prayer, our worship, our work, and to trust that God is still present in us and to us. God is at work in the silence, deep within our spirits. Times of refreshment will return.

Thomas Merton writes this:

The Christian contemplative, even when he fears that his prayer is hopelessly sterile and distracted, contradicts his own fears by the very intensity of the anguish by which he longs for God…Continue to seek God in love….and you will find Him.[5]

In these periods of dryness, more may be happening in us that we know. We may be maturing in our understanding of God. We may be letting go of older things that are no longer sufficient for us. God may be drawing us toward things that are deeper and richer.

What counts, finally, is faithfulness and trust. Just as there is great beauty in human love that endures over a lifetime, so there is in a life of enduring faithfulness to God.

I write this post to correct an overstatement that might lead people to think that the religious life is one of pursuing religious highs. Those experiences can be wonderful, but they are not what this faith walk is about. In the end it is about growing in the love and knowledge of the living God. It is about becoming fully alive and fully human. It is about learning how to love. And the path is not always easy.


[1] Time Magazine, Aug. 23, 2007, Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith” Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1655415,00.html#ixzz0yOrWoa1O

[2] Felix, Richard, Rob Wilkins, The School of Dying Graces: Lessons on Living from Two Extraordinary Journeys Toward God. Tyndale House, 2004.  41.

[3] Felix, Richard, Rob Wilkins, The School of Dying Graces: Lessons on Living from Two Extraordinary Journeys Toward God. Tyndale House, 2004.  43.

[4] May, Gerald, A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth: The Dark Night of the Soul, Harper, 2004. 146.

[5] Merton, Thomas, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, Harper, 2003.  102-3.

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