It was wonderful to get your reply to my first message to you. I am delighted to hear that what I shared with you was helpful and that it gave you some things to think about. You also have some questions for me that I’ll try to answer here. You say that your experience of God’s absence remains, but that you have more clarity about what’s going on in your life and that you are “in a strange way” feeling better. You mention that you’re interested to hear more about the experience of stagnation that I mentioned in my first message. You describe a sense of feeling stuck, and say that there doesn’t seem to be a way out of the circumstances you’re in. Then you ask “Or is there? And where do I even begin to figure it out?” “And where IS God in this?!”
Once again, I don’t know your specific circumstances, and I can’t say what’s happening to you, but I can tell you the experience of feeling stuck in something is fairly common! And it’s not a comfortable place to be – I admire your courage to acknowledge it, and encourage you to stay with it and explore what “feeling stuck” may be telling you. That said, the “exploring” is best done without analyzing and judging, and with as much friendliness and curiosity as you can muster. That’s the psychology piece of this, focused awareness of your experience. And it comes with two more parts – acceptance, and then action. “Acceptance” is allowing that what’s going on is exactly the way it should be. It doesn’t mean you like it, or agree with what’s happening but that it’s what it is. Only with honest clarity – seeing things the way they really are, not as you want or think they should be – can you begin to discover what you actually do have control over. Then you can take some simple action that begins to change things for the better, starting from the Outside-In as I mentioned in my first message.
This brief personal story may help to understand how that works. Coming back to this time of CoVID, it was the frightening experience of being stuck at home! First thing, a friend sent a list of things we could and should do at home, every day – simple things like calling and talking with a friend or two, etc. It was during one of those conversations with a friend that I realized I really needed masks. Luck would have it they just happened to have several extra N 95’s! I suddenly had enough to get me through until masks became more available. Another friend began sewing them and soon I had an abundance of high quality, reliable, well-fitting masks, made of beautifully patterned material. With shaky confidence, first I just went grocery shopping. Eventually though I began meeting others outside for physically distanced walks, and other small gatherings – living more and more into a “new normal” rather than staying stuck in fear at home, and seeing no way out.
I had that experience of “energy” that simply wells-up from inside that I mentioned in my first message. It opened up a way through what seemed an impossible situation. Fear – for good reason – had me stuck and separated. This “energy” was the momentum I needed to first realize I wasn’t helplessly stuck, and then to reach out, accepting the necessity for masks, finally taking action to get some. All very concrete behavioral steps, that really don’t get at the God thing that happened! So let me get theological and spiritual here by bringing in one of the great spiritual teachers of our time, Henry Nouwen.
From his book “Reaching Out – the Three Movements of the Spiritual Life”, he speaks of the absence of God as actually being the presence of God with us! He reminds us that God is so beyond our limited human ways of perceiving His presence – so beyond our hearts and minds, our feelings and thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our expectations and desires, and all the experiences that make up our lives – that we think God’s just not there. But at the same time, God IS there – in the center of all of it.
And this is where prayer comes in – prayer being the unique way we reach out spiritually and open to God. And I was praying, though not seeing results – the pandemic was just getting worse and worse. Like you, I too asked the question, “Where IS God in this?!”
Well, as Nouwen puts it, “God’s presence is never separated from His absence and God’s absence is never separated from His presence. His presence is so much beyond the human experience of being together that it is quite easily perceived as absence. His absence, on the other hand, is so deeply felt that it leads to a new sense of God’s presence . . . It is in the center of our longing for the absent God that . . . we discover how much he has filled our lives already.”
And so we come back to psychology: with this awareness, we come to acceptance – allowing that our intimacy with God – our togetherness with God in this life – will always remain an intimacy that transcends our human experience of intimacy. Even though at times we may be overwhelmed by a deep sense of God’s presence, more often than not we’re left with the uncomfortable if not painful sense of emptiness, and experience God as absent.
With this acceptance, we then take action spiritually – we pray even though we may not “be feeling it.” We pray – a deliberate act of faith. We pray the prayers we know, alone and with others. We talk honestly with God about what’s going on, how we’re experiencing it, and what we want and need. We let Scripture, especially the psalms help us out with this. And we faithfully wait, paying attention to even the smallest “nudge” to say, think, imagine, ask for – DO – something. In response we take action. Noticing now that one thing we do leads to another – there’s energy we didn’t have before, and we’re noticing some change for the better, maybe saying to ourselves “There is a way through and out of this . . .”
You get it – and we’ve covered a lot of territory in this message, so I will close for now. And oh! Lent is here! I’m offering a Lenten series based upon the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. It’s not the exercises themselves, but “one woman’s experience” of them, in spiritual exercise form. More to come over the next 40 days!
Know that you are in my heart, with prayer from here. Until next time,
Photo by Peter Schreve on Unsplash