Friday, April 8, 2011

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

On September 10, 1946, Mother Teresa was riding in a train, on her way to her annual spiritual retreat. It was here that she heard the call of Christ in an actual conversation with Jesus to "give up all and follow Him into the slums—to serve Him in the poorest of the poor." We know, of course, that she did. This conversation on the train was the beginning of the Missionaries of Charity.

What is less well-known was that for the rest of her earthly life---with just one or two brief exceptions---she did not hear Jesus’ voice again, and felt as though Jesus had somehow withdrawn his presence from her. Her spiritual life was very dry from that point on, and she often experienced an almost crippling lonliness. It took her seven years to admit this to anyone, but on March 18, 1953, she wrote a letter to her spiritual director, saying, "Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself—for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.' Ask Our Lord to give me courage."

There is a misconception we encounter that proves to be a hindrance to our spiritual growth if not properly understood. The misconception is that authentic spiritual life will be a continual walk with God from spiritual high to spiritual high; that we will walk along the ridge-top of the mountain range for extended periods of time, and only infrequently or never have to deal with the realities of life in the valleys, and highways and cities and back-alleys below. We often wish to have more mountaintop experiences like that of Peter, James and John (Matthew 17:1-8). In reality, we can neither duplicate nor replicate these mountaintop experiences in our own strength or efforts; they are the gift of God for a particular time and place and season in our lives. Nevertheless, we often try. In our society where far too much is available to us in far too great of abundance, it is easy to believe that we should never be in lack, that we should never be insecure, that we should never be without something that we desire. This is the day of the quick fix; every hunger can be satisfied by a phone call for pizza delivery; every ache and pain can be treated by a trip to the 24-hour pharmacy for a pill or cream. In terms of spiritual experience, there are enough concerts and seminars and good books out there to keep us feeling spiritually good for quite a while.

What is amazing is that a simple examination of things demonstrates that this is not, however, true. If we would just take some time to really examine this thing we have grabbed onto in faith, we would see that the best of the spiritual giants went through times of doubt, times of walking in the wilderness...

  • Moses spent 40 years in the desert between his growing up years and his leadership years.

  • Elijah spent time in the wilderness by a brook being fed by ravens; then spent time with a widow and her son, eating what perpetually seemed to be their last meal; then time in a cave wondering what was going on and where God was.

So if you ever feel abandoned, or that your prayers are bouncing off the ceiling, or that you are "knocking on the doors of Heaven with bruised knuckles in the dark," take a look at some of the spiritual graffiti on the walls around you and notice the names of the people who have walked this path before. You are in the company of spiritual giants!

Author Eugene Peterson speaks to this when he says "Some people would have us believe that the moment we say no to the world and yes to God, all our problems are solved, all our questions answered, all our troubles over. Nothing can disturb the tranquility of the soul at peace with God. Nothing can interfere with the blessed assurance that all is well between me and my Savior. Nothing and no one can upset the enjoyable relationship that has been established by faith in Jesus Christ. We Christians are among that privileged company of persons who don’t have accidents, who don’t have arguments with our spouses, who aren’t misunderstood by our peers, whose children do not disobey us."

He continues, "Is that what you believe? If it is, I have some incredibly good news for you. You are wrong" (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 37).

The ironic part of these feelings of "forsakenness" or "the dark night of the soul" is that they come, not because of anything we have done to displease God, but when we are being most faithful. It is counter-intuitive, but true.

  • Consider Jesus, alone on the cross, feeling this separation from God at the moment he is bearing our sin. This was precisely what he was called to do. In order to finish his work and secure our salvation, Jesus needed to---even chose to!---endure the separation from God.

  • Consider the illustration of Mother Teresa, enduing years of seeming separation from God to faithfully serve with the Missionaries of Charity.

In the end, "forsakenness" becomes a means of testing our obedience. Will we remain faithful to Jesus, not just in the ends we pursue, but also in the means? Having heard from God, having received a calling, are we willing to "stay at our post" even if we receive no affirmation from anyone, even God?

Are we sure enough in what God has asked us to do that we will remain faithful, even if Heaven is silent?

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