In several places in the Exodus experience, Moses encounters God in a ‘dark cloud’. In Exodus 19:9, the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”
There is something here that is well worth deeper reflection because there is much more than meets the eye. That God does not manifest himself in a very clear way, but chooses to come to Moses, his representative and spokesperson, in the form of something so nebulous and indefinite like a dense cloud, should give us some indication that when God does show himself to us in this life, oftentimes, it is not going to be something that is immediately perceptible and full of awe (I think we can use the very abused word ‘awesome’ here), but rather, may well choose to reveal himself through a circumstance that seems dark, dense and even a tad problematic. Of course, there are the moments of great joy and wonder that we may be blessed with in life that give us real cause to believe in God’s loving presence, but I do believe that most of us have much more experiences of these ‘dark, dense cloud’ moments that give us doubts. The trouble with those moments of joy is that our notoriously evanescent memories don’t seem to hold them in our hearts for any prolonged period of time, and when we are in times of desolation, we find it very hard to re-live them with much success. Perhaps this is why many of my reflections tend to give the impression that I am rather ‘hung up’ on the Cross, redemptive suffering and transformative purgation. Most people do not need help in experiencing joy. What most people long for is the presence of God when times are dire and dismal.
Any form of suffering that we go through in life, be it a social, physical or psychological one, is easily seen as a certain darkness in our lives, causing a blight on our happiness. But not all suffering is taken and handled with meaning that is transformative. It is only when suffering is handled and experienced with a willingness to see it as a kind of Good Friday that leads to the resurrection of Easter Sunday, or a suffering that painfully burns away the dross that forms the impurities in unrefined gold, that one brings a new transformative meaning to suffering. This takes a great amount of faith and conviction that is paved by grace. Pain experienced with this kind of ‘graced suffering’ makes the attachment to the spiritual life a little easier, and gives one the ability to be in union with other suffering selves and their fellowman or woman. It is often that when we fail to do this and do the necessary internal work that is needed, that we end up projecting this pain on to others, and even make them pay for our suffering. But when we respond to the grace to do this with a blessed patience, the kind of learning that we receive is not of the cerebral type. It provides a learning that brings one to the doorsteps of wisdom.
Moses must have had a taste of this divine truth when he too, had to enter into the dense cloud in order to meet God. God presented himself to Moses in two rather problematic ways – first in the fire of the burning bush that was not consumed, and then in the darkness of a cloud. Both do not permit of any form of containing and preserving whatsoever. God was not to be encountered outside of this darkness, outside of mystery, and outside of a seeming chaos. In fact, God was never hiding in the cloud. In the cloudiness of it all, it was the darkness that enabled God to meet Moses in his soul.
Someone recently asked me why it is so difficult to praise God when one is in a state of suffering, and if it is at all possible to be sincere when we praise him while suffering. One of the things that define a saint is that he or she puts not himself or herself in the centre of life, but that he or she manages to place God at the centre, where he belongs. This is what enabled Mary to praise God in the Magnificat when by all accounts, her life at that time was one which was full of uncertainties and looming problems. This is the result of her being ‘full of grace’.
When we are plagued with any illness or pre-occupation with our own pains and disappointments, it is most tempting to put these in the heart of everything, and thereby displacing God from his rightful position. This makes it difficult for us to praise God with much sincerity because a lot of our energies will be focused on ourselves. True praise and worship can only come about when God is re-centered in our lives. When that happens, true praise also happens. And the amazing thing is that when we do lose ourselves in praising God with our whole being, we forget about ourselves and our neediness. It is thus not only possible to praise God amidst our sufferings, it is actually something that is also strangely necessary.
In our rich Catholic tradition, we have the advantage of having sacramentals like statues and crucifixes to help us to turn our minds to God when we pray. They help to focus our mental (and psychic) energies which can run helter-skelter when we find ourselves very distracted by our own worries. We have been often wrongly accused of idol-worshipping when using these sacramental to pray, but it sure beats worshipping and giving undue attention to our own perturbations and anxieties, making them our false gods instead.
If life has been an experience of being in a dark, dense cloud for any prolonged period of time, may I suggest entering into it with a renewed faith, with a renewed yearning to meet God there, and let your soul begin to magnify the Lord too.