I’ve returned from the annual priests’ retreat, and thank the many who have prayed for me and my fellow priests for a fruitful time with the Lord. I went there with a “prayer list” of a few friends who seemed in need of some spiritual assistance in their lives right now. Serendipitously, the opening session by our retreat master made mention of one of the difficulties that the Catholics in his country (France) are facing now, and it echoed the sentiments of one of my friend’s as well. And that is the question of “where is God?”
The context of both questions were rather different. The retreat master’s question was made with reference to France’s dismal numbers turning up at Mass. As an opening meditation, we were prompted to go to places that seemed empty and uninhabited in our spiritual lives. Many retreats start this way – by urging retreatants to ‘go into the wilderness’, to ‘retreat’ as it were, so that we can be ‘re-treated’, just as Jesus did before his 3-year ministry began right after his baptism in the river Jordan, simply because as Scripture reveals in so many instances, God comes to us very often in the wilderness and not where it’s busy and full of distractions. The wilderness or the desert, as is common in Palestine, is a place where one is no longer able to be dependent on one’s own intellect and egocentric baggage in life, but where one has to rely on God’s presence in faith.
My friend’s context of the search for God is sadly different altogether. The life of the spouse of my friend was cruelly and violently taken away not long after marriage. This friend has since then been finding life very empty and has asked many a time since the incident “where is God?” and has been yearning (understandably) for some consolation by God. We shared a meal a few days before the retreat, and I felt once more the deep pain that seems to be imbedded in this person’s heart. I do hope that my readers notice that I am not even giving away the gender of this friend in my writing, so as to respect the person’s privacy.
I often take a spiritual book with me to retreats, and this year is no different. But instead of taking some of the well-known ‘classics’ with me this year, I picked up a book by titled ‘Disappointment with God’ by Philip Yancey (no, he’s not Catholic, in case you needed to know). The whole premise of this book was Yancey’s grappling with God’s seemingly absent way of making his presence experienced in the lives of billions and billions of people. Yancey tries to answer the question of why God doesn’t make his presence known in a much more tangible way instead of being distant and silent most of the time. With deft mastery, Yancey tries to marry the age old dilemma of faith verses proof, but what I admired was his way of weaving in personal life stories of many people who have faced this problem, juxtaposing it with Job’s own rather cruel and painful experience of a life that seemed vacant of God even though he was a righteous man. In short, Yancey grapples with the three questions: Is God silent? Is God hidden? And Is God unfair?
A short blog entry does not pretend to give trite and neat answers to this perennial question of why and how a God who loves the world chooses to remain silent in the midst of much pain and adversity, tests and trials. The wicked and the selfish often do seem to ‘get away with everything’, and if one were to just look at the material level of life, it does seem that bed-fellows of evil and crime are often having a better time in this life than many of us who choose the ‘narrow and less travelled road’.
We only have to look at what happened to Jesus, (God himself) on the cross of Calvary. On that day, God himself knew what it felt to be abandoned by God (seemingly), and to submit himself to a hidden, albeit higher plan. The easier thing for God to do was to make it all perfect and better, smiting the evil-doers, and exposing the fraud of those responsible for this injustice that was displayed on the mount of Calvary. But would that have permanently changed the way that the world believed in God from that point on?
Just looking at the way that so many times God showed himself to the Israelites and their enemies shows that an in-your-face majestic display of God’s omnipotence doesn’t seem to have effects that would last for generations. At best, the only ones who would believe in God’s existence would be that very generation. The next ones would somehow fall into the same “I-don’t-think-God-exists” spiel. God somehow knows that it is in his hidden-ness and silence that the really hungry people will begin to open their minds and hearts to hear him, not in the thunder, not in the fire, and not in the storm, but in the silent whispers of the breeze, as did the prophet Elijah.
What’s at the centre of our faith in God? It has to be our love for him. Perhaps the problem with many of us is that we don’t love God enough with “all our hearts, all our minds and all our strength”. Perhaps many of us love him (and serve him) because of an obligation, or because of a fear of hell, or because it’s something passed on to us by our forebears. But when we don’t own it ourselves, when we do not make that choice to love (despite not having signs, feelings, external obligations, etc), when we don’t decide to love, but are somehow obliged to love, our faith wouldn’t have moved off from its starting blocks. We have not made strides in growth and faith. In making those necessary strides towards God, we also make the necessary strides to another very important place - into our very selves.
Yes, the silence of God is real - as real as it is salient.