I was speaking to a very dear friend of mine a few days ago. She’s been reeling from a number of really awful things happening in her life, and she doesn’t feel particularly connected to a lot of people.
This woman has been a woman of faith for her entire life. She is what some old church folks might call a “Proverbs 31 Woman.” But, after so much struggle over so long a period, she’s beginning to question whether God is there – or, possibly worse, if God is there but doesn’t care about her.
I know this feeling all too well. It has been so long – SO LONG – since I have regularly felt Divine Presence in my life, at least in a direct way. I go through the motions of prayer, because I believe that it is required of my discipleship. I open my heart, even if I don’t always speak. But, as I’ve shared before, I don’t have those moments of religious ecstasy, those moments where I feel the presence of God in prayer or meditation.
My friend is experiencing this in the depths of her soul… and it hurts, like very few things can hurt. When you have lived your life believing that God exists, that God loves you, that God’s presence is a sign of His favor, the sinking feeling that God might not be there, or that you might not be in His favor… that feels a lot like dying.
It’s something that might be hard for a person who has no religion to understand, but I am sure that everyone has that place of surety, of certainty, in their life. And, when certainty becomes uncertainty, it feels like the floor has dropped out from under you.
When I was in my early 20s, I read several unpublished interviews and letters of Mother Theresa. In these letters, she spoke at great length about how she felt God’s absence far more often than she felt God’s presence. Even in the midst of all the good work that she did (and, despite her conservative theological views, she did do good work in feeding and caring for the poor), she had such difficulty feeling God’s Presence.
Naturally, the occasionally awful Protestant crowd cried out that this was a sure sign that Catholicism was not of God, that the reason she didn’t feel God’s Presence was because of her false religion. But, the more that I have thought about it, the more I have come to a completely opposite answer.
I think that her experience of Divine Absence was a sign that hers was a religion of the purest form. I believe that her experience was a greater sign of God’s favor than she could have imagined.
Granted, this is a fairly self-serving theology. I have already expressed my own experience of Divine Absence, so it seems very self-righteous to make this a sign that my religion is better than yours. If you’re willing to look past these implications and hear me out, then read on.
I have a couple of Youth Ministry Assistants that do all the grunt work on Sunday nights. They’re tasked with ensuring that everything behind the scenes remains working well, so that the rest of the Youth Ministry Team can focus on direct ministry. Now, these Assistants are early 20-somethings, and they need some supervision when they start working for the team. Admonitions are given often, reminders are put forth about what they need to be doing at any given time. And, one of the most wonderful compliments that I can give to one of these young assistants is to be absent while they go about their assigned tasks.
They certainly don’t take it to mean that I don’t care what they’re doing, or that their work isn’t important. They understand that trust has been placed in them to accomplish their work faithfully, even when I’m not standing over their shoulder observing. Sometimes, they’ll run into difficulties, and at any point they know that I will be willing to help them through a task that they deem too difficult. But, my presence encourages reliance on me. My absence encourages faithfulness and self-sufficiency.
I’m sure that there’s a relationship like that in all our lives. I’m equally positive that this is not a perfect analogy, and that it runs the risk of sounding calloused and insensitive. But, I really, really think that going about the work that we’re called to, even in the midst of Divine Absence, is the most faithful thing that we can do. It’s easy to do the work of the Kingdom when we’re full of assurance that God is with us. It takes a great deal more courage and will to do that work when we’re not sure if God cares or not.
I don’t judge those who can’t take that step. After all, it’s entirely possible to do good work without a belief in God. But, for me, there comes a point when we have to stop looking for God in the sky, or in our prayers, or inside the walls of a church. Sometimes, we even need to stop looking for God in our own hearts. Instead, we look for God in the faces of the people who love us, and in the people that we are dedicated to loving and caring for.
Let me say it again, for those in the back:
We look for, and find, God in the faces of the people who love us, and the people that we are dedicated to loving and caring for.
Jesus said that if we earnestly seek Him, we will find Him. Where would we be most likely to find Jesus, who died, was raised, and who ascended into Heaven? Where would we find this Jesus who said, explicitly, “Whatever you did for the least of these, my brethren, you did for me”?
The woman that I spoke of at the beginning of this post does amazing work with people who desperately need the care and love that she gives. I have been a beneficiary of that care and love, and I knew from the moment that I met her that it was a ministry that she was giving. If God doesn’t care for this person, then I don’t think I could care much for God.
But, I believe that God does care for her – just as I believe that God cares for me, even though I can’t feel the Divine Presence every day. I believe that God cares for me because of the people that I help, that I minister to. I believe that God is in them, that Jesus is in their eyes, and that their gratitude and love is the gratitude, love, and favor of God Himself.
“To love another person is to see the face of God.” (That’s a bastardization of the actual Victor Hugo line from Les Miserables, but it will do for our purposes.)
May you always see God in the faces of those around you.
May you feel that Divine Absence keenly enough in your prayers and your heart to seek Presence in the lives of others.
May your religion be so pure and simple that you do the good work in all circumstances.
And, may you always have someone in your life that looks so much like Jesus to you that you may as well be face to face with Him.