The heartbreaking absence of God

Filed in Spirituality by on June 1, 2014 22 Comments

So many people feel the absence of God in their lives, because of their struggles with faith, their inner darkness, or the sense of helplessness and abandonment that can come through experiences of great suffering. In this homily for the Feast of the Ascension, Fr Stephen Wang reflects on this sense of loss, and how to interpret it from a Christian perspective.

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Fr Stephen Wang is a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Westminster. He is currently Senior University Chaplain for the Archdiocese. Some of his articles have previously been published on his personal blog, Bridges and Tangents. See: http://bridgesandtangents.wordpress.com/

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  1. Tonia says:

    I hope you post some more of your homilies, it’s been a while since the last one!

  2. Sr Mary says:

    Thank you so much for this very thought provoking homily. Food for thought for weeks to come.

  3. Julia says:

    Thank you! I echo both sentiments posted above by Sr Mary and Tonia. Inspirational, back-straightening, and strengthening thoughts at the start of the week.

  4. mags says:

    I do not know that film, but I have had that overbearing feeling of wanting to go charging round to my little church, bursting through the door and smashing everything in the sanctuary up until all my strength and anger and rage and passion is spent, before collapsing in a heap on the floor before the altar ~ because of the grief, injustice and pain so unnecessarily inflicted ~ that I and others have endured.

    I don’t know why I think that may have helped ~ but to throw at my ‘Father’s feet’ the overbearing destructive devastating unbearable pain that I have been forced to endure ~ in Love for Him ~ usually so inwardly ~ to feel like He should visibly be forced to witness my crucifixion (as day after day I have to witness His Sons Crucifixion) might have something to do with it.

    But deeper still, I know that God is Love ~ and not the absence of love or the brokeness of love, or the unkindness that I have been witness to.

    We have to seek God in Love all the while. We have to keep turning towards the Love.

    When I step Inside the empty church I can sense the Love of the carver who carved the wooden sculptures, and the trees used. I can sense the Love of the person who made the wafers, and the person who washes the lace. I can sense the Love of the person who designed the gold box, and who lovingly dusts it clean. When we feel Love lacking, we need to know that if we go into that empty church, The Spirit of Love is visible and physically in front of us, and that Jesus Loves us so much that He dies for us, each and every one of us, because of Love. And that Love ~ Love personified ~ we can see hanging on a cross before us, even if we can not comprehend it.

    And I forgive God for allowing that to happen when I couldn’t stop it and He could of.

    • Paul Rodden says:

      Hi Mags.
      I hear you. My heart bleeds.

      Just for the record, I have an Evangelical friend who smashed everything up – and in the beautiful 15th Century Church I work at, too – but it didn’t make him feel an better. :)
      In fact, he’s still just as angry at God (his childhood and his father).

      I also have a friend that tries to go to confession every day. He also sometimes crawls to the altar to receive our Lord. Often he doesn’t receive because he sees himself too unworthy – or the priest has refused to hear his confession. (His parish priest has a tough time trying to help him start to love himself as God loves him and not see himself as totally depraved.) He is hyper-scrupulous, but he is a gentle, vulnerable, soul who’s the result of a family of extreme Traditionalists/Rigourists who terrorised him.

      I have another friend who has cerebral palsy. We try to go to lunch together once a month. People stare. Teenagers shout ‘spazzo’ across the street and laugh. And many adults who don’t laugh talk to him as if he’s five years old. They don’t know that he is a postgraduate lawyer and rapidly becoming an expert in Catholic Social Teaching since he was received into the Church.

      All of them often feel the absence of God. But even Cleopas and the Ethiopian Eunuch felt that absence, just when they felt they needed it most, and even Jesus wouldn’t let the Gerasene Demoniac ‘follow’ him.

      How often I feel like that Demoniac. But then…
      …we read the Church on how redemptive suffering is, and how those with disabilities and mental illness, and those who are divorced and remarried come to Mass but remain faithful and do not receive Communion, are somehow icons and bring grace. They do. It is a mystery. But we are not alone. We can offer it up because we are part of a body. We know that our suffering has purpose. In a strange way by ‘offering it up’ (a concept my Protestant friends find ridiculous if not completely misguided and unbiblical) we all participate in the mystery of the Cross. We share and participate in being truly One.

      I can offer up my suffering for some good, some soul in Purgatory, by participating in the cross, that complete desolation. The cross is truly salvific, not ‘once for all’ as a past event done by Jesus alone. Through our Baptism we are drawn into the very Family of God. The divine Godhead suffers with us.

      I have to say that through the times I’ve suffered, but also when I see the suffering I’ve seen and know about just in my parish, I am not only humbled, but paradoxically sense the closeness of God, of a Father that does not abandon his children despite his apparent absence.

      The fact they stay and come to daily Mass, sometimes weep, yet are the result of a lifetime of catechesis which has left them virtually clueless to even the basics of the faith, is truly amazing. They cling onto Jesus, without reason, apart from a hope they cannot articulate. Wow.

      To see faith continuing in the presence of the perceived abandonment of our/the Father, is one of the many Signs of Contradiction of our beautiful and amazing Religion, as this homily attests.

  5. mags says:

    Thank you Paul,

    Those ‘feelings’ were a physical expression of the pain, chaos and brokeness that someone can feel interiorly, a devastating turbulence, caused when man does not not act or treat others with the love, dignity and compassion that every human being so deserves. I have been witness to that depleating devastating pain, and I am witness to the absolute injustice of life first hand, as we all are in some way. But that is mans doing ~ not Gods.

    I feel so sorry for man ~ and so sad for him.

    I am not angry with my Father ~ I Love Him ~ hence the second part of the above post.

    God is Love ~ and we can sense His spirit ~ and we can live in it ~ by the loving kindness, empathy and compassion we show to others. And if we put our ‘Easter Eyes’ on we can see His Spirit with great clarity. We can sense it in creation, in the earth that nurtures the plant, that produces the cotton, that makes the lace, that dresses the altar, that is reverently worshipped upon, and lovingly cleaned by the person in Church, and admired (else taken for granted) by many. We can even see Him in the beautiful white.

    We can feel it and tangibly touch it, in the earth that grows the tree, that produces the wood, that the woodcutter fells, that the sculptor selects, that he so perfectly and lovingly carves and polishes, and so reverently paints to depict the suffering of Man upon His Cross, that we all sit before in naked wonder, and that the cleaner so gently and lovingly wipes over with her dry cloth, and then takes the cloth home so reverently to wash and iron and return the following day to Church.

    And likewise we can see God and His Love in every facet and detail, and we can breathe it in all in ~ Ruah ~ especially when we are gulping for air : O)

    God is Never absent to me. He is the Love in every pore of life. And the Spirit of Love. Even before I knew religion God was present in the wonder. And Now He is here in Jesus Christ, and He is with me Always ~ and sometimes I am angry that Jesus had to die, for the world to wake up to Love, when Love was here All along.

    • Paul Rodden says:

      Yesterday our new wonderful new priest gave us an amazing homily about Ruach, Pneuma, and Spiritus, and how they all imply both Spirit and life.

      He talked about the creative act in Genesis as the Spirit hovered over the waters, when God breathed into Adam’s nostrils, Jesus breathing his last ‘onto’ the Beloved Disciple and his/our Blessed Mother, Jesus breathing on the scared disciples in the Cenacle and finally their bold proclamation of the Gospel when the Spirit came at Pentecost.

      He then went onto putting that all in the context of continuity with the past, and the Bishop’s breathing onto the Holy Oil at the Chrism Mass and the importance the Oil plays in so many of the Sacraments we celebrate all through the year, and just how powerful they are.

      It seems to me, when God feels absent, the Sacraments are what can sustain us more than anything else.

      They are the visible signs of his very (veritable/true) presence. In a sense, how can we feel abandoned unless one has a defective or inadequate view of them – their nature and their efficacy – apart from the manifold graces!?

      As Malcolm Muggeridge’s son says in the Foreword to Archbishop Sheen’s ‘Life of Christ’ about his fathers Anglican past and his conversion:

      How often, for example, must he [Muggeridge] have sung in school or college chapels, “Oh, for a closer walk with God!” And now along come Sheen and his fellow Catholics who so obviously seem to have found what they are looking for. No need for them to rediscover Jesus. He has been present all along on the altars at which they pray and in the sacraments of which they partake. In fact, he is not only in their Church; he is their Church

      Deo Gratias!

  6. mags says:

    ‘sometimes I am angry that Jesus had to be murdered ~ before rising ~ for the world to wake up to Love ~ when Love was here All along.’

  7. mags says:

    In response to your passage ~ ‘They are the visible signs of his very (veritable/true) presence. In a sense, how can we feel abandoned unless one has a defective or inadequate view of them – their nature and their efficacy – apart from the manifold graces!?’

    I don’t know is the answer ~ I don’t feel abandoned.

    But I have read and heard that many people do feel abandoned ~ maybe because they are denied the Sacraments? else the pastoral care and fellowship that could provide a pathway to lead them closer still to God ~ their Salvation.

    Its of course all in the Catechism ~ but sometimes lost in translation between one human being and another.

    I was blessed in Spiritual Communion and I find it difficult to see how if someone Sooooo longs to commune with Christ, how they can possibly not be blessed in their longing ~ but some people still feel abandoned. We have to respect those feelings of abandonment. I am sure it is absolutely real. And even though I had Spiritual Communion and was Blessed at every Eucharist, I still felt denied and held other by man ~ not by God.

    I do know that when the Samaritan woman at the well met our Lord ~ she didn’t meet with any easy answers ~ but despite her situation and having to confront it all in one sentence, she wasn’t held other by Him. She was offered Living Water.

    “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

    I wonder how many people though they ‘knew the gift of God’ ~ have turned to the Church and asked for that desperate drink (and though of it only in Sacramental terms) ~ and were denied?

    T’is Food for thought.

  8. mags says:

    and THOUGHT of it only in Sacramental terms

  9. Paul Rodden says:

    It seems to me, too many people want things their own way, and not the means by which God has provided through his Church. Too many people judge the Church on people, in the way people judge the value of Spinach on its taste. Most people want an infinite supply of Haagen Dazs from the Church, and have a tantrum just like a two year old when it’s not forthcoming.

    Most people these days judge things according to feelings, not being, reality. If a pilot did that in certain situations rather than rely on his instruments, he’d crash. The sacraments are tried and tested, and God ordained. That’s why I rely on them alone.

    The whole purpose of many ‘Christian’ practices today is to avoid the abandonment by providing distractions by the bucketful.

    Although written by a Protestant, and has ‘issues’, I’d highly recommend the book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, by Thomas Begler.

    There’s an excellent article on it over at Christianity Today:
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/june/when-are-we-going-to-grow-up.html?paging=off

  10. mags says:

    No Paul,

    Most people are good people, often buffeted by life ~ and despite life’s messyness, sorrow, brokenness, grief, and sometimes injustice, those people in faith or with great courage and hope turn to the church despite their ‘ailments’. To be closer to God. God who is Love.

    Jesus says to the woman at the well ~ ‘ he would have given you living water.’ if she had recognised and asked.

    when people are desperately thirsty and ask in faith for Living Water ~ because they trust in the mercy and Love of God, we All have a duty to hold the sponge to their lips, because what you do for least of His brothers, you do for Him.

  11. mags says:

    Every single person is made in the image and likeness of God. The sooner we begin to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength ~ and so too love our neighbour as ourself ~ Only then are we living the Gospel as God so commands.

  12. mags says:

    ‘Most people want an infinite supply of Haagen Dazs from the Church, and have a tantrum just like a two year old when it’s not forthcoming.’

    Insult!

    One does not throw a tantrum when one gives up conjugal rights in order to become a Catholic ~ so as to remain unseparated in faith from her children. She hurts and cries and is in pain because she was only 42 ~ and didint take vows of celibacy.

  13. Paul Rodden says:

    Hi Mags.
    If you read what I wrote in that first paragraph again, you will see it wasn’t about believers, but non-believers. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    There’s then a transition to how Christians want to sidestep the Sacraments in order to be relevant, in order to provide the ice cream those outside want – rather than insulin they need – by being ‘seeker-sensitive’, and therefore sell-out on the cross.

    The Church is a field hospital, as Pope Francis called it, not a client-centred therapist’s couch where everything is judged by how good it makes us feel about ourselves.

    I highly recommend the following article by Msgr Cormac Burke: Self-Esteem: Why? Why Not?
    http://www.cormacburke.or.ke/node/370

    This recent article by Fr Dwight Longenecker on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:
    http://www.aleteia.org/en/religion/article/do-you-suffer-from-this-theological-disease-5871487470796800

    And this article, recently published on the St Austin Review: ‘The Pornography of Sentiment’
    http://www.staustinreview.com/ink_desk/archives/the_pornography_of_sentiment/

    • Paul Rodden says:

      As an aside: like my previous response, the above reply is not aimed at at you! :)
      It is aimed at (unhealthy/dangerous) fads which I am not alone in observing.

      My focus is on religious quacks, snake oil salesmen, and those who promote them, and how, sadly, the sick and vulnerable flock to the false for salvation and healing. ‘If a thing looks too good to be true, it probably is’, as they say, and it applies to an increasingly narcissistic trend in the Spiritual life and a commodification of Church.

      “The world, I think, does not suffer from a lack of vision. If it suffers from anything, it is from too many visions that are not true to reality.”
      James Schall, SJ.
      http://www.thecatholicthing.org/columns/2014/hope-beyond-thy-sight.html

      • mags says:

        I read your article.

        I never particularly like Tolkien

        ‘Final human happiness is not found in this world’

        I prefer my Lord

        ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven.’

        Hope ~ t’is the anchor of the soul.

  14. mags says:

    :O) Raw-moment response from me. :O)

  15. mags says:

    As far as I am concerned Paul ~ No one is on the outside ~ Love is a universal language ~ it knows no bounds. People need loving not painting or separating into different flavours of ice cream or worthiness. Examples of human beings, being Love is all that is required. Its so Simple. Love ~ without judgement or condition ~ then just maybe anyone that is broken (which is at some point after all, us all) by the Love exampled them ~ become the greatest Lovers of All.

    Like Papa says the Eucharist is medicine for the soul. I have always believed that if anyone received the Catholic Eucharist they would realise that they have never ever receive it so quite so intimately, or so fulfillingly, or so reverently anywhere before ~ Christ died for us all.

    Thanks be to God.

    Our VOCATION is to Love ~ Nothing more at all.

    p.s No offence but I have 5 children, in order to read your reading list, I would have to ditch my studies and my life and live a parallel life of being you. My books and my inspirations – inspire me from one read to the next ~ I already have a lifetime of reading to work my way through ~ and being slightly dyx its kinda like reading Lexio 0-:O)))

  16. Joan Ghali says:

    Inspirational true words…Thank you so much for posting Fr.Stephen !

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