Even today, the liturgical year of the church has a time dedicated to penance. Does this not seem strange? We certainly understand that in former centuries such at time was considered necessary for the management of the spiritual and the religious life. People back then were full of life’s joy, satisfied and carefree, and they celebrated Mardi Gras in the streets and laughed the laughter that still came from the heart. Therefore, they could presumably experience a brief period of recollection, of contemplative seriousness, and of ascetic restraint from life’s luxuries as a beneficial change from everyday life and for the good of the soul.
What about us? Do we not consider the proclamation of the church about the start of a time of seriousness, contemplation, and fasting as something strangely surreal, and do we not see a “time of fasting” as a slightly dusty ceremony left over from the good old days? How is such a time relevant for us today with our many needs, our hopelessness with regard to this world, our bitter hearts, our sense that we would be willing to fast as long as it did not mean going hungry?
In the present time our fasting, our Lenten season, starts long before Ash Wednesday, and will continue far beyond the forty days until Easter. It is a time so real that during this liturgically set period of penance we need not use this time as a convenient occasion for sentimentality, as is done in political speeches. The non-liturgical time of our present Lenten life looks harder and more difficult to us than any period of deprivation in generations past. Yes, we are suffering to some degree from a need to be filled and the absence of a carefree safe life, as well as from the fact that we sit in darkness and in the shadow of death; however, mostly – if one dare say so – we are suffering from a sense that God is far away. God is distant from us.
This is not a statement that is true for everyone. It is not a statement that should trouble those hearts that are full of God. But it also is not a statement saying that people can at least take pride in their ability to experience the infinite through the bitterness of their hearts. It is not a statement that promotes a human trait that should never be lost or that God should make sure to preserve in order to give us his nearness and the certainty of his blessed love, as if desperation could enlarge the human heart more than happiness. To declare one’s distance from God a noble human trait (as do some interpretations of human existence that call themselves existential philosophy) is sinful and stupid and perverse. Such a distance from God in many people is a fact and demands an explanation; it is a sorrow, the deepest sorrow of our Lenten life for as long as we journey apart from the Lord.
Distance from God does not mean here that a person is denying God’s existence or indifferently ignoring it in life. Such an understanding is often, though not always, a wrong interpretation of the state that is meant here. Rather, distance from God here means something that can equally, if not mostly, exist in those who believe in God, long for God, and look for God’s light and sanctifying nearness. Even believers – and they especially – can and often are made to experience the fact that God appears as someone rather unreal, that God is mute and silently rejecting, as if he were framing our existence only as an empty, distant horizon in whose labyrinth of infinity our thoughts and the desires of our hearts are utterly lost. Distance from God says that our spirit has grown tired of the unsolved riddles, that our spirit has grown despondent over the unanswered prayers, and that we are tempted to see “God” only as one of those ultimate yet untrustworthy affirmations under which people repeatedly hide their own desperation, even though this desperation, too, has lost the strength to take itself seriously. God appears to us only as this bodiless, inaccessible infinity that, to make matters worse, seems to make even more finite and questionable our small piece of existence and makes us feel even more homeless in this world, since it seduces us into a vast longing that we ourselves cannot satisfy and that God seemingly cannot either.
Yes, it appears as if Western people today have to suffer and do penance in the “purgatory” of feeling distant from God more so than people of previous times. If individuals can experience, apart from the blessed moment of feeling close to God, the nights of the spiritual senses where the eternity of the living God draws near by the fact that God appears more distant and inapproachable, why should nations and continents not have similar experiences, so that theirs can somehow become the holy fate of all? The fact that this dismal condition may have been occasioned by the sins of an entire era does not preclude it from being a felix culpa, a blessed guilt.
Seen from this angle, the theoretical and practical atheism that many people express today is a wrong, impatient, and one-sided response to such a condition and is reactionary in the truest sense of the word, for it is still a clinging to the rather childlike notion that God needs to be near before worship is possible, and that when such nearness is not present one no longer understands God and can even say that God does not exist. Today’s atheism becomes then the willful refusal to mature in the dark purgatory of a debris-covered heart for the sake of the God who is always greater than the God who was perceived and loved the previous day.
But enough of that! The sense of feeling distant from God exists and touches believers and non-believers alike, confuses the mind, and frightens the heart. Believers do not like to admit to it because they think that something like that should not happen to them, despite the fact that their Lord himself cried out: My God, why have you forsaken me? And the others, the non-believers, draw the wrong conclusions from it.
Since feeling distant from God in our debris-covered heart is the ultimate bitterness of our life’s Lenten season, it is appropriate to ask what can be done about it and, along the same lines, how the church’s liturgical season of Lent is to be lived. For when the bitter distance from God turns into holy worship, the Lenten season of the world is transformed into the Lenten season of the church.
The first thing you will need to do is to expose your debris-covered heart to the experience of feeling distant from God by refusing to escape through pious or worldly activity, by enduring the experience without the common sedatives, without committing sin, and without stubborn desperation. When you experience the heart’s emptiness like that, what kind of God is it who is actually distant from you? It certainly is not the true and living God, for he is the incomprehensible, the nameless one who is truly the God of your boundless heart. The one distant from you is a god that does not exist: a god that can be comprehended, a god of small ideas and cheap, undemanding human thoughts, a god of earthly security, a god that makes sure that the children do not cry and that human love does not end up in disappointment – in short, a rather dignified idol. That is the god that has become distant. And is not such a god-distance bearable?
Something else is true: You will need to permit your heart to experience this kind of despair, a despair that appears to be robbing you of everything, seemingly blocking your heart’s escape out into life, into fulfillment, into the open, into God. Do not despair when experiencing despair: Let the despair take all away from you, since what is taken from is only the finite, the unimportant, even if it may have been ever so wonderful and great, even if it may be yourself with your ideals, with your smart and detailed plans for your life, with your image of a god that looks more like you than the incomprehensible one. Allow all the exits to be blocked, for they are only exits into the finite and paths into dead ends. Do not be frightened by the solitude and forsakenness in your internal prison, which appears to be as dead as a grave. For if you stand firm, refusing to flee from despair and in the despair over the loss of your former idol that you called God, you do not doubt the true God; if you stand firm, which is a true miracle of grace, then you will realize suddenly that your grave-like prison cell is locked up only against what is meaningless and finite, that its deathly emptiness is only the vastness of God’s presence, that silence is filled with a word without words by the one who stand above all names and who is all in all. The silence is his silence. He is saying that he is here.
And the second thing to do in your despair is to realize that he is here and to understand by faith that he is with you. This means realizing that he has been expecting you for a long time in the deepest dungeon of your debris-covered heart, that he has been silently listening and waiting for a long time to see whether you in the busy din that is called your life might give him a chance to speak, to speak a word that has sounded up until then only like deathly silence. It also means realizing that you will not perish when you release the worry about yourself and for your life, that you will not perish when you let go, that you will not end up in despair when you finally despair of yourself, of your own wisdom and strength, and of the wrong image of God that is being torn away from you.
As if by a miracle that has to happen anew each day, you will realize that you have arrived at him. You will suddenly realize that your sense of being distant from God is in reality only the disappearance of the world, because the dawn of God in your soul has begun; that the darkness is nothing else but the brightness of God that casts no shadow; and that your sense of having no exit is only the immeasurability of God to which no paths are needed because he is already here. You will realize that you should not try to flee from your empty heart by your own strength because he is already here, so that there is no reason to flee from this blessed despair into a solace that would not be solace, because such solace does not exist.
He is here. Do not try to hold onto him. He does not run away. Do not try to make sure he is or try touching him with the hands of your greedy heart. You would touch only emptiness, not because he is distant or unreal, but because he is infinity that cannot be touched. He is here, in the midst of your debris-covered heart, he alone. Yet, he who is everything looks as if he were nothing.
Then, all by itself, there comes peace, which is purest activity, silence that is filled with God’s word, trust that no longer fears, certainly that no longer needs reassurance, and strength that becomes powerful in weakness, a life rising from death. Then, there is nothing else in us but God and the almost unnoticeable and yet all-pervasive faith that he is, that he is here, and that we are his.
But one thing has yet to be said: This sense of being distant from God would not be the dawn of God in the midst of the dead, debris-covered heart had not the son of man, who is the son of the father, suffered and experienced the same in his own heart along with us, for us, and before us. Yes, he suffered and experienced all of this. It happened in the garden from whose fruit people wanted to press the oil of gladness but which was in reality the garden of a lost paradise. He lay face-down and death climbed into his living heart, into the heart of the world. The heavens were closed up and the world was like a vast grave in which he alone lay, covered by the guilt and the hopelessness of world. The angel, who looked like death, handed him for strength the chalice of all bitterness, so that he fell into agony. The Earth swallowed darkly and greedily the drops of blood of his deathly fear. But God enclosed everything like the night that no longer promises another day. One could no longer differentiate between God and death. In the seeming boundlessness of the deathly silence, where people dulled their sadness by sleep, there floated somewhere the small voice of the son, which was the only sign of God’s presence that still remained. And it seemed as if this voice, too, might drown in the silence at any moment. But then the great miracle happened: the voice remained. In this small voice that sounded like the voice of a dead person, the son addressed the awesome God as “Father” and said about his own abandonment: Your will be done. And then, in an act of unspeakable courage, he commended his abandoned soul into the hands of his father.
Since then our own poor soul, too, has been placed into the hands of this father, whose former deadly decree has turned into love. Since then, our despair has been redeemed, the emptiness of our heart has found fulfillment, and our sense of being distant from God has been transformed into a sense of nearness. When, in the weary darkness of our heart, we pray with the son the prayer he said in the garden and when we do so in simple faith, there will be no storm of delight right away, as if his words were mysteriously rising from somewhere in the depths of our heart and becoming our own. But the prayer will have power enough. Each day, it will be just enough. And it will be for as long as God sees fit. And that is enough. He knows here on Earth, in order to endure the eventual blinding dawn of its blessedness, the poor heart that now shares by faith in Jesus Christ the night with him and which to the one who believes it nothing but our eyes’ blind darkness to the profuse light of God, the holy night when God is first born in our hearts.
All of this should not remain religious lyrics for Sunday pondering. It has to be practiced amidst the burden and bitterness of everyday life. When you begin to practice standing firm and risking willingly of the chalice in which are contained poverty, need, and the sense of being distant from God, then you will have started a Lent that is blessed. Do you want to try it? Say to the God of your heart who is already near: Grant me your grace.