Over the past few centuries, it seems that (in general) there has been a methodical transformation in our culture’s fundamental mode of living.
In years past, ‘reason’ was the prized way of life. Reason was dogmatically championed before all else as the way to what is real and worthy. Slowly but surely, though, there has been a procession towards the dominant theme of ‘experience’. For the most part, from the most abstract of classroom gatherings to the commonest man on the street, experience and a sense of what you feel is viewed as the way to real life.
Is it better to emphasize one or the other? It seems that both have their pros and cons. No doubt, accenting one or the other is a pendulum that has swung back and forth for centuries (as these things tend to do). But, this is relevant to us because we are not exempt from the times we live in. This emphasis on ‘experience’ as the trustworthy mode of living can very much affect our spiritual life.
Let’s clarify what we mean when we speak about ‘experience’ in this post: experience as presence – that blast of newness, like being on the bow of a sailing ship, that carries a secure assurance of an abundant, overflowing sense of who-knows-what. Experience meant as the fact that you are ‘feeling something good’, tangibly overshadowed by something extra-ordinary, surrounded by affirmation and a sense of adventure. That sounds like really lofty language, but haven’t we all known that this kind of thing can happen both in big, momentous ways and in small, commonplace ones?
And these are good things! Having times when you experience something great is not being condemned here as ‘dangerous’. It is, very often, a visit from God Himself. But, sometimes we can become lopsided. We can start to chase ‘experience’. We all know this, of course. We can grasp at it, sometimes desperately, as some abstract ‘thing’ (we ‘thingify’ it) that must give us the way to life. And, of course, in doing this we arrogate ourselves to be god. Perturbed by the death we taste when we aren’t really ‘feeling’ or ‘experiencing’ anything profound (like the stagnant air without any kind of new breeze), we lunge for a sense of experiencing something. And, so, make ourselves the judge of what we need and don’t need. We don’t allow God to give us absence – we don’t allow God to act as He pleases.
There are two absences of God. One is an absence that condemns us, the other an absence that sanctifies us. In the absence that is condemnation, God “knows us not” because we have put some other god in His place and refuse to be known by Him. In the absence that sanctifies, God empties the soul of every image that might become an idol and of every concern that might stand between our face and His Face…
Whoever seeks to catch Him and hold Him loses Him. He is like the wind that blows where it pleases. You who love Him must love Him as arriving from where you do not know and as going where you do not know… Those who love only His apparent presence cannot follow the Lord where He goes. They do not love Him perfectly if they do not allow Him to be absent… Only those men are never separated from the Lord who never question His right to separate Himself from them. They never lose Him because they always realize they never deserve to find Him, and that in spite of their unworthiness they have already found Him. (Thomas Merton)
With ever separation we feel what sated presence conceals (Goethe)
In our current cultural moment, there is a temptation to try to just squeeze experience after experience out of religion. To the extent that, sometimes, we can feel like something is wrong with us if we aren’t experiencing anything! When we aren’t experiencing anything in our faith life, we easily act as if something is broken. We get worried, right? And all of this stings even more when our spiritual life is confronted (even embarrassed!) by the ins-and-outs of our culture, all of which – the music, TV, books, lights, art, appliances, whatever – are designed to tickle us with experience and good feelings all the time. Having grown up in this cultural ethos, it is a trial to continually chose a religion that is sometimes silent of ‘experience’ and a culture that never ceases to offer it (at first glance, at least).
But, we must let God meet us on His own terms. We must let the divine Lover dance with us. For if our discipleship stays only as something we can comprehend, handle and ‘fit’ into ourselves, then it is only the stuff of aging sentimentality, not of glory, youth, truth and transformation. For, God is unthinkable, His mystery is a light too bright for our ‘eyes’ to handle; thus ‘the unthinkable gives itself – not to be comprehended but to be received’ (Jean-Luc Marion). If we don’t accept walking in the dark of this bedazzling light, we are following a god who is a concept and an idol, not the God who calls us to “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:19). “Seek the things that are above… For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:2). Perhaps it is the very core of these words to embrace ‘absence’, the ‘distance’ of God, the darkness, this feeling of being not yet home. For, in that kind of freedom, we don’t try to violently force Heaven down to Earth, but we let Heaven be what it is, calling to us from afar (though, strangely, not that far). Strangely, in this kind of absence, we discover a different kind of presence.
And so we must receive, treasure and glory in our experience. In them are myriad truths. Experiences are good. But we must hold on to them loosely, always ready to let God love us in the darkness, in a perceived absence, in a dearth of ‘experience’.
And yet, in our absence of experience, the question remains, “Why does God hide?” Why must I follow Him and want Him and still feel as though I haven’t quite found what I’m looking for? Why does He choose to be distant? Are there any better questions than these? The best things ever written have never been far from these questions. But, in the end, they are never ‘answered’. Though the capacity for language nearly defines our species, all of our words must, in the end, give way to silence – a hopeful, yearning, reverent, childlike, listening silence, which knows beyond all knowledge that it can hear the Word say, “I am coming!”