Godtalk: Searching for Reality


‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways’ says the Lord. Isaiah 55.8  

That seems an appropriate way to begin any reflection on how faith works. Some days you walk on water, other days you sink like a stone. You live with a deep secret, that sometimes you know, and then not, and then know again. Sometimes you feel the real presence, other times you feel just absence.

Like love, faith is a journey, with constant ups and downs, with alternating periods of fervour and dryness, graced moments where God feels present followed by dark nights where God feels absent. It's a strange state: sometimes you feel close to God, other times you feel yourself in free-fall from everything secure, and then, just when things are at their lowest, you feel God's presence again.

It's not that God wants to test our fidelity, to do something difficult to earn salvation.  The ups and downs of faith have to do with the rhythms of ordinary life, especially the rhythm of love. Love, like faith, has its periods of fervour and of dark nights.

In any long-term commitment (marriage, family, friendship, or Church) there will be certain days and whole seasons when our heads and our hearts aren't in that commitment, even though we're still in it. Our heads and hearts fade in and fade out, but we experience love as ultimately not dependent upon the head or even the heart. Something deeper holds us, and holds us beyond the thoughts of our heads or the feelings of our heart at a given moment.

In any sustained commitment in love, our heads and hearts will fade in and out.

Sometimes there's fervour, sometimes there's flatness. Faith works the same way. Sometimes we sense and feel God's presence with our heads and our hearts and sometimes both leave us flat and dry. But faith is something deeper than imagining or feeling God's presence. 

What should we do in those moments when it feels as if God is absent?

St John of the Cross offers this advice. If you want to find God's presence again in those moments when God feels absent, ‘listen to a word filled with reality and unfathomable truth.’  We need to look for a word that connects with any experience that's deep and filled with reality;   for example, giving birth to a child, being awed by exceptional beauty, or having our heart broken by loss or death. These kinds of experience are real, unfathomably true, and jolt us into a deeper awareness; so surely God is to be found there?

John is asking us to look in scripture, theology, literature or poetry for words that carry reality and depth,  that speak to us in a way that re-grounds us in some  sense that God exists and loves us and that because of this, we should live in love and hope.

God is one, true, good, and beautiful, and so the right word about oneness, truth, goodness, or beauty should have the power to steady our shifting minds and hearts. The right word can make the Word become flesh again.

But what words have the power to do that for us?  Because we're all different, not everyone will find truth and depth in the same way. Each one of us must therefore do our own, deeply personal, search here.   Each of us needs to search in our own way for words that for us, are so ‘filled with reality and unfathomable truth’ as to evoke a felt-presence of God.

Peter Knott SJ