Sunday with Michael Spencer
The lived spiritual life is a frequent contradiction
I remember the depths of my own dark night in September of 2001. I was at the point of breaking down and being unable to preach or teach, a condition I had never faced before. I was as far from God as it was possible to be, and I felt myself in the grip of despair. But I came to work every day. I taught. I preached–with unparalleled fear and shame–and I ministered to others. In my community of faith, these daily activities filled in the empty places, and in these moments I experienced the mixture of despair and faith that the Psalms report to us again and again. Where are you God? I cannot see you or sense you, but you are there. In the very absence, there is a different and sustaining kind of presence. This was not a certain absence–which so many flippantly assume–but a mysterious presence, entirely congruent with what I know of myself and of the God of the Bible.
The lived spiritual life is a frequent contradiction. I reject the kind of “victorious life” formulaic teaching I grew up hearing in fundamentalist circles, and I must also reject the kind of consumeristic emotional junk food that is found everywhere in evangelicalism as a substitute for the presence of God. As much as I count myself a Christian hedonist, I am suspicious that “Delight yourself in the Lord” is often deeply and significantly misunderstood.
The assurance of God’s presence and the certainties of answered questions are not the same thing. I find far more rational certainty in the resurrection than I do existential experience of the presence of Jesus. Spiritual experience takes the shape of the incarnation itself, with God inhabiting a fallen world where human beings have become insensitive, fearful and callous to the glory of God that pours forth from every crack of the universe. If the fall is true, then none of us are “in tune” with the presence of God, and particular theologies of God’s presence may let us down profoundly.
The kinds of doubts that I read in Mother Teresa’s memoirs make me wonder what kind of expectations of God’s presence are made in the Roman Catholic theology of religious vocation? What kinds of stories of God’s presence are collected around the theology of the Eucharistic presence of Christ? I am not the person to answer these questions, but I know my own tradition has its own collection of promises and mythology that ignore the typical experience of human nature.
Where do I look for the presence of God? I have learned that looking for such signs in a spirituality of isolation is pointless. For me, the presence of God meets me in community. In worship. In narrative. In story. In communal prayer. In the imitation of Jesus in serving others. At times, it arrives with surprise, and departs abruptly. The wind blows where it will, and we are pilgrims in the life of prayer and faith. We are not called to be pretenders of certainties that do not exist in our experience.
Because my tradition devalues the sacraments, I can rarely look for the presence of God there, but I surely would come to the Lord’s Table as often as possible, not for a magic dispensation of awareness of God, but entirely because God does meet me in the places where He promised to be present, even if I am not emotionally registering that presence. The life of faith is exactly that: the silent moment of believing the promise of a God who may overwhelm, or hide; come near in glory or hide in darkness.