Silence. It can be a reservoir of flowing peace and nourishing grace. It can call to mind our cherished identity, compelling us to respond to God and others with that same, first love he has shown us. Or it can be cold and sterile, a state of abandonment, loss, frustration and sorrow. It’s in the silence that we can choose to trust in his loving presence or his aching absence. We all know of people—maybe even ourselves at times—who turn away from God because in a time of great need they were met with the cold, bitter sound of only their own cries and tears. It’s an experience, I imagine, we can all relate to on some level.
Submitting to God, and the mystery of his sometimes peculiar and painful ways is a sobering challenge, one we can’t escape as we journey back toward the Kingdom of God in this life. God gives us enough grace and light to have a reasonable, firm and joyful belief in him, but so much of our lives remain unclear—we’re asked to trust in his plan even when it appears chaotic, unfair, or meaningless. When the eyes of our bodies are darkened, we are called to rely evermore on the eyes of our faith. This trusting in his will gradually and—at least on our worse days, suspiciously—throughout our lives is hard. And we experience moments in our lives when we cast a full-throated cry to God in words that echo those same ones from Job himself:
I cry to you, but you do not answer me;
I stand, but you take no notice.
You have turned into my tormentor,
and with your strong hand you attack me.
You raise me up and drive me before the wind;
I am tossed about by the tempest.
– Job 30:20-22
I heard a revealing parable once about a solitary monk dwelling in an ancient monastery. The monastery rests on top of a rocky cliff overlooking a small village. For many years, a man from the village wonders about the monastery and the life of the solitary monk. Finally, he decides to scale the cliff to meet the monk. When he arrives at the top, he spots the wizened monk sitting in prayer. The young man calls out to him, “Hello Father, do you still wrestle with the Devil?” The old monk, stirred from his meditative state, replies, “No, I don’t wrestle with the Devil any more. I’m too old now and the devil is too foolish. We’re tired of each other.” Surprised, the young man says, “So your life must be easy now.” The monk responds, “No, it’s much harder. Now I wrestle with God.”
Like the wise monk, as we grow closer to God we find ourselves in seemingly more compromising positions with him. We can choose to relent, allowing God to shape the hardened clay of our lives, or stand firm, not only refusing ground, but even taking the offensive in overcoming God’s will with our own. Yet, when this proves, well, impossible, we can be tempted to leave the ring altogether—to dismiss him from our lives for not heeding our egotistical demands. There can often be an underlying desire to force God’s hand, to test him and charge him to make a convincing and impervious account of himself: of why things are the way they are, of his intentions, and of course, of his and our own existence. Such a desire to be god over God can devolve into a type of violence against God—a warring of the creature against the Creator.
In Raymond Bradbury’s short story collection, The Illustrated Man, one of his stories tells of a handful of travellers from Earth who land on a distant planet. The captain of the ship, giddy with excitement to feed his own insatiable vanity, looks forward to appearing before the inhabitants of the planet, which he anticipates will cause them to marvel at them. However, he is disappointed when he hears from one of his envoys that another far-off stranger has already visited, one who arrived only yesterday. The language remains somewhat vague at first, but it becomes clear that this strange visitor is Christ. In the story, Christ has come to the alien world to do what he did for us: teach, heal and point us toward eternal life. The captain, an avowed atheist, goes into the town and demands that the inhabitants bring the man to him, whose whereabouts they claim they do not now know. In response, the captain turns to violence against one of the inhabitants, the mayor of the town:
On the floor, holding his wounded arm, the mayor looked up. ‘Put down your gun. You’re hurting yourself. You’ve never believed, and now that you think you believe, you hurt people because of it.’
‘I don’t need you,’ said [the captain], standing over him. ‘If I missed him by one day here, I’ll go on to another world. And another and another…one day I’ll catch up with him! Do you hear that?’ He was shouting now, leaning wearily over the man on the floor.
The captain eventually leaves the planet by himself in search for the mysterious man—in search for God.
“Yes, poor man, he’s gone,” said the mayor. “And he’ll go on, planet after planet, seeking and seeking, and always and always he will be an hour late….And finally he will miss out by only a few seconds. And when he has visited three hundred worlds and is seventy or eighty years old he will miss out by only a fraction of a second. And he will go on and on, thinking to find that very thing which he left behind here, on this planet, in this city—”
And like the obdurate captain, we can be tempted to try and force God to manifest in our lives according to our demands, at the whim of half-hearted prayers. We cry out to God expecting an answer, and when one isn’t given in the form we desire, we can allow our pride and frustration to turn our backs to him.
This theme of forcing God’s hand—so to speak—is also touched upon in the film, The Grey, which was released a few years ago. The film depicts a group of men who have crashed in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness and are now trying to get back to civilization while being stalked by wolves. It’s rather heavy-handed with its existential musings, pondering the question of God’s seeming absence and attempting to answer it (unfortunately, the answer proves hauntingly atheistic). In one of the final scenes, the main character, played by Liam Neeson, goes on a seething, blasphemous tirade against God, demanding that he acts to save him from his fate in the cold, lifeless, meaningless wilderness. After he is depleted of his fury and breath—and listens intently to the empty silence—he finally concedes and says, after a beleaguered expletive, “I’ll do it myself.”
And isn’t that what many have done? Many have set about building a world without God in response to his seeming absence, a world that is still filled with horrible poverty, violence, a lack of respect for life, and spiritual unrest, to name only a few of the harrowing realities of our time.
“The question is whether you choose for God or for your own doubting self. You know what the right choice is, but your emotions, passions, and feelings keep suggesting you choose the self-rejecting way.”
– Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love
God continues to wait in the silence, loving us and calling us back to him. It’s in the silence, in the heart of an honest prayer to him, that we come to witness his presence. Christ remained silent, swaddled in a scarlet robe and crowned with thorns, in response to being mocked and abused—offering only love when the world hated him, when it killed him. God’s silence is never a refusal of our pleas for his love or a lack of concern—it’s an invitation to enter more deeply into his presence.
We have to be willing to enter into the silence on our own—no one can do it for us—and meet God there in sincere prayer. It may not come overnight, and it may not mean we still won’t struggle with our own sufferings and difficulties in life, but if we keep asking for God’s presence in the silence, we begin to see that he is really there—that he always was. And in the silence, beneath the doubts and emotional turmoil, the objections and lies of the world and our own fears and insecurities, we hear God responding not with words, but with an inner, inexhaustible flame that sheds lights on who we really are—his beloved.
“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”
– C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces