“Where are you?” God’s question to Adam and Eve in Eden is directed to all of us too. Like the first humans in Genesis, we have all at some point tried to hide ourselves from the presence of the Lord.
The rabbinic tradition has much commentary on God’s question to Adam that is particularly relevant today, when the hustle and bustle of our consumerist way of life has been slowed due to COVID-19 restrictions and shutdowns, and we are compelled to consider what our “hideouts” look like. Because of the fall, we tend to avoid this question, inventing all sorts of diversions from it. Restless consumerism is one of them.
Lest we miss the chance, it would be wise, now, to step back and ponder God’s question to Adam: “Where are you?”
Recently, a friend of mine—let’s call him Dave—told me that COVID has been a spiritual awakening for him. Prior to the shutdowns, he was steeped in the consumption of books, articles, and lectures on philosophy and theology. He was mistaking his practice of the faith for reading books about God, preferring this to actually going to Mass and praying. It was ironic that his way of hiding from God was by reading about him. The books put a degree of intellectual distance between him and God. But God finds different ways of grabbing our attention by any means necessary, and in this case, he got Dave’s attention through a book.
Thankfully, Dave had Martin Buber’s The Way of Man According to the Teaching of Hasidism lying around the house when the shutdowns began. Dave had first read Buber’s I and Thou as an undergraduate, confessing that he probably did not understand most of it. Still, he was intrigued. Perhaps it was Buber’s dialogical personalism, which Dave came to learn had influenced many of his own favorite theologians, like Ratzinger and Balthasar. When Ratzinger and Balthasar discussed Buber, Augustine and Newman would inevitably come up. In some ways, Buber’s mysticism is in line with Augustine’s description of prayer as having a “heart to heart” with God, a concept also reflected in Newman’s episcopal motto, Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaks to heart). My friend realized that this was exactly what he was not doing when he was praying. He was not opening his heart to God, and so was not receiving God’s open heart in turn. Instead, he had tried to remain a sovereign subject by making prayer more like study. But that Buber book on Hasidism, just lying around his house, put some cracks into Dave’s hardened heart.
He fled in terror, at first. But the Voice asking “Where are you?” got all the louder. God wanted his heart. But could my friend let him reach it? Could he give it?
I borrowed the book, and I think I found the section that so frightened my friend, because it did the same to me. Buber writes:
Adam hides himself to avoid rendering accounts, to escape responsibility for his way of life. Every man hides for this purpose, for every man is Adam and finds himself in Adam’s situation. To escape responsibility for his life, he turns existence into a system of hideouts. And in thus hiding again and again “from the face of God,” he enmeshes himself more and more deeply in perversity. A new situation thus arises, which becomes more and more questionable with every day, with every new hideout. This situation can be precisely defined as follows: Man cannot escape the eye of God, but in trying to hide from him, he is hiding from himself. True, in him too there is something that seeks him, but he makes it harder and harder for that “something” to find him. This question is designed to awaken man and destroy his system of hideouts; it is to show man to what pass he has come and to awake in him the great will to get out of it.
But back into exile Dave fled, like Adam and his descendants making their way east of Eden. Yet the Voice kept beckoning: “Where are you?” The long Lent of COVID only made things worse because both the hustle and bustle of his daily life and his usual diversions were gone. He was like the unhappy man that Pascal said does not know how to stay quiet in his room—because being quiet meant he would be closer to the primordial “You.” His sinful mind preferred study to prayer because it was a way of making God into an “It,” another thing to control. Buber writes that so long as man does not face the Voice, his life will remain way-less. But if he acknowledges, like Adam, “I hid myself,” the way will begin.
Hopefully for Dave, the way to prayer has begun. With the end of most of the COVID shutdowns, many of his previous diversions are back again; the bookstores are open. But to him they have lost much of their appeal. The good thing is that he now recognizes their potential to become a diversion. Also, they now remind him of the “still small voice” we all ought to heed. Psalm 139 has become a lived reality.
I mention Dave’s story because, like him, many of us are hiding from the Lord. Most of us convince ourselves that we are not, but we are. Even practicing Catholics are guilty of this. I fall into this critique, minding my own tendency to practice a consumer Catholicism that keeps God nearby but still at a distance. My restless consumption of Catholic YouTube videos by Catholic celebrities is my preferred hideout. I have a “Catholic” job and consume Catholic stuff, but I am afraid to be still and encounter the God who is “You.”
In a way, my Catholicism sometimes resembles the comfortable, bourgeois Catholicism Bernanos so condemned in his Diary of a Country Priest. It’s a facade that in reality can be a hidden “no” to God. Real prayer is frightening, because in it we must decide for or against God. Instead of running or hiding, we must let ourselves be found by the Lord, who gives himself to each of us.
In turn, like Mary at the Annunciation, we must give our “yes” to the Lord, and let our “yes” be absolute.
At the conclusion of The Way of Man, Buber writes, “God dwells wherever man lets him in.” May we all make a real effort to stop hiding, to stop running from his gaze, and let God in; for you and I were made to be temples of the Lord.