Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Deep and Holy Darkness

Perhaps, indeed, the better the gift we pray for, the more time is necessary for its arrival. To give us the spiritual gift we desire, God may have to begin far back in our spirit, in regions unknown to us, and do much work that we can be aware of only in the results; for our consciousness is to the extent of our being but as the flame of the volcano to the world-gulf whence it issues; in the gulf of our unknown being God works behind our consciousness.
With His holy influence, with His own presence (the one thing for which we most earnestly cry) He may be approaching our consciousness from behind, coming forward through regions of our darkness into our light, long before we begin to be aware that He is answering our request—has answered it, and is visiting his child.
George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons

Reflection Another day with this good Scottish preacher man! I understand from reading C.S. Lewis’ introduction to the anthology where I found this quote that MacDonald was perhaps most profoundly shaped in his life by an exceptionally good relationship with his own father, who from the sound of it was a man of sterling character and genuine goodness. Certainly when you delve into MacDonald’s works you cannot help but be struck with the note of utter trust and certainty in the goodness of God and absolute confidence in His beneficence towards us. It is indeed helpful to have experienced that sort of thing on a human scale from one’s own father, en route to getting there with the Father of all.

Here, we see what I think is just about a perfect description of the efficacy of prayer and its mysterious workings. It is true that there is so much more to our inner selves than what our consciousness knows of itself—we did not really need Sigmund Freud to inform us that a great deal goes on below the level of conscious deliberation and choice.

And the grace of God is flowing and moving at these deep levels of our being in ways we can hardly begin to even dimly know. For example, a question that comes up in spiritual direction fairly often is that of whether or not someone has ‘a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.’ I don’t tend to put things that way myself, but the language is used generally, and so it comes up in the direction context.

My own answer to that question is very simple. I don’t actually know if I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. What I know with absolute certainty is that Jesus Christ has a personal relationship with me. The first strikes me as somewhat presumptuous, like the fact that I have all sorts of strong emotions and nice thoughts and talk to the Man frequently (all of which is true) somehow makes it certain that I am ‘in with Him.’ How should I know that, and would it not be a trifle arrogant of me to assume it?

The second formulation is simply a matter of faith, that Jesus my Lord is working away in me and at me, not because I’m some special precious snowflake (which is a hilarious metaphor, by the way, at this point of the mega-winter of 2013-14), but because He is at work in and at and on every human being who is, because He loves us.

All of it is happening at such a deep level of our being far below our level of consciousness. It is a rare and mystic soul who is given to know the action of grace clearly and habitually, and that kind of thing is usually given to a person at great cost of suffering, and so that they may offer instruction and guidance to others.

No, most of us live in the grace of God in a deep and holy darkness which quite often (and especially in times of suffering) feels to us like, rather, a bleak and lowly darkness. And it must be so—again this is where trust comes in—God knows what He is doing, and if it would be better for us that His workings in our soul be laid bare and clear and plain, that is how He would do it. 

Clearly, it is not, and our constant call is to pray without seeing the results, to ask and know we are receiving even though a great deal of the time that reception is occurring in the most deep and hidden recesses of our being. To seek and trust that the finding is happening in a way that feels more like being lost, to knock and have absolute confidence that the door is opened… even though to all our perceptions it appears that the door is shut and barred in our face.

Trust, trust, trust… and the only reliable sign possibly given to us that all this is in fact happening is the results of our prayer, and the only result that we can have any reliance on is our ability to keep loving, to keep believing, to keep going in fidelity and perseverance in the path God has set before us.


  1. The problem with reading a blog is that when you want to think about something you have to go back to the computer instead of coming back to a book opened to the right page and underlined.

    Thank you for sharing these quotes and thoughts!

  2. This is good stuff. Guidance. Thank you. I do offer a different prospective on the description, "personal relationship" You state "Trust, trust, trust" - If you trust that God is working within you and you are reaching out to God working cooperatively with Him, however imperfectly, you are in a one to one relationship. This is clearly stated in Scripture: .. 'he who loves me will be loved by my Father. I too will love him and reveal myself to him." Jn 15: 21. If it is personal in one direction I believe it is personal in the other. Wondering" if" or believing "you don't know" is to relinquish the option of a joyful relationship, call it what you may. This is not presumptuous. God wants to be one. If one is growing spiritually, what does that mean? When I receive the Eucharist I try to remember to also give myself to Christ as an obedient servant expect to see Him reveal himself somewhere in my life confirming the Way.

    1. Well, I do realize I am playing with words a little bit here... but hopefully to a good end. I guess what I see is that many people get into a real agony about 'do I have a personal relationship...' etc., and it is often defined around a set of emotional/cognitive experiences. My take is that I can be absolutely assured of Jesus' love and investment and care for me... and I hope fervently that I have love and care and investment in Christ and his life. Anyhow, your point is well taken, and I do realize that I'm being intentionally provocative here!

    2. Lol. You? Provacative?

    3. Yeah, I guess that's like saying 'I try to write in English when I write...' Well, I AM a spiritual son of the woman who said "I would not like to have lived without disturbing anybody."

  3. I really like the way you make the distinction between my relationship with God and God's relationship with me. I spent some time with my friend's profoundly autistic son. After spending a couple of weeks at his family's home, I did feel like I had a relationship with him, but what a strange relationship it was! He's a lot of fun and an endless source of wonder, but he's completely non-verbal and is seemingly completely oblivious to everyone around him. It reminded me of my relationship with God and I had this weird thought that God is autistic. My spiritual director pointed out that it's probably more ME (us) who am autistic, but either way...

    I like Macdonald's image of consciousness as the flame of the volcano atop the "world-gulf whence it issues".

    1. Thanks - yes, that distinction came to me a while ago, and I'm still playing with it in my mind - I think I'm on to something here, and may have more to say about it in a bit. One thing I know is that the longer I go in life, the more mysterious Jesus and God become to me, and the less I can really say I know about them.

  4. This brings to me the creation story: "in the beginning there was the word". Scripture tells us from the beginning how how God loved us each of us and every particle of life into being from nothingness - from darkness.
    These words are a powerful reminder of the faithful, creative prescence of love.
    I love that thought of God being autistic Neal. I have known God in coma and in the profoundly physically ill too. Sometimes I think in moments of great suffering and darkness- it is almost easier to find God. Perhaps because our own defenses have been worn down?
    These times are incredibly painful...when we are able to see for a moment how God loved us from the beginning, even as we were/are unaware.
    Bless you


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