Suddenly, there was no spiritual safety net. Chaos ruled the world and we were defenseless against it. The isolation was nearly unbearable. As an adult, I learned theological mind-tricks to protect me from this fear of God’s ultimate abandonment. But I confess, sometimes when I wake at 3 a.m., all I hear in the universe is emptiness.
Recently, a priest friend said that in all his 70-plus years of prayerful discernment, he’s rarely had a heavenly answer. “God’s mostly silent,” he said. I don’t think he meant absent per se; just not prone to conversation or helpful hints on the best next step. God is just very, very quiet.
This is a man who’s given his whole life—every moment—to God for more than 50 years. He’s done tremendous work among the poor. He’s made genuine sacrifices in his personal life. He prays every morning and every night (unless there’s a baseball game on). How come God doesn’t talk to him? Why is God silent?
Mother Teresa, in her diaries released last year, also writes about God’s silence—more particularly God’s absence. In a letter to her archbishop, Teresa begs, “Please pray especially for me that I may not spoil [Jesus’] work and that Our Lord may show Himself—for there is such a terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.” This great emptiness started when she began her ministry with the destitute and dying in Calcutta.
In Mother Teresa’s earlier prayer life, she had experienced a feeling of great intimacy with God. God nudged, cajoled, demanded, disciplined, loved, and instructed her in each step. But when she took her real leap of faith into the slums of Calcutta, God seemed to recede from the edges of her soul like a great ebb tide disappearing over the horizon.
The early Christians described this experience of God’s absence or silence as the via negativa. The difficulty with describing the via negativa is that, by definition, it is beyond words. Rather than being convinced of God’s presence through affirmations, a feeling of spiritual closeness, and the richness of symbols, feelings, and images (this would be the via affirmativa), one “relates” to God as the Vast Emptiness, the Dark Night, the Endless Expanse, the “Absent One,” as Mother Teresa put it. There is no language to build a bridge of human relationship with this aspect of the Divine. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, at the time a Presbyterian church elder, came close when he looked from the moon at the Earth suspended in infinite darkness: “Magnificent desolation,” he uttered.
In January, on the sixth anniversary of the first transfer of prisoners to Guantánamo, I heard Filipino Orlando Tizon, a torture survivor imprisoned for four years under the Marcos regime, talk about being held in solitary confinement. The longest period was for three months. “Sometimes we hear that prolonged isolation does not constitute torture,” he said. “But let me tell you, even a week of not hearing another human being begins to do things to your mind.” With human torture we can hold someone responsible. But what of God?
It is one thing—hardly bearable—to be without human companionship. But to feel alone in the universe can fracture a soul. Mother Teresa wrote, “the agony of desolation is so great” and “[God] is destroying everything in me.” Until finally, after 16 years, something changed.
Mother Teresa took on a discipline of “smiling at God” in the emptiness. Later, she was able to write, “I have come to love the darkness.”
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet. For more about Orlando Tizon, visit www.tassc.org.