“Moses said to YHWH, “But, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence,either before or since you have spoken to your servant.” Ex 4:10
Easter 5B: Our Sense of Divine Desertion.
In the light of this week's news or tragedy and grief, I want to do something different and reflect on the psalm set for reflection in the lectionary (Psalm 22). The lectionary only gives us the last verses (26-28, 30-32). However, before we get to the positive ending we have to deal with the psalmists sense of being 'abandoned by God'. In 2007 Mother Teresa of Calcutta's private correspondence was published to coincide with the tenth anniversary of her death (1910–1997). Some people were shocked how letter after letter described in detail the deep darkness that plagued her for fifty years. Detractors accused her of hypocrisy; devotees couldn't believe it was true. But it was. Mother Teresa describes her darkness in many ways, but most of all as an absence of God's presence or as an emptiness, loneliness, pain, spiritual dryness, or lack of consolation. She repeatedly admitted to her confessors that she felt like a "shameless hypocrite abandoned by God" for teaching one thing but experiencing something far different.
Being 'abandoned by God' does not sound very pious, but it's a common experience. When Kathryn Greene-McCreight was doing her post graduate degree, she experienced a major episode of clinical depression. Five years later doctors diagnosed her as bipolar. After five hospitalizations, two courses of electroconvulsive therapy, and constant changing drug regimens, she finally experienced genuine improvement and stabilization. In her book Darkness is My Only Companion (2006), she grapples with the "apparent incongruity of that agony with the Christian life." The title of her book comes from Psalm 88:18 (KJV), "My friend and my neighbour you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion." Greene-McCreight wonders why God allows such suffering. Why does God seem to abandon someone who is in such pain, and not answer prayer? Is there a connection between sin and suffering, the physical and the spiritual, the medical and the religious? Similarly, Mother Teresa's letters explored possible explanations for her interior turmoil: maybe it was punishment for sin, a trial to purify her faith, a temptation of satan, or a consequence of her hasty personality or physical fatigue. Sometimes there aren't any answers.
Psalm 22 is the classic text on the absence of God's presence, and it makes for painful reading. The poet praises God, and pours out his heart to him, but also argues with God. His candour is so much more authentic than the pious clichés that we use to mask our pain. He complains that God is not only remote but silent. His prayers go unanswered. "Trouble is near" and "there is no one to help." (22:11). Friends ridicule his faith, leading to social isolation: "He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him!" They wrongly regarded his misfortunes as proof of divine displeasure. As if recounting a bizarre nightmare, he imagines raging bulls, roaring lions, and wild oxen attacking him. Threatened by "the power of the dogs" (22:20), he loses his composure: "My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me." He can no longer control his destiny, and compares himself to "those who cannot keep themselves alive."
The Psalmist reminds us how much God prefers heartfelt authenticity to superficial religiosity. The psalms of despair encourage us not to suppress or coat with piety our feelings of abandonment. They don't discourage our deep cries of disappointment, and sense of 'divine desertion', but in fact give them voice. Jesus himself cried out the prayer of Psalm 22 when he hung from the cross. (see: image 2 below) The Psalmist believed that ultimately "God has not despised or disdained the sufferings of those in pain; or hidden his face, but has listened to the cry for help." (22:14) With the help of her confessors, Mother Teresa concluded that her darkness was not an obstacle to God's call to serve the poorest of the poor, but instead part and parcel of her call. In her own deep darkness she identified with the pain of the poor and shared in the sufferings of Christ himself through them. So she translated her personal experience into human empathy and compassion. When believers are at their best, the absence of God's presence is met with the presence of God's people. "No person has ever seen God", writes Saint John in his first letter, and as Mother Teresa, Greene-McCreight, the Psalmist, and many other saints have testified, we often don't feel or sense God's presence. "But if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us" (1 John 4:12). With God's grace we should be able to say; God might feel remote, but his people are near. So despite our feelings we pray, "I will give you praise in the great assembly. I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you." (22:25)