I wonder if you can help me. I cannot feel God’s love. And if God is love then perhaps I cannot find God.
A little background may help me to explain my problem. For many years I struggled with Buddhism but what defeated me was the demand that I attain enlightenment by my own efforts. Instead, I found that the harder I tried the worse I got, the more miserable I became. And dwelling on my negative karma (growing faster than ever now that I was trying to do something about it) and its consequences for my future plunged me into chronic anxiety and despair. Even I can laugh - a bit - about the absurdity of this in retrospect, though it has left deep scars. Christianity beckoned to me because it acknowledged and accepted me as I was and even embraced my failure.
But as I have studied the great mystics like Eckhart I have begun to see that what they were talking about is awfully like the Buddhism I left behind. It was precisely their instruction to abandon the self completely that so confounded me as a Buddhist. Again, it seemed that it was up to me to attain the impossible or suffer the consequences of my failure. Where was the God who accepted me for who I am now, warts and all? And if God was less a ‘person’ with whom I could have a loving relationship than Eckhart’s ‘negation of a negation’ then He seemed very like the emptiness that Buddhists speak of, an emptiness that affirms nothing at all, least of all love. Suddenly, God became impersonal and His love not so much a comfort as a hurricane which promised to dash me to pieces and scatter me to the four directions.
I am beginning to wonder if I have been deceiving myself. Christianity is not an easier, more comforting route. The work that needs to be done is the same in any language and God’s love is perhaps not like any kind of love I am familiar with. But once more I am left with my own failure. I don’t run from it so much these days but I can’t seem to get beyond it. Life seems bleak and hopeless and God has become something remote, unreachable, even hostile.
I don’t know whether this makes any kind of sense to you but if you can help in any way I would be so grateful. I have lived most of my life with depression and I can feel it claiming me again. Depression leaves one weak and numb and the spiritual path seems so unreasonably difficult. Where is God’s love in all this?
Dear David, Thank you for your letter, which I thought best to reproduce in full. I usually reproduce just the key point of a letter, but yours is a description of a journey, so it would not be right to omit anything.
Describing spiritual effort St Augustine said, “Act as if everything depended on you, knowing that everything depends on God.” It seems very wise. If I were to try to live by just one part of that sentence – whether the first part or the second – I would be on a very uncertain road. If I were simply to say, “Everything depends on God,” I would not be inclined to make any effort at all. The result is that I would then be unable (or unwilling) to internalise and make my own what God has given freely and for nothing. On the other side, if I were to say, “Everything depends on me,” I would feel crushed with responsibility and a feeling of failure. This second position seems to be where you are at present.
So, St Augustine’s ‘map’ suggests that you might take the direction of ‘Everything depends on God’. I think in every genuine spirituality this comes into focus sooner or later – even when people don't use the language of Christians. Nobody can enlighten him or herself, we are told. Any enlightenment that comes your way comes as a complete surprise, not as the completion of a project – even when you have been working hard towards it. Some famous enlightened teacher once said, “I was never enlightened!” This came as a surprise to many of his students – until he spelled it out. The ‘I’ – the ego – never becomes enlightened. Enlightenment is precisely joyful freedom from this ‘I’, freedom from the ego’s control. Enlightenment then means discovering one’s true nature, which lies deeper than the ego.
In Christian terms this is “dying to oneself” (see John 12:24-25). Because we remember the way Jesus died we tend to think of this is as an awful experience. But it means being freed of a false narrow identity and being drawn into a deeper life in Christ – an experience which is the source of all joy for us. ‘Emptiness’, ‘nothingness’, ‘the void’… these terrifying words are not what they seem. They are not suggesting that there is really nothing out there. They are not statements about external reality at all. They are about the mind that is free of ego: free of the urge to be selfishly independent, to be in fact one’s own god.
Yes, we are left in no doubt, Christianity is for sinners. The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) is deeply moving, unforgettable. Jesus could have put together any kind of story he wanted; he could have put in lots of qualifications; he could have concluded, as religious story-tellers mostly do, with a great deal of moralising. But he did none of this. The parable stands there on the page, totally free. It was Jesus’ way of describing the mercy of God. It is this that encourages us to keep on trying, even when we have failed over and over. God embraces us just as we are, and doesn’t wait till we improve. This is a source of great joy.
Christians use the language of human relationships when speaking about God (see the Gospel commentary for March 5th, ‘08). This should help prevent our spirituality from becoming cold and impersonal. (Of course it doesn’t always do so, when people’s human relationships have been troubled in the past; but it is meant to do so.) Even when Christian mystics speak about “the dark night of the soul,” or about God as “Nothing” (St John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart), the language of human relationships is not put aside but deepened and widened. They are saying that God is our Father in a way that surpasses any thought or image or experience that we have ever had. You wrote, “God’s love is perhaps not like any kind of love I am familiar with.” Yes, because God is not a creature; but human love is a distant pointer to God’s love. When the Christian mystics use negative language, saying God is not this or that, what they are denying of God is not the quality itself (love, for example) but the human limitation in it. “God is love,” St John wrote – and we know it has to be love beyond our imagining.
“Life seems bleak and hopeless,” you wrote, “and God has become something remote, unreachable, even hostile.” I really hope and pray, David, that this painful part of your journey will soon lead onto a wide open joyful path, where you will know that when God moves beyond your reach, it is to lead you on, not to abandon you. As a practical thing to do, I would suggest that you read that story of the Prodigal Son every day. In fact the whole of chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel is parables about being lost and found: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. If you read it often enough your reading will move beyond reading and become a kind of immersion.
God bless and keep you, David,Donagh