God’s Nearness in Suffering

            In thinking upon those moments in my life when I have been most aware of God’s nearness, my memories tend to veer towards the dark and the solitary. This is grim, or at least seems that way at first, and I am mindful of what the Bishop said to our Pastoral Ministry class. I shall paraphrase his observation as follows: It is really not possible to be aware of God’s nearness unless and until one has had to endure a tragedy or a hardship.

            Despair paints with bold contrasts. If most of life is not particularly joyful, it is at least neutral; and if blessed with good education, financial solvency, and loving family and friends, tends to be pleasantly comfortable. A sudden loss of someone or something we had held dear therefore will stand out as a stark departure from this norm. The experience is seared into our minds, not just in recollection, but even at the time. I recall being so much more aware of the sights and the sounds all around me when, for example, my grandmother had her debilitating stroke in the hospital. This sensitivity overload casts the whole experience as a kind of surreal dream; and as harrowing as that may be at the time, the dreamlike quality of the experience can help us to recover after the fact. For if the experience is dreamlike, then and also in recollection, then it may be more easily compartmentalized and separated out from the normal chain of events that will return in time. If it is “that day,” then it is really not everyday. “Annus Horribilis” by definition means that that bad year has or will pass, and presumably the normal times have or will return.

            The sensitivity overload is not just a greater awareness of everything else at the time. Perhaps more so it is a greater awareness of ourselves and, specifically, of how out of sorts we are as a result of this sudden calamity. When the world feels as if it has turned upside down, then we are very much aware that we are not presently in “the world” as we know and expect it to be. We experience this phenomenon like we are “floating” through the experience. Sometimes, people describe this “floating” as a kind of mental detachment, but I am not so sure that that is the case. For me, it seems truer to describe this “floating” as the opposite: Instead of being detached at the time, we have a more heightened awareness of just how separated we are from our normal life. We are very much attached to and aware of our separation. Indeed, regardless of the other details of the bad day or year that we may apprehend, there is really only one constant for us. That one consistent and overwhelming reality is that we have been orphaned from our normal life. Our family and our friends may surround us at the time. They may hold us near, and tell us how much they love us. Nevertheless, we endure our fears, our anxieties, and our first intimations of grief very much alone and in our own heads. Notwithstanding how much our awareness has been heightened, our normative world has faded to black. What remains is the nightmare of the moment; our lonely flight through an incredibly dark tunnel with no particular hope nor expectation that we shall see any light up ahead.

            Normally, when quoting from Holy Scripture, I use the KJV translation only; but on this occasion, I would like to consider the same verse from both the NIV and the KJV translations. John 14:18 (NIV) is as follows: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” An orphan is someone separated out from his family. He may or may not be alone, but he is removed from the people and the social institutions that together are supposed to be normative for him. In providing for his life necessities, in guiding his intellectual, emotional, moral, and spiritual development, and finally in protecting him from the people, the institutions, and the ideas that endeavor to undermine him (what the Psalms refer to as “the ungodly”), it is family that allows for a person to be socialized properly and productively into the world. Though God turns the world right side up, it is family that trains a person to make best use of a world right side up (and to survive a world upside down). As God is the compass, it is family that provides the instructions for how to use it. As God is the North Star, it is family that packs the keepsakes for the sojourner on his way to that forever home in the night sky. What John 14:18 in essence is saying is that when a person has no family, either literally or in the sense of a temporary separation from his normative world, God is his family. In fact, God is always as near to us, even when our world is pleasantly comfortable; but when that world fades to black, and we feel as if we are “floating” down an incredibly dark tunnel, God’s nearness is felt more intimately. In a way, it is precisely because we are then experiencing sensitivity overload with respect to everything else that God’s silence stands out. His silence, His stillness, these are our anchors when everything else is unfolding as a kind of nightmare. His subtlety offers us a refuge from the cacophony of the “bad day” or the “annus horribilis.” He is so very comforting precisely because He does not play upon our senses just then.

            This leads me now to the KJV translation of John 14:18: “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.” Whereas the NIV translation focuses on our state of being “orphans” at the moment that God comes to us, the KJV translation focuses on what we need. We need to be “comforted,” and so God “comforts” us. As the world is turned upside down, we are experiencing sensitivity overload, but precisely for that reason we are less able to discern what it is that we really need then. God knows. He is more aware of our real needs than we are ourselves, and more to the point He will take it upon Himself to satisfy those real needs. Like family, He will comfort us even before we can articulate a specific request to be comforted. He is near because He is coming to us, not because we are coming to Him. For in those moments when we are flailing about and consumed with sensitivity overload we really are in no position to do much of anything proactive, let alone consciously be near to God. We can scream out to Him. We can plead for help. But because of everything happening around us at that time, it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to take conscious steps out of all that mayhem and towards His peace. Besides our anguished pleas for Him, to the extent we have any conscious thought of God at all during those times, we most likely think of Him as very distant and unresponsive (“My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”). Given how orphaned we are just then, the burden is on God to comfort us. He does so, and by grace in retrospect we come to realize that.

            God is near to us then, and we realize in retrospect that God has been near to us. The eschatological nearness of God is real now, and to be realized in the future. It is now and still to come. This theological postulate does speak of God’s timelessness (He is simultaneously Alpha and Omega; already and still to come), but it also says a lot about us. God comes to us when we cannot come to Him. He is near to us when it is virtually impossible for us to recognize His nearness. He is strong for us, because we are weak towards Him. The fact that we can recognize His nearness in retrospect is a testament to His grace. The fact that we could not recognize His nearness to us when He had been nearest is a testament to our fallen humanity.

            As a small child raised in a devout, Catholic family, I first knew God as a kind of schoolmaster. I recall reading a picture book meant to teach little children about the Real Presence of Christ Jesus in the Eucharist. There was a drawing of an ornate altar with a tabernacle. The door to the tabernacle was slightly open. Inside the dark of that tabernacle were a pair of beady eyes staring back at me. The nun explained to us that that is Christ Jesus. He is inside the tabernacle, and He can view us whenever we are squirming in our pew. Best to behave lest the six-inch Jesus step out from the tabernacle and raise holy hell. I suspect most people continue to view God that way, even when they are adults. They may cast Him in a more sophisticated light, but the end result is the same: God is an authority figure who scares us into moral rectitude and provides us a heavenly home if we manage to get through this life with a decent enough “report card.” Intellectually, we say that “God loves us,” but for the most part He does not figure in our imagination as particularly loving or close. He is the “light at the end of the tunnel,” the beautiful backdrop, but it is “Aunt Mildred” who will be greeting us lovingly at the end of the journey. “God is love” in the sense that He is the President and CEO of an impersonal and institutionalized “Divine Love, Inc.” He has a lot on His plate. We should be happy that the heavenly welfare department sends us our “love check” in the mail on time each month. Surely, we are never going to be close and personal with the department head whose signature appears on the check.

            For me, this idea of God as a distant schoolmaster or company CEO ended the night I lost my parents (and nearly my own life) in a car accident. I remember being in the hospital bed. Deep down, I knew that my parents had not survived the crash. I was not surprised when the family parish priest came up to my bedside and told me the news. I turned my head away from him, and I stared out the window blackened by a cold and quiet night. I had been orphaned from the only world I had known up to that point. Even though the priest, my grandmother, and my father’s cousin were in the room with me, I was alone in a strange, new world that already seemed to me to be dreamlike. No doubt, my imagination since then has augmented my memory. History is always as much a creature of who we are today as it is of the actual men and events of the past. Nevertheless, I know that I had a subtle, still, but also direct, realization of God’s nearness at that very moment. The moment passed, and all that sensitivity overload took over; but I returned in retrospect to that moment over the years. He comforts us as much in the memory as in the moment. I could not say that theologically at the time, but I could (and did) experience that deeply. More than any dogmatic assertions or theological reasoning, what makes God real and tangible is His nearness. Anything less than His existential nearness is a creedal or confessional statement that, while true in itself, can never encompass the fullness of His personal and loving nearness to us. Those tragic moments we endure offer us a glimpse of the God behind the diplomas and the books. We should never wish for hardship, but as it happens now and then we should count as a blessing our capacity in the moment, however brief and sketchy, to know the God who is nearer to us than we are to Him.

Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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