by Russell Pollitt SJ

God’s silence in the midst of life’s chaos is often a haunting reality. How many times do we wonder why God, when we feel at our most vulnerable, seems to shut the heavens and retreat into a disturbing silence? I read something recently which, against the backdrop of tragedy, I want to rehash, as some things need to be said over and over and over again.

We feel the apparent absence of God more acutely when tragedy overwhelms us, death strikes the unexpected, the world around us seems hopeless or when we are confronted with the insignificance of our lives in the greater scheme of things. Guilt may gnaw at us because we know that we have got it horribly wrong and are now powerless to put it right. When these things happen, we feel abandoned by God, and, in the midst of our vulnerability, might even want to blame or curse God.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s diaries (made public after her death) revealed a sobering truth that shocked many people: during the last sixty years of her life, she questioned God’s existence and had no affective experience of either the person or the existence of God. Despite this, everything in her life appeared to be focussed on and committed to God. She was selfless, altruistic and devout. She was a world icon for ‘proof’ that God existed, for faith. She was a quintessential modern saint – few dared dispute that.

Some might accuse Mother Teresa of being dishonest or incongruent. But let’s consider this. Her feeling or sense of God’s absence and the way she chose to live her life are not opposed to each other. Mother Teresa, because she had no affective or personal experience of God, could not manipulate God to fit her needs or vision. She could not control God. She received God on God’s terms, not hers. The initiative was with God. She allowed God to be God.

Often we are led to believe that having a strong sense or feeling of God’s reality and action in our lives indicates robust faith. When confronted with those who struggle with faith and/or belief – especially in our most vulnerable moments – we are always tempted to say things like “this was God’s plan” or “just have faith”. Although, no doubt, said in sincerity, what these very often reveal is an ego or manipulation of God (and religion) for our own benefit. We need to guard against creating God in our own image and likeness and using that image to further our own interests or impose our feelings or worldview on God.

When we are powerless to manipulate our own image or experience of God, or use God for our own benefit, it is then that God can act on God’s terms. We simply don’t like that because we cannot resist manipulating religious experience and faith to make it work for ourselves. Despite convention, God’s seeming absence in the midst of life’s chaos or when we are at our most vulnerable, may just be God putting a stop to our all too arrogant egos. Paradoxically, God’s absence might just be the most pure moment we encounter God: on God’s terms.