Some years ago, when I was still living in New York, a priest asked the assembly during his homily what the most important attribute of God we learn from the Bible. His answer was: fidelity. God is faithful and loves not for a time, but forever. God is always there, whether we acknowledge it or not and whether we feel it or not.
Like many of the saints and mystics, Saint Philip Neri, whose memorial the Catholic Church celebrates today, had times when he could not feel the presence of God. And, in advice similar to that of St. Ignatius and others, Philip speaks of the need for our own fidelity in times like those. He wrote:
The fervor of spirituality is usually very great in the beginning, but afterwards, the Lord fingit se longius ire, make as though he would go further (Lk 24:28): in such a case we must stand firm and not be disturbed, because God is then withdrawing his most holy Hand of sweetnesses, to see if we are strong; and then, if we resist and overcome those tribulations, and temptations, the sweetnesses and heavenly consolations return.
St. Ignatius also speaks of a sense of absence of God as a sort of test. He said, “We find ourselves tested as to whether we love God or just love the gifts of God, whether we continue to follow God’s loving invitation in darkness and dryness as well as in light and consolation.”
Let’s face it. Prayer, and the Christian life in general, is a lot more fun when I’m in a state of consolation. If I’m feeling the spirit of God so fully and deeply that I can cry out with joy that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God, well it is awfully easy to “follow God’s invitation.” So the test is: can I do it even in period of darkness and dryness, when I can’t see or hear God’s presence.
Mother Teresa felt no presence of God for nearly 50 years. Except for a brief period, she lived in an enduring state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. Yet she continued her ministry. In a similar fashion, I read that Teresa of Avila lacked a felt sense of God for 27 years. This is a woman who was one of the great mystics of the Catholic Church and a woman responsible for great reform of the Carmelite order as well as authoring a body of work many would call the cornerstone of Christian mysticism. Yet she had a long period of darkness. Even Jesus experienced darkness – an inability to feel the presence of his father. Jesus on the cross cries out to his father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (I don’t read that as playacting.) Yet he is able to say, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
The question is: how do we respond when “the Lord fingit se longius ire? Our fidelity to the call of discipleship and to our prayer in times of dryness and darkness imitate God’s fidelity and help us know that we love God and not just the gifts of God.