What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.
– From an ancient homily on Holy Saturday
For the first time in living memory, a tomb-like silence reigns in our churches. Just as on Holy Saturday, the Blessed Virgin and Mary Magdalene were separated from their Lord by the great stone, so too are the faithful today left bereft of the Lord, separated from Him by the locked doors of our churches.
It is natural that we should regret the current state of things and long for a return to normalcy. And indeed, it seems to me that wherever the sacraments can be made more available without putting the vulnerable at undue risk from this virus, they should be. (Recently a group of laymen launched a campaign called We Are an Easter People, urging our spiritual leaders to try to find creative ways to provide the Eucharist and Confession to the faithful, while respecting prudential considerations.)
Nevertheless, the practical fact is that, in many dioceses right now, public Masses are simply unavailable, and even the sacrament of Reconciliation is almost impossible to find. The question, then, is how should we respond? It seems to me that the obvious answer is that we must open our eyes to the ways that God is offering us the opportunity to enter into an even greater intimacy with Him—not despite of the lack of access to the sacraments, but rather through it.
An Opportunity to Grow in Love
It may seem strange that God should draw closer to us by means of the deprivation of the great sacrament of His real presence. And yet, if we knew anything of God’s ways, we would not be surprised!
Certainly, there are moments in our lives, analogous to the moment of the Transfiguration, when God unambiguously reveals Himself to us, giving us some glimpse of His glory. Perhaps a miracle for which we have prayed has come about, or we have had an intense experience of God’s presence in prayer, or some improbable “coincidence” has shown us God’s will for our life. But there are other moments, much more numerous, that are more akin to the great silence of Holy Saturday—when God chastely withdraws, leaving us without the tangible comforts of His presence. But if the saints are to be believed, and if the details of Christ’s own life are to be taken as revelatory of God’s methods, then it is in these latter moments—the moments of God’s self-veiling—that He is, in fact, closest to us.
Early in her religious life, Mother Teresa had intense mystical experiences in which Christ revealed to her her life’s work—ministering to the poorest of the poor. Soon thereafter, however, Mother Teresa began to experience a dryness in her prayer, accompanied by a sense of abandonment by God. This lasted for decades, until her death. As she lamented in one letter: “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.” In this great darkness, Mother Teresa was forced to lean solely on faith. And through this faith, she achieved such intimate union with God that she was like a mirror for the divine, so that merely to be in her presence was to experience something of God’s infinite goodness. “Mother Teresa had a face charred by God’s silences,” wrote Cardinal Robert Sarah recently, “but she bore within her and breathed love. By dint of remaining long hours before the burning flame of the Blessed Sacrament, her face was tanned, transformed by a daily face-to-face encounter with the Lord” (The Power of Silence, p.98).
This may seem strange to us, but it is the almost-universal experience of the great mystics. Saints John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Padre Pio, and many, many more all, at some time, had overwhelmingly intense personal mystical experiences of God’s presence followed by long and excruciating periods of dryness in which it seemed as if God had abandoned them.
In his great mystical treatises, St. John of the Cross explains that this experience of abandonment is designed for our purification and the perfection of love. God is infinite. He is infinitely good, infinitely powerful, infinitely just, infinitely loving. Sometimes, God grants us a little taste of His goodness, an experience so delightful that it can surpass all earthly pleasures. The risk, however, says St. John, is that we may come to think that God is like these experiences, when in fact He infinitely transcends them. Even worse, we may come to depend upon these experiences, basing our faith on them, when in fact what God wishes, and what love demands, is a total and absolute trust in Him, a trust that is willing to endure any hardship or trial or suffering for the beloved—including His apparent absence. And this is why He withdraws: to give us the opportunity to grow in love.
God Reveals Himself in Silence
Again, we should not be surprised by this! We know from Scripture that it is often when God seems most silent, most asleep, that He is most powerfully with us:
Suddenly a violent storm came up on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by waves; but He was asleep. They came and woke Him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing! He said to them, ‘”Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” Then He got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm. The men were amazed and said, “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?” (Matthew 8:23-27).
In no place is this truth more dramatically illustrated than in Christ’s passion. After all, it was at the very moment when Christ was accomplishing the great deed of our redemption, as He hung on the cross, that He cried out: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me!” Theologians agree that this was no mere play acting on Christ’s part, but that at this moment Christ truly felt abandoned by His Father; that is, He experienced, in His human nature, to a degree that no other human being ever has, what St. John of the Cross would later call the “dark night of the soul.”
Though it would be blasphemy to say that there was ever, at any point, anything less than perfect union between the Father and the Son, there is a sense in which we might say that the perfection of this intimacy was made most manifest on the cross, for it is on the cross that Christ consummated His Father’s will. The enormous, apparent paradox of this episode in the Gospels is that, at the moment when the will of Father and Son so evidently coincided so perfectly, when they were so manifestly One, Christ felt Himself abandoned by the Father.
As this pandemic sweeps the globe, and as we enter into Holy Week without the great goods of Holy Mass and the Eucharist, we too may feel abandoned. But we are not. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that Christ, though veiled from us, is closer than ever before. After all, even Christ’s great cry on the cross—seemingly a cry of despair—was in fact a cry of immense hope and trust in the Father’s faithfulness. The words He spoke come from the opening lines of Psalm 22—a psalm that begins with lamentation but ends in triumph: “For he has not despised or scorned / the suffering of the afflicted one / he has not hidden his face from him / but has listened to his cry for help.”
Yes, Christ chose to take upon Himself the totality of human sin and suffering, including the subjective experience of God’s silence; but He also showed us how we are to respond—by uniting ourselves with the Father through absolute, unshakeable trust. The words Christ cried on the cross, which have scandalized so many superficial thinkers, far from expose any weakness in Him. In fact, they reveal the absolute perfection of His unity with the Father. They also reveal to us the profound laws of the spiritual life, which we must follow if we are to grow in love for and unity with God.
The Great Lent of 2020
This is Holy Week, the heart of the Great Lent of 2020—a Lent that we will remember and speak of for decades to come. We are in the midst of an enforced fast of a kind we would never have chosen for ourselves—a fast not only from the comforts of food, drink, entertainment, and our sense of physical safety, but even from the consolations of the sacraments. This last deprivation may seem the hardest and strangest of all. And yet, embraced as a participation in Christ’s passion, this spiritual fast can unite us even more closely with Christ than if all things were as normal.
We know that just as Christ instituted the sacraments, neither is He bound by them. Many saints have affirmed that Christ can unite Himself with us through a spiritual communion. Now is the time to make many spiritual communions, to make many perfect acts of contrition, to pray the Rosary with our family, to unite ourselves with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass still ongoing in private chapels all around the world, to creatively re-enact Holy Week liturgies in our homes, and to pray the Stations of the Cross.
In the midst of the great silence of Holy Saturday, during the “harrowing of hell,” the Virgin Mary must have felt enormous grief; she must have felt abandoned by her Son, unable to touch Him, to hear the sound of His voice, with the sight of His bloodied and lifeless body still fresh in her memory. And yet, do you think that she believed she was abandoned by Him? Not for a moment. Indeed, it was then that she was closest to Him, exercising a perfect trust in her Son that was the proof and expression of her perfect love for Him. And though she must have always felt a love for her Son that surpasses what we can imagine, imagine for a moment what must have been her joy on Easter Sunday—a joy rendered all the greater by contrast with the sufferings of Good Friday and Holy Saturday!
None of us would have chosen a Holy Week like this. And yet, just as fasting from food and drink increases our desire for them, this spiritual fast has the power—if we let it—to increase our hunger and thirst for the sacraments. If we use this time well, then when the opportunity arises to receive Christ in the Eucharist again or to receive the grace of absolution, we will do so with none of our habitual complacency. Instead, it will be for us as if we were Mary on that first Easter morning, when she first saw her beloved Son alive again.
Indeed, whatever the darkness and mystery of this eerie Lent and Holy Week, Easter morning is coming, and Christ will say to us, as He is depicted saying to Adam in that famous Holy Saturday homily: “I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.”