(Image Credit is my own; the icon is St. Seraphim of Sarov praying for 1000 days and nights on a rock in front of an icon of the Mother of God.)
I1 am nearing the end of a really beautiful book, called Dimitri’s Cross.2 Right now I am reading the letters he wrote his wife, Tamara, from his first place of imprisonment. I already know, from reading this book, that he is later sent to Dora, a camp called the “Man-Eater” where Fr. Dimitri is forced to work in horrid, extreme conditions, ages quickly, becomes very ill and at the end, speaks of feeling the abandonment of God. The day after Fr. Dimitri speaks of feeling abandoned by God, he dies, with a man kind enough to move Fr. Dimitri’s hand to cross himself, right before taking his last breath. Fr Dimitri is now a Saint of the Orthodox Church, as he was in these camps because of his work to save Jews and others during the Nazi regime in Paris. He worked carefully with the monastic Mother Maria of Paris, who was arrested at the same time as Fr. Dimitri. Mother Maria is also a newly canonized Saint, dying in the gas chambers of the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, having taken another a woman’s place3.
Mother Teresa, after having very close, real, felt intimacy with God, suffered – for a long time – from God’s absence, experiencing a profound abandonment of God. Yet she radiated such joy and peace to others; it’s as if she was submerged in God so much that others received God’s light by being near to her, while she felt herself in darkness.
Elizabeth Goudge’s books also speak of this experience of God’s absence and even His abandonment. Goudge’s book The Dean’s Watch4is one. In this book, the root cause of the feeling of desolation, the experience of being forsaken by God, came in part from great grief and personal loss. This grief was coupled with the physical depletion of, Miss Montague, leading to extreme fatigue, what would be called “classic burnout” in today’s self-care/self-help milieu. I have found that this experience of feeling forsaken by God is often in relation to both deep personal loss and illness, as Elizabeth Goudge writes.
Elizabeth Goudge also speaks of what faith, in such moments, can look like. She describes, in The Middle Window, a man fighting in the highlands of Scotland, who nearly died before a kindly couple took him in, nursing him back to consciousness and health. He, having thought his life over, now had to come back to life, and realizes what troubled him most is his loss of faith. It is then that he realizes, “[f]lames may die down but nothing could rob one of the ashes” and that, perhaps, “he was, for the first time in his life, actually experiencing faith. This fighting with no certainty that there was anything to fight for, this going out into the night with no belief that dawn would ever come, was…the real thing…”(Goudge, 200-201)5.
In my later 20’s, while still studying at Trinity Western University, I lead a discipleship group (basically a Bible study organized by the student life leadership). It was a year after the death of a woman who was my first spiritual mother. When she died I felt like I had lost my Mother; the sun shining on campus was merely a violation of my suddenly shattered world. A year later, I felt that God had fallen silent, as if He had left me; His Word, which fed me daily, was empty as a bowl of dust. Yet, in God’s mercy, He gave me words about His silence via CS Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle… teaching me that all Christians can, will, or have gone through this. Thankfully the other leaders I served with were supportive and kind, helping me to lead while experiencing the unexpected silence of God. In time this silence passed, after creating within me room for new spiritual growth and directions.
Whether by God’s will, by physical illness and exhaustion, or by a challenging season in life, many do not sense God’s presence. They, who were once sustained by His Presence in difficult afflictions, can later be cut off from the same sense of His Presence, often when the situation gets even more difficult.
It is here that we must remember that God is everywhere present, filling all things6; and yet, at the same moment, is in relationship to us as a Person. And that God, in relationship to us, may choose to be silent7. We may need to learn something. Or we may need to have great courage and faith.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom8 writes of a woman who wrote him (she had cancer, was dying) that she was sustained by His Presence, but later only found God’s absence. She wrote to Metropolitan Anthony that her only prayer was to avoid fabricating a sense of God’s Presence when He choose to only give His absence. She had great courage and faith.
Did not Christ Himself cry out to God the Father in His experience of being forsaken while on the Cross? Courage comes when we remember that Christ’s cry of deep pain and abandonment is right before He dies. After He dies, Christ filled Hades with His light9, His Divinity, and on the third day, rose from the dead, resurrected, with a new body and hope for the entire world.
All of this tells me to be persistent in prayer, to keep going even if I feel God’s absence or even the abandonment of God. It tells me not to give up hope, but to trust that God is still near; to remember God, to have courage and faith even when the battle appears lost. Lastly, it tells me: do not be afraid…
(1) [Original material first published as]: Elizabeth Roosje. “Do Not Be Afraid”. Roosje: Little Rose, Blogger, August 08, 2016 https://eroosje.blogspot.com/2016/08/do-not-be-afraid.html (2) Klepinin-Arjakovsky, Helene. Dimitri’s Cross: The Life & Letters of St. Dimitri Klepinin, Martyred during the Holocaust. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press Ministries, 2008. (3) Mother Maria’s life is detailed in Dimitri’s Cross: The Life & Letters of St. Dimitri Klepinin, Martyred during the Holocaust. But there is, in English, an entire book on her life by Sergei Hackel: Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova 1891-1945. Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982. (4) Goudge, Elizabeth. The Dean’s Watch. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1960. (5) Goudge, Elizabeth. The Middle Window. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1935, 1971. (6) This is part of the prayer to the Holy Spirit, found in the trisagion prayers, that can be seen here: https://oca.org/orthodoxy/prayers/trisagion (7) Metropolitan Anthony Bloom writes of this in his book, Courage to Pray and in other books he wrote on prayer. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev’s book on prayer, Prayer: Encounter with the Living God, also speaks of God as an encounter and that we are in relationship with God as a Person. Fr. Alexander Men’s Book, Inner Step Towards God, also speaks of prayer to God as an encounter. (8) Bloom, Metropolitan Anthony, Lefebvre, George. Courage to Pray. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997. (9) For more on this, see Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev’s essay “Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions” found here: http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/11/1/5.aspxand “Christ, The Medicine of Life: The Syriac Fathers on the Lord’s Descent Into Hell” by Irina Kukota, published in Road to Emmaus: A Journal of Orthdoox Faith and Culture. Vol. VI, No. 1 (#20), also found here: http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_20/Christ_the_Medicine_of_Life.pdf