I was watching a television programme earlier this week which asked a group of individuals with relevant experience, questions about a specific topic. On this occasion, it was about the experience of surviving horrific disasters, both natural and human inflicted. Those participating, had experienced floods, fire, mass shootings and terrorist attacks.
The participants answered several questions, which started with ‘what happened’, ‘what did you do’, what did you see’, ‘how did you feel’ and finally, ‘what have been the consequences for you’? It was an extraordinary set of stories told by 6 – 8 survivors, who answered the questions with vulnerable openness.
In the question about consequences, two or three of those reflecting on what has happened to their lives since the event, spoke about their loss of faith in God.
For one participant, this loss on top of all the other losses, had broken his marriage. The conclusion these few participants had drawn, was God could not exist in the face of such disaster and trauma. God would not have allowed it to happen if God existed, whether the disaster was natural or human inflicted. The loss of life and all that was familiar was beyond coping with, understanding and accepting.
I don’t know about you, but when such stories are told I start to imagine how I would react in similar circumstances: what a loss of everything, loved ones, possessions, the experience of absolute terror and fear of death, the community forgetting once the disaster was over, loss of self-esteem, guilt, and insistent, terrible memories that will not go away. Lives turned upside down, forever changed, unbelievably altered.
And included in this litany of loss, was the loss of God!
St John of the Cross 1542-1591, a friend and correspondent with St Teresa of Avila, both Carmelites in Spain, is one of the great mystics and writers of the Christian world. His life was difficult, at one point imprisoned and tortured for his faith; and his reflections on God’s love are worth hearing as we listen to Jesus’ words about love, the Holy Spirit and peace.
John of the Cross wrote:
‘If we want to attain union with God, we have, of necessity, to undergo times of testing and darkness. Our Spirit needs to be strengthened and virtues refined, just as iron is tested in the fire and hammered into shape by the artist’s hand. The reason why more of us do not attain perfection is because we do not cooperate with God when God begins to work in us. We want quick results, not the labour of patient endurance.
So God, realising that we do not have the necessary courage, stops testing us, and proceeds no further with our purification.
So we should count it a great favour when we are tested through suffering. We are God’s favoured children, destined for union with the Divine even in this life, if only we persevere. Then the ‘death’ that is inherent in suffering will be changed into the life of glory even here below’. (Stanza II p.44; Stanza III p.58) *
John goes onto say, there are two possible reasons why we cannot see this; either we are in the dark or we are blind. Blindness arises from our rejection of God, darkness is not necessarily about rejection but is about not seeing, perhaps being fearful or simply not paying attention. Little by little, God wants us to choose light over darkness, sight over blindness, love over hatred, faith and hope over despair and death. Suffering is not inflicted by God. It comes from our human nature and our rejection of God. God grieves over humanity’s cruelty and fear. Jesus loves us, and we can experience God’s love even in the darkest, cruellest, most terrifying places.
It’s a bit like exercise and diet; when life brings challenges, if we’re not practiced and prepared, we may well give into rejection, fear and despair. In those times, God waits with us, for us, in us with love until we are ready to listen, see and hear again. If we choose not to accept God’s gift of love we are missing out on an essential part of life, and we will not experience the Holy Spirit breathing on us, in us and around us.
I had John of the Cross’ reflection in mind when I read John’s Gospel as Jesus, sitting at the table sharing his last meal with his disciples, talks to them about his impending death.
Last week we reflected on Jesus’ response to betrayal by a companion. Jesus’ immediate response was to talk instead about love, God’s love for us, our love for each other and for God. Jesus took the opportunity to give us the familiar great commandment:
‘That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)
And please notice, Jesus is clearly highlighting the link between our love for one another and for Jesus, and the way we act out of that love in our responses is what will show people we are Jesus followers.
Jesus reassures his disciples and us, as he talks of his impending death and resurrection. He reminds us God’s love will again be poured out, visibly as the Holy Spirit, referred to here as ‘the advocate’; working through our relationships with our neighbours. God is alive in us as the Holy Spirit, made visible in our works, in our faith, hope and love as we live out Jesus’ command, caring for the poor, the outcast, the orphan, the refugee, the imprisoned, the broken and the stranger.
The advocate relates to us as a defender, supporting us in times of oppression, humiliation and rejection. The advocate provides comfort, encouragement, teaching and guidance and discernment. The advocate is a constant reminder and experience of God’s love.
As Jesus describes his apparent absence: ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you’ (John 14: 28), the advocate is God’s ongoing gift to God’s creation. As the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our lives is given generously and without limits to sustain and help us, Jesus offers yet one more gift:
‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.’ (John14:27)
Jesus’ peace is not about the ‘absence of war’ or conflict; instead it has everything to do with God’s blessing. The Hebrew scriptures referred to it as ‘shalom’.
Shalom positively describes the completeness of God’s blessing: (Numbers 6:24-26).
‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.’
Jesus gives his peace to the disciples in such a way that it continues to be with them even after his departure. He encourages them: ‘do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid’. (John 14: 27b). The gift of peace is something to be treasured and held dearly, shared widely and actively lived.
For the disciples the imminent departure of Jesus, made both peace and love significant gifts. For our ongoing lives in the face of disaster, suffering, loss and death, peace is essential. The promise and coming of the advocate, is the love of God linking Jesus to his disciples and followers and with God.
The presence of God through the Holy Spirit is a gift to all of us who learn whatever trouble we go through in our lives does not disprove God’s presence or wipe out God’s promise to dwell in us.
The disciples’ loss of the historical Jesus through his impeding death is not the end. In fact, this apparent loss leads to an even greater experience of God with us, an active and holy presence of God not bound by time and space but made visible in the lives of those who practice God’s love.
As John of the Cross reminds us, God is simply waiting patiently for us, wherever we are.
‘In awakening to the union of the Holy Spirit it is as if we were awakening from sleep and drawing breath; and while doing so, feeling the sweet breathing of God within us.…this breathing, full of grace and glory, fills those who are open to receive it. In this experience, the Holy Spirit inspires us with a love of God that surpasses all understanding.’
The Lord be with you.
Reference: *John of the Cross’ Living Flame of Love by Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, New City Press, Hyde Park, NY 2004