What wonderful soothing words Jesus speaks to his disciples: I will not leave you orphans. I won't let you down, I won't go away never to return. No, I will be with you. Thus, we move forward in our consideration of the Easter Mystery. We move from the contemplation of Christ's appearances after the resurrection over the last few Sundays to a meditation on the continued presence of Christ in the Church through the Holy Spirit.
It is all very well for us to believe in the death and resurrection of Christ, to believe that through his resurrection he brought about our salvation but that after the Ascension he left us to it and it is up to us to see if we can make the best of it. No, we have not been left orphans we have the Holy Spirit in our midst, leading, guiding and inspiring us.
‘You know the Spirit because he is with you, he is in you’ These are the words of Jesus in today's Gospel. They are words we should take seriously. Yet many of us feel as though we have no contact with the Holy Spirit, that he is something for others, they feel just like spiritual orphans. They were taught the catechism and received their first communion and confirmation at the appropriate time and in their youth felt very religious and holy. But now in adulthood things have become routine and listless. Yes, they receive the sacraments regularly but God seems far away.
It often appears to them as though there is another type of Christian, one who is alive in the Spirit, one who sees the hand of God in all things, is guided by him in all that they do and experiences the power and love of God in a deep life of prayer. But the feeling is that I am not this type of Christian because I feel more like a spiritual orphan.
See if these descriptions fit you: I feel listless in my prayer life; even though I rarely miss a Sunday it is a struggle to go to mass; although I was close to him once I now feel that God is far away; I try to pray regularly but nowadays I experience many distractions; I am often envious of other Catholics who seem to find faith easy; I feel sad and anxious that I may be falling away from the faith I once loved so much.
There is a name for this phenomenon: it is called the dark night of the soul. And you may be surprised because it generally implies that those who experience it are some way advanced on their personal spiritual journey.
St Teresa of Avila, the great mystical teacher is often quoted for saying to God, ‘No wonder you have so few friends when you treat them so badly.’ This is often what God appears to do. It is as if he has got us off to a good start in childhood and then when we reach adulthood he abandons us.
It is said that the other St Teresa, St Teresa of the Child Jesus, experienced not a glimmer of light from God once she entered her Carmel in Lisieux. She often prayed for a sign of God's presence but received absolutely nothing. We consider her to be one of the really great saints. Why? Because despite this lack of any evidence of God's love she continued doggedly to pray constantly and to turn her every action into a prayer. She is regarded as having reached the very heights of the spiritual life.
Why does the Lord say, ‘I will not leave you orphans’ and then appear so distant? I think the answer is put well in many old songs: absence makes the heart grow fonder.
He loves us deeply and he realises that at a very deep level of our being we love him. He wants to increase and develop the love we have for him. If he were to reveal himself to us too soon we would not grow, we would not be able to be heroic in expressing our love for him.
He does not leave us at all, of course. He has given us his Spirit, but his Spirit does not dominate our lives, he is there in a very gentle way prompting our actions, keeping us faithful, helping us to hang on in there even though God seems so far away.
God does this so that we can grow in love, so that it can be stretched to its limits. He gives us these difficulties so that we can overcome them and grow to our full stature in the spiritual life. He does it so that there can be no suggestion that he has won us over to himself by showing us his glory, so that it is certain that our love for him is a totally free act.
If you experience any of those things I mentioned, like listlessness in prayer, or feeling that God is distant, be reassured. Be reassured that you are living the life of the Spirit and that you are advanced on this journey and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The path you are treading is a well worn one and there are many guides, but the best guide is the one within you, the Holy Spirit poured out on you in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
You may have read the book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, it is set in Colombia in the last century. In it one of the main characters when he is twenty years of age falls in love with a beautiful woman. She is not of his class and moreover she is already engaged to a doctor. She dallies with him, rather flattered to have two men in love with her at the same time, but she is single minded and sticks to her commitment to marry her betrothed.
Our friend won't take no for an answer. He serenades her, writes to her constantly and calls on her with wonderful presents. In due course she is married, she lives the life of a married woman and has nothing to do with him. His letters remain unopened and his presents are returned. He persists in this behaviour for the whole of his life, but his love is unrequited. Even when her husband dies she denies him.
Until one day in her early eighties her eyes are opened to his virtues and she falls in love with him and they are married. Sixty years of unrequited love, during which his love endured and grew until it blossomed in old age. Sixty years of distance and seeming rejection. Time which would have been considered wasted by most people but with hindsight can only be regarded as truly heroic and without parallel.
Except of course if we find a parallel in our own lives.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket