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Prayer of the Forsaken
All the passages below are taken from Richard J. Foster’s book “Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home.” It was published in 1992.
To come to the pleasure you have not you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.---St. John of the Cross
There is no more plaintive or heartfelt prayer than the cry of Jesus: "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46b, KJV). Jesus' experience on the cross was, of course, utterly unique and unrepeatable, for he was taking into himself the sin of the world. But in our own way you and I will pray this Prayer of the Forsaken if we seek the intimacy of perpetual communion with the Father. Times of seeming desertion and absence and abandonment appear to be universal among those who have walked this path of faith before us. We might just as well get used to the idea that, sooner or later, we, too, will know what it means to feel forsaken by God.
The old writers spoke of this reality as Deus Absconditus---the God who is hidden. Almost instinctively you understand the experience they were describing, do you not? Have you ever tried to pray and felt nothing, saw nothing, sensed nothing? Has it ever seemed like your prayers did no more than bounce off the ceiling and ricochet around an empty room? Have there been times when you desperately needed some word of assurance, some demonstration of divine presence, and you got nothing? Sometimes it just seems like God is hidden from us. We do everything we know. We pray. We serve. We worship. We live as faithfully as we can. And still there is nothing ... nothing! It feels like we are "beating on Heaven's door with bruised knuckles in the dark," to use the words of George Buttrick.1
I am sure you understand that when I speak of the absence of God, I am talking about not a true absence but rather a sense of absence. God is always present with us---we know that theologically---but there are times when he withdraws our consciousness of his presence.
But these theological niceties are of little help to us when we enter the Sahara of the heart. Here we experience real spiritual desolation. We feel abandoned by friends, spouse, and God. Every hope evaporates the moment we reach for it. Every dream dies the moment we try to realize it. We question, we doubt, we struggle. Nothing helps. We pray and the words seem empty. We turn to the Bible and find it meaningless. We turn to music and it fails to move us. We seek the fellowship of other Christians and discover only backbiting, selfishness, and egoism.
The biblical metaphor for these experiences of forsakenness is the desert. It is an apt image, for we do indeed feel dry, barren, parched. With the Psalmist we cry out, "I call all day, my God, but you never answer" (Psalm 22:2 NRSV). In fact, we begin to wonder if there is a God to answer.
These experiences of abandonment and desertion have come and will come to us all. Therefore, it is good to see if anything helpful can be said as we face the barren wasteland of God's absence.
A MAJOR HIGHWAY
The first word that should be spoken is one of encouragement. We are on not a rabbit trail but a major highway. Many have traveled this way before us. Think of Moses exiled from Egypt's splendor, waiting year after silent year for God to deliver his people. Think of the Psalmist's plaintive cry to God, "Why have you forgotten me?" (Psalm 42:9 NRSV). Think of Elijah in a desolate cave keeping a lonely vigil over wind and earthquake and fire. Think of Jeremiah lowered down into a dungeon well until he "sank in the mire:" Think of Mary's solitary vigil at Golgotha. Think of those solitary words atop Golgotha, "My God, My God, why ... why ... why?"
Christians down through the centuries have witnessed the same experience. Saint John of the Cross named it "the dark night of the soul." An anonymous English writer identified it as "the cloud of unknowing." Jean-Pierre de Caussade called it "the dark night of faith." George Fox said simply, "When it was day I wished for night, and when it was night I wished for day."2 Be encouraged---you and I are in good company.
In addition, I want you to know that to be faced with the "withering winds of God's hiddenness"3 does not mean that God is displeased with you, or that you are insensitive to the work of God's Spirit, or that you have committed some horrendous offense against heaven, or that there is something wrong with you, or anything.
Darkness is a definite experience of prayer. It is to be expected, even embraced.
The second thing that can be said about our experience of abandonment is that every faith journey is tailor made. Our sense of God's absence does not come to us in any preset timetable. We cannot simply draw some universal road map that everyone will be able to follow.
It is true that those in the first flush of faith often are given unusual graces of the Spirit, just like a new baby is cuddled and pampered. It is also true that some of the deepest experiences of alienation and separation from God have come to those who have traveled far into the interior realms of faith. But we can enter the bleak deserts of barrenness and the dark canyons of anguish at any number of points in our sojourn.
Since there is no special sequence in the life of prayer, we simply do not move from one stage to the next knowing, for example, that at stages five and twelve we will experience abandonment by God. Of course, it would be much easier if that were the case, but then we would be describing a mechanical arrangement rather than a living relationship.
A LIVING RELATIONSHIP
That is the next thing that should be said about our sense of the absence of God, namely, that we are entering into a living relationship that begins and develops in mutual freedom. God grants us perfect freedom because he desires creatures who freely choose to be in relationship with him. Through the Prayer of the Forsaken we are learning to give to God the same freedom. Relationships of this kind can never be manipulated or forced.
If we could make the Creator of heaven and earth instantly appear at our beck and call, we would not be in communion with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We do that with objects, with things, with idols. But God, the great iconoclast, is constantly smashing our false images of who he is and what he is like.
Can you see how our very sense of the absence of God is, therefore, an unsuspected grace? In the very act of hiddenness God is slowly weaning us of fashioning him in our own image. Like Aslan, the Christ figure in The Chronicles of Narnia, God is wild and free and comes at will. By refusing to be a puppet on our string or a genie in our bottle, God frees us from our false, idolatrous images.
Besides, we probably should be thankful that God does not always present himself whenever we wish, because we might not be able to endure such a meeting. Often in the Bible people were scared out of their wits when they encountered the living God. "Do not let God speak to us, or we will die," pleaded the children of Israel (Exodus 20:19). At times this should be our plea as well.
ANATOMY OF AN ABSENCE
Allow me to share with you one time when I entered the Prayer of the Forsaken. By every outward standard things were going well. Publishers wanted me to write for them. Speaking invitations were too numerous and too gracious. Yet through a series of events it seemed clear to me that God wanted me to retreat from public activity. In essence God said, "Keep, quiet!" And so I did. I stopped all public speaking, I stopped all writing, and I waited. At the time this began, I did not know if I would ever speak or write again---I rather thought I would not. As it turned out, this fast from public life lasted about eighteen months.
I waited in silence. And God was silent too. I joined in the Psalmist's query: "How long will you hide your face from me?" (Psalm 13:1). The answer I got: nothing. Absolutely nothing! There were no sudden revelations. No penetrating insights. Not even gentle assurances. Nothing.
Have you ever been there? Perhaps for you it was the tragic death of child or spouse that plunged you into the desolate desert of God's absence. Maybe it was a crisis in marriage or vocation, or a failure in business. It may have been none of these. There may have been no dramatic event at all---you simply slipped from the warm glow of intimate communion to the icy cold of... nothing. At least "nothing" is how it feels ... well, actually there is no feeling at all. It is as if all feelings have gone into hibernation. (You see how I am struggling for the language to describe this experience of abandonment, for words are fragmentary approximations at best, but if you have been there, you understand what I mean.)
As I mentioned earlier, this discipline of silence lasted some eighteen months. It ended finally and simply with gentle assurances that it was time to reenter the public square.
THE PURIFYING SILENCE
As best I can discern, the silence of God month after weary month was a purifying silence. I say "as best I can discern" because the purifying was not dramatic or even recognizable at the time. It was a little like when you do not realize that a child has grown at all until you measure her against the mark on the hallway doorjamb from last year.
Saint John of the Cross says that two purifications occur in the dark night of the soul, and in some measure I experienced both. The first involves stripping us of dependence upon exterior results. We find ourselves less and less impressed with the religion of the "big deal"---big buildings, big budgets, big productions, big miracles. Not that there is anything wrong with big things, but they are no longer what impress us. Nor are we drawn toward praise and adulation. Not that there is anything wrong with kind and gracious remarks, but they are no longer what move us.
Then, too, we become deadened to that impressive corpus of religious response to God. Liturgical practices, sacramental symbols, aids to prayer, books on personal fulfillment, private devotional exercises---all of these become as mere ashes in our hands. Not that there is anything wrong with acts of devotion, but they are no longer what fascinate us.
The final stripping of dependence upon exterior results comes as we become less in control of our destiny and more at the mercy of others. Saint John calls this the "Passive Dark Night:" It is the condition of Peter, who once girded himself and went where he wanted but in time found that others girded him and took him where he did not want to go (John 21:18-19 NRSV).
For me the greatest value in my lack of control was the intimate and ultimate awareness that I could not manage God. God refused to jump when I said, "Jump!" Neither by theological acumen nor by religious technique could I conquer God. God was, in fact, to conquer me.
The second purifying of Saint John involves stripping us of dependence upon interior results. This is more disturbing and painful than the first purification because it threatens us at the root of all we believe in and have given ourselves to. In the beginning we become less and less sure of the inner workings of the Spirit. It is not that we disbelieve in God, but more profoundly we wonder what kind of God we believe in. Is God good and intent upon our goodness, or is God cruel, sadistic, and a tyrant?
We discover that the workings of faith, hope, and love become themselves subject to doubt. Our personal motivations become suspect. We worry whether this act or that thought is inspired by fear, vanity, and arrogance rather than faith, hope, and love.
Like a frightened child we walk cautiously through the dark mists that now surround the Holy of Holies. We become tentative and unsure of ourselves. Nagging questions assail us with a force they never had before. "Is prayer only a psychological trick?" "Does evil ultimately win out?" "Is there any real meaning in the universe?" "Does God really love me?"
Through all of this, paradoxically, God is purifying our faith by threatening to destroy it. We are led to a profound and holy distrust of all superficial drives and human strivings. We know more deeply than ever before our capacity for infinite self-deception. Slowly we are being taken off of vain securities and false allegiances. Our trust in all exterior and interior results is being shattered so that we can learn faith in God alone. Through our barrenness of soul God is producing detachment, humility, patience, perseverance.
Most surprising of all, our very dryness produces the habit of prayer in us. All distractions are gone. Even all warm fellowship has disappeared. We have become focused. The soul is parched. And thirsty. And this thirst can lead us to prayer. I say "can" because it can also lead us to despair or simply to abandon the search.
THE PRAYER OF COMPLAINT
This brings us to the issue of what we do during these times of abandonment. Is there any kind of prayer in which we can engage when we feel forsaken? Yes---we can begin by praying the Prayer of Complaint. This is a form of prayer that has been largely lost in our modern, sanitized religion, but the Bible abounds with it.
The best way I know to relearn this time-honored approach to God is by praying that part of the Psalter traditionally known as the "Lament Psalms."4 The ancient singers really knew how to complain, and their words of anguish and frustration can guide our lips into the prayer we dare not pray alone. They expressed reverence and disappointment: "God whom I praise, break your silence" (Psalm 109: 1, JB). They experienced dogged hope and mounting despair: "I am here, calling for your help, praying to you every morning: why do you reject me? Why do you hide your face from me?" (Psalm 88:13-14, JB). They had confidence in the character of God and exasperation at the inaction of God: "I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?' "(Psalm 42:9 NRSV).
The Lament Psalms teach us to pray our inner conflicts and contradictions. They allow us to shout out our forsakenness in the dark caverns of abandonment and then hear the echo return to us over and over until we bitterly recant of them, only to shout them out again. They give us permission to shake our fist at God one moment and break into doxology the next.
SHORT DARTS OF LONGING LOVE
A second thing we can do when we are buffeted by the silence of God is to beat upon the cloud of unknowing "with a short dart of longing love.”5 We may not see the end from the beginning, but we keep on doing what we know to do. We pray, we listen, we worship, we carry out the duty of the present moment. What we learned to do in the light of God's love, we also do in the dark of God's absence. We ask and continue to ask even though there is no answer. We seek and continue to seek even though we do not find. We knock and continue to knock even though the door remains shut.
It is this constant, longing love that produces a firmness of life orientation in us. We love God more than the gifts God brings. Like Job, we serve God even if he slays us. Like Mary, we say freely, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38 NRSV). This is a wonderful grace.
TRUST PRECEDES FAITH
I would like to offer one more counsel to those who find themselves devoid of the presence of God. It is this: wait on God. Wait, silent and still. Wait, attentive and responsive. Learn that trust precedes faith. Faith is a little like putting your car into gear, and right now you cannot exercise faith, you cannot move forward. Do not berate yourself for this. But when you are unable to put your spiritual life into drive, do not put it into reverse; put it into neutral. Trust is how you put your spiritual life in neutral. Trust is confidence in the character of God. Firmly and deliberately you say, "I do not understand what God is doing or even where God is, but I know that he is out to do me good." This is trust. This is how to wait.
I do not fully understand the reasons for the wildernesses of God's absence. This I do know: while the wilderness is necessary, it is never meant to be permanent. In God's time and in God's way the desert will give way to a land flowing with milk and honey. And as we wait for that promised land of the soul, we can echo the prayer of Bernard of Clairvaux, "0 my God, deep calls unto deep (Psalm 42:7 NRSV). The deep of my profound misery calls to the deep of Your infinite mercy."6
GOD, WHERE ARE YOU!? What have I done to make you hide from me? Are you playing cat and mouse with me, or are your purposes larger than my perceptions? I feel alone, lost, forsaken.
You are the God who majors in revealing yourself. You showed yourself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Moses wanted to know what you looked like, you obliged him. Why them and not me?
I am tired of praying. I am tired of asking. I am tired of waiting. But I will keep on praying and asking and waiting because I have nowhere else to go.
Jesus, you, too, knew the loneliness of the desert and the isolation of the cross. And it is through your forsaken prayer that I speak these words.---Amen. [17-24]
1. George Arthur Buttrick, Prayer (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1942), P. 263.
2. The Journal of George Fox (Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1952), p. 9.
3. Howard Macy, Rhythms of the Inner Life (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1988), p.95
4. Lament Psalms: Individual---3, 5, 6, 7, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 35, 39, 41, 42-43, 51, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 63, 64, 69, 71, 86, 88, 102, 109, 130, 140, 141, and 143; Communal---60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 124, 126, 137, and 144. From A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 of The New Century Bible Commentary, ed. Ronald E. Clements and Matthew Black (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), PP. 38-39.
5. James Walsh, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing, in The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist, 1981), p. 145.
6. Bernard of Clairvaux, The Love of God, ed. James M. Houston (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1983), p. 107.
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