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franciscan - January 2002

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001

This great absence

Praying with a sense of the absence of God

By Revd Canon Martin Shaw

Everyone does it. Everyone, without exception, prays. Belief or no belief, it is as natural for humans to pray as to breathe. Perhaps the most important task for the Church now is to provide space for all to do this, in particular the destitute among whom Jesus is most likely to be found, those for whom the word absence more than presence is the predominant feature. Spiritual Direction is not about filling that absence but accompanying it with the tortured silence of the wise who live by questions and not by answers.

When you desire something, you pray. Some people want more than others, but every human longing is a prayer. From wanting a pain to be ended, something to eat, a friend to give you a call, a piece of music, something that someone else has, some sleep, an anxious night to pass, a war to end – it’s all a prayer. A human being cannot but express this longing somehow. It may be in words. It may be in silence, but it’s all prayer. Then there is the greatest longing of all, which is the longing to discover the truth of who I am and to live fully. To me, chillingly, John O’Donohue the writer and poet puts it this way: The only sin is the unlived life.

Books on spirituality line my walls! And many of them assume two things. One is that I want to get closer to God and the second that ‘getting closer’ will bring some sort of peace. Of course, some level of contentment and ease are important to personal health, but most of those I respect, who take prayer to a deeper place, struggle acutely with their lives. They are frequently angry or are prone to varying levels of depression, and sometimes both. Paradoxically, they are also people who seem to know how to enjoy themselves and are even occasionally outrageous in their behaviour! Some are apparently gifted with a psychological and physical stillness, which I envy hugely. On closer acquaintance, their inner world may not necessarily have that centredness. However, there is an authenticity in all of them because they regard silence as part of their humanity and indeed the ground of it. Gandhi wrote in a letter: ‘It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.'

Exciting though the variety of styles of retreat now on offer may be, it is silence and stillness that, in my experience, people most want to learn or deepen. However, there is a warning. If that is the desire, then perhaps it is best to wait until death! Silence and stillness, for the time being, are relative. Thomas Merton in one of his conferences for his novices reminded the monks that silence and stillness are given. They are not just the relative absence of noise and movement. Maybe it is God’s silence and stillness that are working in me! Ignatius of Loyola commented that we must pray as if everything depends on us and live the rest of our lives as if everything depends on God. All my energy goes into getting that round the wrong way.

While on an individually-guided retreat, I was asked to pray with my image of God. I came back to the person who was directing me with drawings, quotes, music and even photographs. This was enjoyable, but it became clear that they were not ‘me'. They were all someone else’s which had inspired me. Squatting before the Blessed Sacrament in a dark chapel, I remember having a ‘sense of the real absence of God'. Frankly, that’s true most of the time for me, except when I am day dreaming or shouting at the squabbling monkeys in my head! What happens for me in prayer is mostly a case of what is not happening! Returning to my retreat, certainly I was still and silent. Therefore why was I surprised about absence? For a long time, I was frightened of this and to a certain extent I still am. Did my spirituality really have any content to it, when God was nothing but nothing? The emptiness, the absence is for me essential, because that is what is true. St Teresa of Avila’s image of the empty bowl being the bursting expectation of the God who comes with love does not really help me much, when it seems that the bowl remains empty to this day.

What does this say about other forms of praying? If I pray for a parking place in a town centre and get one, what is happening? The person who didn’t get it, presumably then was denied it by God, because my need was greater? If I pray that my asthma is cured and it continues, what is happening? If I pray for a success while the millions of prayers for peace apparently go unheeded, what is happening? ‘God is up in heaven and he doesn’t do a thing, with a million angels watching and they never move a wing'. Naïve though many of these examples may be, they are surprisingly prevalent. For me, a tentative approach might be something like this: Christ is out there being crucified and you do not have to look far. His invitation is for me to go and join him in the task. Prayer, then, is the sheer hard work that I do in being still and silent, so that I can be more and more keenly aware of the possibility of the Love of God in everything that happens in the rest of my living. So intensive prayer for the Christian will inevitably mean a radical effect on life-style, priorities and relatedness to the people and issues around me. Where are you Christ? Who am I as I open myself to be aware of you? What is your prayer for me? What must I do?

My experience of the inner life may have common features with others, but there are no ‘off the peg’ spiritual clothes that can remove the sense of confusion and emptiness which many people experience. Plenty are on offer, but at best they are temporary alleviations, at worst they are illusions which do not prepare us at all for being creative citizens in a highly interdependent world. I write this during a strange time when most are feeling a sense of global apprehension in the face of destructive forces that potentially might topple us into that abyss. On retreats and in silence, I frequently meet people who have come to a point where they are left with a kind of darkness and absence which leaves them feeling inadequate and even ashamed for what may seem a spiritual lack. Richard Holloway, with a certain desperation, suggests ‘dancing on the edge of the abyss'. In a talk he gave in Norwich Cathedral just two weeks after the 11 September carnage in New York, he quoted one of R S Thomas’s disturbing poems: The Absence.

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just gone….
What resource have I
other than the emptiness without him of my
whole being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

R S Thomas Collected Poems 1945-1990

It may seem that the exercise of the prayer of God’s absence is futile. All I know is that within that defiant openness to the truth of my experience of the absence of God, there is a minuscule and strange rising. Minuscule it may be, but the rising has meant a tentative improvement in my being loved and in my loving. What other desire is there? f

Martin Shaw is Canon Precentor at Saint Edmundsbury Cathedral in Suffolk.


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