When the right time comes for us to go on to other things, God withdraws the sense of His presence, in order to strengthen our faith. After that it is useless to seek Him through the medium of any psychological effect. Useless to look for any sense of Him in our hearts. 53

A journey of faith based upon feelings alone is an unstable and unreliable path to tread. While they are clearly an important and essential part for discerning wisdom and truth, feelings are unreliable and in constant flux.

A “feeling” of God’s presence is a gift of grace and a blessing I can never “own”. The warm sense of God’s presence I enjoy at one point in my life will vanish over time. “God withdraws the sense of His presence,” Merton promises.

The lack of “any sense of Him in our hearts” is not a symptom of malfunction in my spiritual life. The sense of absence that comes to replace the feeling of presence I once enjoyed is not necessarily an indication that there is something wrong.

In his awkward and archaic language, the writer of Hebrews promises that

the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts. (Hebrews 12:6)

The Greek word translated “disciplines” is paideuō. It does not mean punish, but “train.” It is the root of the English word “pedagogy.” The Greek word translated “chastises” is mastigoō which means “to scourge,” that is, to cause to suffer. The sense of God’s absence is often experienced as suffering. But the suffering is always for training. It is not for retribution or punishment.

God withdraws the “sense” of the divine presence “in our hearts” in order that we may be trained to live by faith, which the writer of Hebrews tells us,

is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

The warm gentle feeling of love is nice and encouraging when it is present. But it will not sustain me through the often difficult, sometimes barren journey that is life. Some consciousness deeper “psychological effect” is necessary to keep me faithful in those times when God seems to be more defined by absence than by presence.

How would I describe a sense of God’s presence as I experience it?

What does it feel like when I lose this sense of God’s presence?

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