Wednesday 31 December 2014

Dark Epiphany

                                         Elijah Fed by the Ravens- Jusepe de Ribera

How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I carry sorrow in my soul,
    grief in my heart day after day?
Psalm 13:1-2

Want a New Years' Resolution ? Shed the pseudo-comfort of religion and grow into your own humanity.
Rational Minority ‏@MelaninAtheist  Dec 29

The Twelfth day of Christmas, January 6, has traditionally seen the Latin Church celebrate the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus with His Mother and the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrate the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan. Both celebrations are referred to as the Feast of the Epiphany because they represent moments of sudden understanding, a realisation that a manifestation of the power and wonder of God was somehow incarnate in the person of Mary's Son. For Orthodox and Catholic Christians such epiphanies are regularly recreated on a miniature scale through the Sacraments and above all through the Eucharist. Nonetheless for most hours out of the 24 the faithful have no such experiences. Conventional wisdom suggests that it is through serving our neighbours, above all the weak and vulnerable ones, or admiring the beauties of nature that we can most clearly perceive the presence of God hidden within that which surrounds us outside of the liturgies of the Church. So conventional indeed is the wisdom that I daresay you could find several thousand homilies, sermons, books, blogs or other media describing it. To this I have nothing to add, or indeed to subtract, the wisdom is a sound one.

There is another way of experiencing God however, a way which the Psalms often vividly express. this is the way of desolation, the experience of abandonment. That it is an authentic variety of religious experience we can see not only from the content of these ancient works themselves but also from the enduring way that generation after generation of believers, Christian and Jewish, have turned to them and made theme their own. If we assume that the @MelaninAtheist hypothesis is that the sole or dominant reason that people hold to a religious faith is because it offers them a form of comfort then this recurring desert experience of abandonment tends to disprove it. That most Christians most of the time experience desolation in their faith lives is not true but neither is it true that most of the time they experience comfort from it either. I would argue that all Christians are likely to feel that God has turned away from them at least some of the time and many of them feel it a great deal of the time.

If @MelaninAtheist is correct and the primary reason to cling to faith is that it gives a warm glow of falsely generated comfort then why continue to hold fast to it when it does no such thing? After all, in the West at least, the thought that God is not present to us because He doesn't exist will not be slow in obtruding itself into our thoughts. To persist in faith when its pulse is feeble, in hope when it seems vain and in loving that which does not respond is surely the opposite of being comforted. Of course, it might be argued that religion attracts masochists but it is a peculiar thing this Christian faith which attracts both the comfort-loving and the pain-loving at one and the same time with one and the same message.

The grim persistence of believers through the Dark Night of the Soul experience can I think be understood in light of the word 'abandonment.' It suggests that a prior relationship existed, that it was valued and nurturing but that it has now seemed to come to an abrupt end as the result of an arbitrary decision of the other party to it. The sense of misery and loss that the Christian feels is a product of the intensity of the relationship now apparently ended. But, it is not a simple bereavement for hope does not fully depart that at some point the relationship will resume and that any amount of suffering is worth enduring if only it will bring about that consummation. The perspective of  @MelaninAtheist is reversed for the person of faith will feel that it would be a pseudo-comfort to tell themselves 'there is no God' and that the affliction of God's absence is preferable to the fairy tale of God's non-existence.

                                             Elijah in the Desert by Washington Allston

What we might call the school of @MelaninAtheist might however be helpful in suggesting why it is that such periods of darkness are experienced by Christians. It is the 'imaginary friend' hypothesis, that is that God does not exist but believers create one to suit their image. This is half true, it is perfectly possible, indeed it is common, for people to believe in the One True God and yet to be idolaters at the same time. For the God they worship is not God as He is in Himself but a God largely of their own fantasy. The philosopher Simone Weil remarked Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life. It is not simply in relation to faith that we are dominated by our imaginings but essentially all our relationships are clouded with what we think, but do not know, about others and what we think, but falsely, about ourselves and the same principle extends to our practical view of the world we inhabit. It is rare for reality, the thing in itself, to break through, mostly what the thing or person means to us is what we choose it to mean. Indeed, there is a school of philosophy which argues that there is no 'thing in itself' but that all meanings are subjective, that is, imaginary.

Professor Weil also remarked  Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void. The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass. The desert experience of Christians is a time of stripping away. What they have imagined about God is now seen to be false. What they have imagined about themselves, their courage, steadfastness, enthusiasm &c. is also seen to be false. The dark epiphany of the long night is the realisation that beyond imagination, almost beyond hope, the God who really is has never, in truth abandoned them, He has been present as Himself only and not as the believers fantasm of Him and He can only be perceived as such when the believer is present to herself as herself and not as her overblown self-image.

So Christians can make their own the New Year wish of @MelaninAtheist, believers should indeed shed the pseudo-comfort of their religion and grow into their full humanity through the purest of possible relationships between themselves and God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

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  1. Thank you for the insights into the experience of the dark night of the soul.

  2. I like this article very much.

    Thank you Steven

    Kind wishes Donella