I am the Lord, there is no other; / I form the light, and create the darkness, / I make well-being and create woe; / I, the Lord, do all these things.
Isaiah 46: 6-7
At that time, John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Luke 7: 18-19
In the Jewish tradition, one is not to utter the name of God. The older I get, the more that I feel as if I, on the other hand, speak of God all too glibly, as if I know what or whom I’m speaking about. I too often speak and act as if God is but another object that I relegate to a space in my life and consciousness. Today, Isaiah reminds us that “the Lord” forms the light and the darkness and creates well-being and woe. God creates and forms all: what we see as light and what we see as dark; what we see as well-being and what we take to be woe. We are reminded that our judgments are the product of our very limited perspective and understanding. “God’s thoughts are not your thoughts; nor are God’s ways your ways.” If God’s “understanding” of what is well-being and woe is, in truth, so different from ours, then what do we really know of God?
In the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, Mary, now carrying Jesus within her, visits her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth declares to Mary: “For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy.” (Luke 1: 44). Even before he is born, John the Baptist experiences and recognizes the reality of Jesus’ divinity. So, how is it that he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another? “ John “knows” who Jesus is, and yet he does not understand precisely what Jesus’ place is in the history of God’s relationship with his people. Perhaps the encounter with God is not an answer for us but rather an experience of being drawn further and further into Mystery.
As a boy, religion was not a frequent topic of conversation in my family. I came to understand that the reason for this was that my parents did not share the same faith tradition. My mother, whose parents had come to the United States as Italian immigrants, was a Roman Catholic and so raised me a Roman Catholic. We went to mass each Sunday, and I went to Sunday school and “released time” religion classes from public school. My mother listened to my memorization of the answers in the Baltimore catechism and taught me my bedside prayers. But we did not pray as a family, before meals or otherwise. My father’s family was Episcopalian, and yet he had not really practiced his religion for most of his adult life. I still remember the first times I heard in Sunday school that those who were not Catholic could not go to heaven, how I worried and wondered about my father. Although I felt no need for him to practice as my mother and I did, I feared for him and what would happen to him in his unbelief of what we were told was the truth.
As I grew a bit older, however, due in part to the Brothers at my high school whose way of being began to connect for me religion and ordinary everyday life, I became less fearful about my father’s destiny. And I also began to see the depth of his faith and his attraction to Mystery. At times I would see his being overwhelmed by what Peter Berger calls the “signals of transcendence” of everyday life. At certain moments of ritual or prayer, in peak and difficult experiences of life (like sickness and death), my father, without the trappings of conventional religious practice, would respond with a sense of awe that seemed to pervade his whole being in a way that both struck and attracted me. I knew more about religion, but he seemed to know something of the reality of God in a way that I didn’t. He had no way of speaking of this deeper reality; yet, he was clearly drawn into it.
Today is the feast of St. John of the Cross. John is a profound spiritual teacher and a master psychologist of the spiritual life. It is he who assiduously investigates the human experience of the search for and growing communion with God. At the core of John’s teaching is that God must be sought as one who is hidden. As Christmas approaches, we are invited by the sign of God’s coming among us as a human infant to deepen in our sense of awe and wonder. We listen to the story and we look to the creche again and again to try learn the ways of God and the mystery of God’s presence “with us.” We slowly learn not to reduce the story to sentiment and historical fundamentalism but rather to awaken to the birth of the Word in our souls and in the world as an ever occurring reality. We try to keep alive in true humility and docility the question of John the Baptist and his disciples: “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” We can never be sure!
We have so many gods that we always risk making God yet another among them. We worship comfort, possessions, self-regard and the regard of others, power over others, patriotism and tribalism, success, intelligence, our own opinion, religion and church, and on and on. The one we call “God” can be but our own version on one or more of these lesser gods. To truly seek God, says St. John, we must do so as “one who is hidden.” Every insight, every experience, every understanding, every consolation along the way is not God. How do we serve One who is hidden? Perhaps we do so by being ready, at all times, to abandon our own projects in favor of serving who or what is at hand. If God is hidden, we don’t “see God” in the other; we see nothing but the call to love and to serve. We spend our lives not for what we know, but for what we do not and cannot know. My father taught me by example that true closeness to God resides not in what we call it or understand it to be but in how we live. As the late John S. Dunne termed it, faith is to live “step by step out of the heart.” This is to live in the darkness of faith of which St. John speaks; it is to live seeking the one who is ever present but always hidden.
You do very well, O soul, to seek him ever as one hidden, for you exalt God and approach very near him when you consider him higher and deeper than anything you can reach. Hence pay no attention, neither partially nor entirely, to anything your faculties can grasp. I mean that you should never seek satisfaction in what you understand about God, but in what you do not understand about God. Never pause to love and delight in your understanding and experience of God, but love and delight in what you cannot understand or experience of God. Such is the way, as we said, of seeking God in faith. However surely it may seem that you find, experience, and understand God, because God is inaccessible and concealed you must always regard God as hidden, and serve God who is hidden in a secret way. Do not be like the many foolish ones who, in their lowly understanding of God, think that when they do not understand, taste, or experience him, he is far away and utterly concealed. The contrary belief would be truer. The less distinct is their understanding of God, the closer they approach God, since in the words of the prophet David, “he made darkness his hiding place” [Ps. 18:11]. Thus in drawing near God you will experience darkness because of the weakness of your eye.
You do well, then, at all times, in both adversity and prosperity, whether spiritual or temporal, to consider God as hidden, and call after God thus:
Where have you hidden
Beloved, and left me moaning?
St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, I, 12