The season of Advent is upon us. This is a time when we traditionally meditate upon the themes of Christ’s coming, whether in the birth of Jesus or in the Second Coming. We therefore may be simultaneously aware of the absence of Jesus and hopeful for his return. While it would seem that this is all taken very literally by most Christians, there is another way that it is meaningful for some of us. The coming and ensuing loss of Jesus, and the hope for his return, can be taken as a pattern for the way an individual’s sense of God’s presence can come and go.
While it seems that some mystics claim they never again felt distant from God after realizing mystical union, others acknowledge that they have found themselves passing through periods of greater or lesser awareness of that union, and sometimes painfully so. Furthermore, one of the most frustrating things about this pattern is that there is nothing that can be done about it. No amount of prayer or other spiritual disciplines provides a magical formula that restores the greatest awareness of God’s presence. Consider the parallel meaning of these words from Jesus:
At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There He is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, ‘There He is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here He is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. (Matthew 24:23-26)
This limitation on our power to realize unity with God should be no surprise; the finite mind of the human soul simply cannot fully comprehend the Infinite, let alone command it. We may be able to raise ourselves up into higher consciousness in some ways, or remember different forms of God’s presence, but the ultimate fulfillment of our hopes is simply out of our control. In this context, let’s reflect on the relevance of Jesus’s teaching about the coming of the Son of Man, taking it as a metaphor about the coming of a complete realization of mystical union:
No one knows about that day or hour. Not even the angels in heaven know. The Son does not know. Only the Father knows. … So keep watch. You do not know on what day your Lord will come. You must understand something. Suppose the owner of the house knew what time of night the robber was coming. Then he would have kept watch. He would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready. The Son of Man will come at an hour when you don’t expect him. (Matthew 24:36 & 42-44)
Isn’t it striking that Jesus himself said not even the Son knows when the coming will occur!? These words are spoken by the man we traditionally revere as the Incarnate Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, whom the Apostle John records more than once saying that he is one with God! And yet Jesus also felt moments of distance from God, as evidenced by his own words on the cross, his agony in Gethsemane, and his temptations in the desert.
So the mystic simply keeps watch. We make ourselves ready with the prayer of stillness and silence. We tend our house by loving God, our neighbors, and ourselves, remembering that God is love. We try not to deny our feelings when God seems distant, and we avoid masking them with the vanity and arrogance of false spiritual powers. We may suffer, but we do so with faith, hope, and generiosity of spirit. We allow that very suffering to transform us into greater vessels of compassion and kindness, greater instruments of God’s grace, and thus more fully realize our union with God.
To close, I offer one of my poems that addresses the waxing and waning of mystical awarness:
A Rose Needs to Bloom
O Beloved One,
how often I wish You were here with me,
always here in the flesh to receive
the misty gaze of adoration from these eyes,
the trembling touch of affection from these hands,
the husky whispers of appreciation from these lips.
Oh that I might see Your acceptance
of such spontaneous offerings
in the joyful sparkle of Your eyes,
hear it in the soothing tones of Your voice,
feel it in the welcoming warmth of Your embrace.
But You are the oracle of my soul,
my Cherished One,
knowing my heart and mind
from within their deepest depths.
So I would be a fool not to know
that the need to have this love expressed
is not Your need but my own.
I need it as surely as a rose needs to bloom
simply because it is a rose.
In this pining I believe I feel
something of the bittersweet pain
of Lazarus or the Magdalene,
reborn, renewed, bursting with gratitude,
and then losing You so soon,
always in hopeful longing
to be near You once more.
Yet You remind me that Your spirit
is ever near, both within and without.
O my sun and rain,
my fertile earth and restful night,
You feed this rose to bloom
and be seen by You through the eyes,
and felt with the skin
and in the heart
of everyone I meet.