AN ABSENT LORD?

“And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20b). “If I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). These two sayings of Christ appear to contradict each other. Christ is clearly not with us, since we are awaiting His second coming, so it is true to say that He left us. On the other hand, He is always personally with and among us, even to the point that He gives us his true Body and Blood as our spiritual food. Without the Blessed Sacrament of His flesh, like helpless infants, our souls would surely starve. In this sense, then, it is true to say that since He rose on the cross, Jesus has never left us—or, more precisely, we have never left Him on the cross through the celebration of the Mass.

Do we not feel the pain of this separation from Jesus during prayer? He is truly with us, and unless we abandon Him we are never without Him. We may even seek His physical presence, be in the same room as the living Lord. Why is it, then, that even when we are with Jesus He feels very far away? How can it be that He is with us, but we are waiting for Him to come back? Just as our physicality provides a mode of interaction with each other, it seems also to remove a mode of interaction with the Lord. We might call this the phenomenological “night” of prayer, or the divide between what we know about prayer and what we often experience in prayer.

There are, perhaps, no better words to express this than those in the Song of Solomon. Since the lines are so beautiful, let me quote at some length:

“Upon my bed at night

I sought him whom my soul loves;

I sought him, but found him not;

I called him, but he gave no answer.

‘I will rise now and go about the city,

in the streets and in the squares;

I will seek him whom my soul loves.’

I sought him, but found him not.

The watchmen found me,

as they went about the city.

‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’

Scarcely had I passed them,

when I found him whom my soul loves.

I held him, and would not let him go

until I had brought him into my mother’s house,

and into the chamber of her that conceived me.

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,

by the gazelles or the hinds of the field,

that you stir not up nor awaken love until it please.”  Song of Solomon 3:1-5 (RSV)

Another passage describes a similar scene:

“I opened to my beloved,

but my beloved had turned and gone.

My soul failed me when he spoke.

I sought him, but found him not;

I called him, but he gave no answer.

The watchmen found me,

as they went about in the city;

They beat me, they wounded me,

they took away my mantle,

those watchmen of the walls.

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,

if you find my beloved,

that you tell him,

I am sick with love.”  Song of Solomon 5:6-8 (RSV)

The Bride (the Church, and as her members, our own selves) is seeking the Bridegroom (Jesus). She longs for Him and expects to find Him. Notice that she is not afraid; she anticipates His coming with extreme enthusiasm. “My beloved put his hand to the latch, / and my heart was thrilled within me. / I arose to open to my beloved …” (Song 5:4-5). Suddenly, He who was at the door is not there. Instead, the Bride wanders lonely through the dark streets of the city, surrounded by strange watchmen who do not understand her longing, who even harm her.

When we stretch out in prayer, put our hand to the latch, and open the door to our beloved Spouse, sometimes we do not see that He is there. He truly seems absent; and in a very real sense He is absent from us. The Gospel according to Matthew (above) makes clear that it is through Christ’s departure and absence that we as the Church receive the Holy Spirit. Something similar seems to be true in prayer. Sometimes Jesus shows us His heart when we are looking for it; other times He withholds His heart and leads us in darkness. 

Reading these passages of Song of Solomon, then, let me offer two reflections. First: Jesus wants us to seek Him in prayer. He wants us to seek Him as diligently as He pursues us. So, in the first quotation above, the Bride does not find the Bridegroom until she passes through the city and the watch. At first, he allows her to be alone. She becomes “sick with love.” The Bridegroom leaves her no secure signs to teach her where to wander, and she is lost until he appears again.

Second: God is always more active during our prayer than we are. Dry, poor prayers are very pleasing to Him, since they allow Him to work in our hearts more effectively, to steal ourselves to Him. On a human level, however, it is difficult to pray at these times. Boredom, distraction, discomfort, and despondency cloud the heart from being stirred by love, and Jesus even at times puts His hand over the eyes of the mind so that it is unable to meditate in prayer. This prayer, then, is a kind of night, the same kind of night through which the Bride wanders before she finds her Lover. How easy it is not to pray with perseverance! And how many distractions and temptations during prayer overcome me, for one, even when I am strong enough to pray regularly, so that despite what I see by faith, I nevertheless feel alone, foolish, ineffective, half-hearted, blind. But I am renewed by scripture, urged not to waste these experiences, but rather, recognizing that Jesus is calling me to offer Him my tepidity as well as my constancy, to settle into prayer, saying, “I will seek him whom my soul loves” (Song 3:2).

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At the National Eucharistic Congress, Decided Excellence Catholic Media - with the help of Bishop William Waltersheid - will be presenting "Beautiful Revelation: The Eucharistic Timeline". Throughout human history, God has left repeated proof of His presence in the Eucharist and that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Salvation. God has given us the wisdom. Have you taken the time to understand? Read this spiritual journey through time to examine critical moments that God uses to reveal the truth of the Body of Christ.

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