An atheist intellectual I met once said to me, ‘I wish I was a Catholic who could believe that lighting a candle for someone in trouble did any good.’ It’s an attitude to faith that many non-believers have, wishing they weren’t so intelligent and free of illusion so they could have the false comfort of believing in an illusion.
What difference does lighting a candle make? Or the Eucharist? Or any of the kinds of prayer that might seem to relieve our anxiety or loneliness but don’t make any difference to the cause of the problem. Like buying a lottery ticket, we know we won’t win but buy it anyway.
‘Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.’ In times of distress, especially, these words can be fatally misinterpreted. What they truly mean can only be understood when we have discovered what they don’t mean. Discovering their truth shakes our idea of God to its roots, and dissolves long held and cherished illusions about ourselves as a child of God. Children have strong expectations. For example, you cry out in your valley of darkness for an end to the pain, for relief or a good outcome of all you are going through. During the First World war the solders in the trenches would hear their wounded companions dying alone all night in no man’s land. At first, they would cry out to God to save them. Just before they died, they would simply be calling for their mother.
Appealing to God, from a sincere heart, to change things when they become unbearable may bring relief. But when the prayer comes back unanswered, ‘return to sender’, and things continue to get worse, relief changes to bewilderment and despair. How can God be so cruel, so unresponsive to his children? It is then that our version of God begins to die.
The gods of the ancient world, who depended on human devotion and credulity, began to disappear as people ceased to believe in them and transferred their loyalty to the new gods. False gods are always dying and new ones being born. But it is very hard to discover and accept that the God we are praying too with such heartfelt hope is silent because he doesn’t exist.
Yet that same terrible, negative silence can turn into the true silence of the living God. We have to endure it, sit in it, learn to wait without hope because hope would be hope for the wrong thing. The sterile emptiness of the dead space of our old faith becomes pregnant, how or when we don’t know. As the new-born and true God grows in us we feel a hope and joy in the stirring of life. This is the desert spirituality of Lent – allowing the newly-conceived to be formed in our enduring waiting without anything we may think of as hope. And finding, against the odds, joy even in the midst of suffering.