The Glorious Suffering of Divine Absence

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” James 1:2

Taking a break from B for today, I recently read the following tale in Peter Rollin’s The Orthodox Heretic (paraphrased for blogging):

There was once a rich and kind father who lived with his two sons in a lavish mansion. But late one evening, in the very dead of night, the father packed a few small items and left quietly.

The first son awoke the next day and, upon discovering his father’s disappearance, continued with his chores religiously.  Days passed into months, and these months gradually dissolved into years.  Through his work, the son buried the fact that his father had abandoned him deep within himself, where it festered silently.

The other son also refused to face up to the pain of his father’s abandonment. In confusion and fear he took his share of the father’s inheritance and ran away, losing himself in worldly distractions of all kinds.  No matter where he went, though, he couldn’t escape the sorrow in his heart.  He soon found himself destitute and poor, working on a pig farm, where he shared the scraps he fed to the animals just so he could eat.  After months of this living, he faced up to his father’s disappearance and returned home.

When he finally returned, he found his brother still toiling away at the land, suppressing the memory of the abandonment.  The brother resented the one who had squandered his inheritance, but the other brother paid no heed to his animosity, and set his gaze on a deeper concern. Each day he would carefully ready a calf for slaughter and lay out his father’s favorite cloak in preparation for a great feast of celebration. Once he had done this, he would then sit by the entrance to the mansion and wait for his father’s return.  He waits there to this very day with forgiveness and longing in his heart for the prodigal father.

– “The Prodigal Father,” Peter Rollins

This interesting take on the parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15 discusses something I would consider to be very alien and perhaps disturbing to the American church, that of divine withdrawal. In our churches we like to think of God as always near, as a “very present help in time of trouble,” but the fact is that many theologians for hundreds of years have come to know God through his absence, such as St. John of the Cross in The Dark Night of the Soul or the unknown monk in The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling.  Often this is known as apophatic theology, and “seeks to respect the wonder and majesty of the divine, and draw out how God’s presence is never full presence, not simply because of our limits, but because of God’s uncontainable nature.” (Rollins, 78)

What’s even more disturbing for some is the idea of God actually leaving us. It’s not an uncommon idea, especially not in Scripture. From the angry Psalmist to Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?” divine abandonment exists to help us understand the need for our faithfulness to God even when he seems to not be keeping his promises to us.  These cries to God reflect our deep longing for him, and make, therefore, our suffering into pure joy.  In our culture, which fears suffering and longs for pleasure and happiness, this is a disturbing thought.

See you tomorrow.

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