At its core, all literature is about identity—a search to understand who we are as we grapple with our unnatural separation from God. We were created to see a face that we are too sinful to behold. Ultimately, the problem of suffering and the hiddenness of God are two sides of a coin. This is the crux of it: no matter how terrible the trial, if we could only see him, it might be ok. But he seems silent.
2021 was a year of great tragedy for my family—grief and hardship which I was helpless to prevent. In 2022, I looked up and said, “What now? And where is God?” Through the books I read, I joined the great conversation that has been happening for millennia, listening to thoughts on suffering from the great minds that have gone before. Through literature, I see through the eyes of giants. Here are their answers.
For some, the pain of God’s hiddenness is muted, lived through small lives of quiet desperation. In Brideshead Revisited, protagonist Captain Charles Ryder in drawn to this desperation in Julia, the woman he loves:
Julia wore the embroidered Chinese robe which she often used when we were dining alone at Brideshead; it was a robe whose weight and stiff folds stressed her repose; her neck rose exquisitely from the plain gold circle at her throat; he hands lay still among the dragons in her lap…And it came back to me that this was how she had sat in the liner, before the storm; this was how she had looked; and I realized that she had regained what I thought she had lost for ever, the magical sadness which had drawn me to her, the thwarted look that had seemed to say, “Surely I was made for some other purpose than this?”
Eventually, for Julia comes the point of no return, the loss of capacity for the thwarted look. This is the gift of suffering—it picks us up, shakes us by the shoulders, and shouts, “There is more to life than this!” The resounding response is stillness and silence. In Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, Martin Laird repeats Simone Weil’s assertion that every separation is a link. Our very separation from God is the place where we find him.
One of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life is that our struggles are not separate from the luminous vastness within each of us. We don’t get rid of the struggle to discover this open space; nor does its discovery necessarily rid us of our struggles. The riddle of the obstacle is solved not by pushing it away or by holding on to it, but by meeting it with silence and by discovering in this meeting that sacred ground, which upholds both joy and sorrow, but struggle and freedom from struggle. When we realize this we will struggle less with our struggles and we will have solved by our own silence the riddles that guard the doorway into the silent land.
We find beauty and hope in the silent land. Wise ones tell us to embrace stillness. In times of trial, T. S. Eliot’s poetry often becomes my prayers. In “East Coker”, he writes:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
So often our suffering is extended by waiting for and demanding the wrong thing. Yet in stillness, I realized that God is not hidden, but I am blind. Profoundly moved by Dante’s depiction of Purgatory, I began to open my hands and pray for sight. Like Dante,
I climb that I may be no longer blind.
Sight is a gift of grace. It is the closest that we can come to an answer this side of heaven. In Till We Have Faces, Orual makes a complaint against the gods. Ironically, she has seen the face of the god, but it is not enough. Rooted in self-hatred, her vision is distorted; grasping, she devours those around her. At last, when she reads her precious complaint aloud, she realizes that it is semi-unintelligible, a pathetic thing.
The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered.
After a seemingly endless season of desperate prayer, when God answered it no longer mattered as I thought it would. The true answer was the prayer itself. As we bring our defective and excessive loves, they are righted as we behold his divine love. In Revelation of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich exhorts,
Under his watchfulness we fall; by his blessed love and strength and wisdom we are defended; and through mercy and through grace we are lifted up to many joys.
Whenever we contemplate what is forbidden, our Lord touches us tenderly and calls us kindly, saying to our soul, ‘Forget this fancy. Turn to me. I am enough for you. Rejoice in your saviour and your salvation.’
This is our Lord’s will: that we trust him and search for him, enjoy him and delight in him, and comfort and strengthen ourselves, as by his help and grace we may, until such time as we see him face to face.
May the Lord bless you and keep you in this year to come.