Our souls come from beyond, and that fire of yearning desire we experience is that “beyond” trying to draw us back to itself. Saint Augustine taught that our souls are filled institutes of consecrated life. He also said that our souls are filled with restlessness until they rest in God. There is no sense denying it. We are all restless. Some of us don’t know what we are restless for. It can take a lifetime to put a name on it and then only after traveling many roads toward dead ends.
In a modern translation of The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth-century anonymous work of Christian mysticism, Redemptorist Fr. Dennis Billy instructs us in our desire for union with God that we have to lift up our hearts to the Lord “with a gentle stirring of love.” In the beginning of the spiritual life, the Lord oftentimes bestows on the initiate a tender sweetness in his presence. It is so easy to pray, to meditate on the mysteries of the life of Christ, to place ourselves before him and to feel his tender touch. Then it is as if he says: “Come out into the deep.” The deep is dark and scary. There are no consolations or warm gentle breezes, and we are anything but sure-footed on a tremulous sea. God seems hidden, even absent behind a heavy cloud that we are trying to, as The Cloud teaches, pierce with our darts of love. This can go on for days, months, even years, as in the case of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
When I personally experienced this struggle, my spiritual mentor counseled: “Don’t give up prayer! Stay with it. Light will eventually come.” He asked me if I was seeking the consolations of God or the God of consolation. I had to admit that I was searching for both. The yearning was viscerally palpable. The words of the Song of Songs at a gut-wrenching level, became my own: “On my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves—I sought him but I did not find him” (Song of Songs 3:1).
With all the trials we face, it would be easy to
think God has abandoned us. But that’s not the case. God is love, and we are made in his
image and likeness. Nonetheless, God lives in light inaccessible and is blinding to the naked eye. We yearn to see him, but if we did we could no longer exist on the earth.
Once, as a home-health nurse, I cared for a patient in the hills of West Virginia. He had suffered in a bodily prison of terminal illness for many months. His home was many miles away from our office, and by the time I arrived at the large family farm house there were no signs of life in him; no blood pressure, no movement of the diaphragm, no carotid pulse. His daughter was exceedingly distraught over her father’s apparently visible death. I asked if she would like to say a prayer with me and she answered, “Yes.” We laid our hands on his shoulder and began: “Our Father….” With those words he sat bolt upright in the bed with his arms flailing out to the sides. His head tilted upward and his wide-opened gaze fixated straight ahead, as if he was seeing something unimaginable. His daughter and I were totally taken aback. We don’t know what he was seeing or experiencing, but it astounded him and he was speechless. Two times I whispered in his ear: “Do you see the Lord? Go! Go to him.” He then took one last breath, lay gently back on his pillow and was gone.
Reflecting on this incident over the years, I recalled a passage from the writings of St. John of the Cross where he speaks of a soul going out all unseen while the house is still and quiet. My patient really left his earthly home and reached for the eternal. The room was wrapped in stillness as sister death approached. His passions and appetites were subdued and there was nothing else to do but surrender. He did.