God in Hiding
We must understand that a vital strategy in the Lover’s pursuit of His beloved, is to withdraw from her. We are engaged in a dance, in which the Lover is made manifest to us, just long enough to capture our attention before fleeing back again into the shadows.
Unless the Lord hides His face from us for a season, we are never stripped of our soulish frivolity to the point of sheer faith – faith being the only substance we can offer to God with which He is truly pleased, apart from love itself. And as we know, love is quite easily feigned and most often misunderstood as strictly the substance of emotion and sentimentality. Though it most assuredly involves these things, love is far richer a concept. It is laced with the truth and terror, the sacrifice and volatility of God Himself. Its depths cannot be charted or explored without, at times, a volitional estrangement from emotion and the lower states of the soul. Much of what we call love is self-centered fluff.
For the beloved, true love is still too elusive a concept to grasp as we enter the third chapter of the Canticles. We are left in chapter two with her pleas for Him to return to her in His earlier fashion, “turn my Lover, and be like a gazelle or like a young stag” – this being the likeness of His former visitation in the Song. How often have we pleaded with God to reveal Himself in the same way He did before? In the way we came to adore, when our heart first swelled with anticipation? We built monuments around that old well, that old movement, that old revival. The place is littered with sentimental relics of a day gone by, and we continue to ask God to operate as He did back then.
But those whose hearts were truly enlivened in that day have come to understand, in their inmost being, that the living flame of divine love no longer burns around those old relics as it once did. Though we all play the same old ritual and sing the same old songs, everybody knows. Though the form and structure remains the same, there is an awareness that the spark of life no longer dances in those old statuaries. Ichabod, the glory has departed. Something within her – not the slave woman who has fully come to idolize the old forms, but rather the remnant of the beloved who still remembers what those forms once represented – something within her still cries out that there is something more. And so we suddenly find her, here in the throes of the dark night, longing to see the one her heart adores past the shadows of confusion, isolation and the aridity of the soul. She tosses and turns over the hope of a deeper communion she has never really tasted, yet somehow she knows it exists.
All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves; I looked for Him but did not find Him. I will get up now and go about the city, through its streets and squares; I will search for the one my heart loves. So I looked for Him but did not find Him (Song 3:1-2).
We see a number of transitions in this passage, and there is no need to point out the obvious. She is stepping out past the complacency and immaturity of soulish fancy. From dreaming on her bed to putting feet and action behind her love. She is stepping out of the window and reaching into the cold, dark night. She willingly steps out of a place of comfort and security into what may seem like an irrational void. She risks a pointless pursuit, and seemingly, that is what she gets. “I looked for Him but did not find Him.”
Those who have faced spiritual disappointment. Those whose hopes and dreams have at some point crumbled, understand this feeling of divine distance far too well. It is one thing to lean on the false comfort of the appetites, then to have them removed. It is altogether another thing to become dependent on a preconceived framework for the divine, just to have the rug pulled out from under you.
The dark night has several fundamental purposes. Foremost is to strengthen, out of sheer necessity, our belief in the substance of things not seen. To simply believe that He is. Beyond all feeling, learning and even experience – to know on a primal level that He is. And secondly, if not equally important: to believe that He is good. The desert is a gift to us, in that it allows us to consolidate our misconceptions, insecurities and slavish fears regarding God into one lump sum and then put the whole nasty mother to death. In the desert, between Egypt and the Jordan, we are transformed from slaves into warriors.
Yes, it is necessary that God hides from us, so that our dependence is not built upon an experience of Him, or even on facts about Him – but rather, our dependence is placed strictly on Him and Him alone. Trusting in the one who is unseen and unfelt is a required rite of passage. Blessed is he who has not seen, and yet believes.
As I said, we are engaged in a dance, in which the Lover is made manifest to us, just long enough to capture our attention before fleeing back again into the shadows. In this we are allured, not by manipulative advances and false starts. But in fact, we are allured to the soul’s graveyard, where we chase our Lover into those self-same shadows until we lose ourselves. And all the time, unknowingly, we are falling headlong into Him. In the end we will see that He was with us all along.
The soul must become detached from its perceptions of God, in order to make room for Him. In this, I do not advocate the utter detachment of the darker mystics. We are not called to a lifestyle of nihilistic, stoic withdrawal. However, the Lord does delight in suspending our senses, putting to death the lower passions of the soul, in order to relate with us on a higher plane of spiritual consciousness.
The key here is to allow the Lord to do His own hiding. Instead, we are the ones most often hiding from Him in the name of maturity and prudence. We choose our deserts and detachments, even when He, in no way, is calling us to go there. We would often rather run to our own religious, nihilistic corner, then enshrine the sepulcher as if it were the destination, instead of a momentary, often unnecessary tool. We think that God’s hiding is a cat and mouse game, and in slavish spite, we seek to turn the tables and demand that He pursue us for a change. We are quite unaware that He has been doing this very thing the entire time.
Thank God that, in our self-imposed isolation and self-destructive self-pity (the kind we enter sulkily when he reappears without explaining His absence), he does not enable our bitterness. But like Jonah, He sends a worm to eat away at our shade tree and add to our self-imposed misery until we choose to snap out of it. We can have a desert if we want one, but the Christian walk is much more full of life and liberty than the stale mess kit we’ve been shoveled.