There are times we must seek God in darkness, times when God’s goodness and love are difficult to spot. As a pastor, there is no more difficult time when I see people seek God than when they bury their child. At times like this, understanding is in short supply. As I’ve said before, the death of children is perhaps the best argument there is for atheism. But the occasion of this writing is a bit more personal. Today we bury my cousin Matt, who died of a rare disease at 33 years old.
This is senseless.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that God is love, I believe in the redemption of the world through Christ and in the gifts of the Spirit. I do not grieve as one who has no hope. (1 Thess. 4:13) But I also know that 33 year olds are not supposed to die.
I was listening to a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio the other day and came across this quote from Gregory of Nyssa, the great Cappadocian Father. Though I studied a bit of Nyssa with Professor Warren Smith at Duke, this particular quote was new to me. In Life of Moses, Nyssa allegorizes the ascent to God through Moses’ biography. There we find this remarkable passage, in which Moses finds God’s presence in the darkness on Sinai in Exodus 19:
[Moses] teaches, I think, by the things he did that the one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and—lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible—believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.
It is important to remember that Nyssa’s assessment is not an invitation to agnosticism or Unitarianism. The end of the apophatic search is the Holy Trinity. The God one meets in the darkness, when understanding fails and night is thick, is none other than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For Nyssa, the image here is of spiritual growth in God. In his Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles, he notes
Moses’ vision of God began with light; afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness.
The spiritual beginner thus may not see God in the darkness. This gift is the result of a spiritual ascent from the visible, to the to hazy, and onward until finally all is night. As martyrs and monastics have found throughout history, God can be sought and found even in the most bleak circumstances, even when it appears that He has totally left the scene.
This makes me think anew of Jesus’ cry of dereliction when, borrowing language from Psalm 22 to express the mysterious agony of his existential abandonment, he prays from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)
If we find it difficult to follow Nyssa on this point, let us at least look to Christ, who in the midst of suffering too profound for words still called out to the Father. God was there, even if understanding was not.
Today I will gather with many who will seek God where rational thought has failed. We will bury someone who died too young, who suffered too much. I pray we all have the courage, with Moses, to look for God even in this dark place.
I am grateful that this is the Easter season, and that, in John Paul II’s words, we are despite all things an “Easter people.” Nothing, then, can separate us from God’s love – not the darkness of death, not the evil of a life cut short, not the insanity of diseases without cure in an age that seems so advanced.
Christ is risen, so we will gather in faith, sing alleluia, and thumb our noses at the darkness. For Matt is with God, and God is present even here, even now, where the understanding does not reach.
you judge us with infinite mercy and justice
and love everything you have made.
We rejoice in your promises of pardon, joy and peace
to all who love you.
In your mercy turn the darkness of death
into the dawn of new life,
and the sorrow of parting into the joy of heaven;
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
who died, who rose again,
and lives for evermore.
Source for Nyssa quotes here.
Prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book funeral liturgy, found here.
Full text of Life of Moses available here.