Saturday, February 6, 2016


Recently I’ve encountered a few people, either in person or in print, who have serious problems believing in a God who does not meet their particular criteria. Then yesterday Abbot Melvin gave each of the monks a copy of a sermon for Lent by the great theologian and mystic, Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J. (1904-1984). He was a major influence on 20th-century Roman Catholic thought. In his work he attempts to reinterpret traditional Roman Catholic theology in the light of modern philosophical thought. His sermons, such as the one below, reflect that same goal.  

This is heavier stuff than I usually post on this blog, but if you’re game, you might want to try using for some Lenten reading. If it turns out to be too heavy, you can look at the labels column to the left and click on “Lent”  for some lighter fare. I've put some emphases in the text myself just to help break up the long text.

"My Night Knows No Darkness"  by Karl Rahner, S. J.
Even today, the liturgical year of the church has a time dedicated to penance.  Does this not seem strange?  We certainly understand that in former centuries such at time was considered necessary for the management of the spiritual and the religious life.  People back then were full of life’s joy, satisfied and carefree, and they celebrated Mardi Gras in the streets and laughed the laughter that still came from the heart.  Therefore, they could presumably experience a brief period of recollection, of contemplative seriousness, and of ascetic restraint from life’s luxuries as a beneficial change from everyday life and for the good of the soul.
What about us?  Do we not consider the proclamation of the church about the start of a time of seriousness, contemplation, and fasting as something strangely surreal, and do we not see a “time of fasting” as a slightly dusty ceremony left over from the good old days?  How is such a time relevant for us today with our many needs, our hopelessness with regard to this world, our bitter hearts, our sense that we would be willing to fast as long as it did not mean going hungry?
In the present time our fasting, our Lenten season, starts long before Ash Wednesday, and will continue far beyond the forty days until Easter.  It is a time so real that during this liturgically set period of penance we need not use this time as a convenient occasion for sentimentality, as is done in political speeches.  The non-liturgical time of our present Lenten life looks harder and more difficult to us than any period of deprivation in generations past.  Yes, we are suffering to some degree from a need to be filled and the absence of a carefree safe life, as well as from the fact that we sit in darkness and in the shadow of death; however, mostly – if one dare say so – we are suffering from a sense that God is far away.  God is distant from us.
This is not a statement that is true for everyone.  It is not a statement that should trouble those hearts that are full of God.  But it also is not a statement saying that people can at least take pride in their ability to experience the infinite through the bitterness of their hearts.  It is not a statement that promotes a human trait that should never be lost or that God should make sure to preserve in order to give us his nearness and the certainty of his blessed love, as if desperation could enlarge the human heart more than happiness.  To declare one’s distance from God a noble human trait (as do some interpretations of human existence that call themselves existential philosophy) is sinful and stupid and perverse.  Such a distance from God in many people is a fact and demands an explanation; it is a sorrow, the deepest sorrow of our Lenten life for as long as we journey apart from the Lord.
Distance from God does not mean here that a person is denying God’s existence or indifferently ignoring it in life.  Such an understanding is often, though not always, a wrong interpretation of the state that is meant here.  Rather, distance from God here means something that can equally, if not mostly, exist in those who believe in God, long for God, and look for God’s light and sanctifying nearness.  Even believers – and they especially – can and often are made to experience the fact that God appears as someone rather unreal, that God is mute and silently rejecting, as if he were framing our existence only as an empty, distant horizon in whose labyrinth of infinity our thoughts and the desires of our hearts are utterly lost.  Distance from God says that our spirit has grown tired of the unsolved riddles, that our spirit has grown despondent over the unanswered prayers, and that we are tempted to see “God” only as one of those ultimate yet untrustworthy affirmations under which people repeatedly hide their own desperation, even though this desperation, too, has lost the strength to take itself seriously.  God appears to us only as this bodiless, inaccessible infinity that, to make matters worse, seems to make even more finite and questionable our small piece of existence and makes us feel even more homeless in this world, since it seduces us into a vast longing that we ourselves cannot satisfy and that God seemingly cannot either.
Yes, it appears as if Western people today have to suffer and do penance in the
“purgatory” of feeling distant from God more so than people of previous times.  If individuals can experience, apart from the blessed moment of feeling close to God, the nights of the spiritual senses where the eternity of the living God draws near by the fact that God appears more distant and inapproachable, why should nations and continents not have similar experiences, so that theirs can somehow become the holy fate of all?  The fact that this dismal condition may have been occasioned by the sins of an entire era does not preclude it from being a felix culpa, a blessed guilt.
Seen from this angle, the theoretical and practical atheism that many people express today is a wrong, impatient, and one-sided response to such a condition and is reactionary in the truest sense of the word, for it is still a clinging to the rather childlike notion that God needs to be near before worship is possible, and that when such nearness is not present one no longer understands God and can even say that God does not exist.  Today’s atheism becomes then the willful refusal to mature in the dark purgatory of a debris-covered heart for the sake of the God who is always greater than the God who was perceived and loved the previous day.
But enough of that!  The sense of feeling distant from God exists and touches believers and non-believers alike, confuses the mind, and frightens the heart.  Believers do not like to admit to it because they think that something like that should not happen to them, despite the fact that their Lord himself cried out: My God, why have you forsaken me?  And the others, the non-believers, draw the wrong conclusions from it.
This is just over half of the sermon. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Have a blessed Lent!

1 comment:

  1. God has His mystics, and satan has his.

    Have a fruitful lent. Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, pray for us!