When God Crushes Us
How can we pray when God’s silence crushes us?
Therese of Lisieux is known today as the Little Flower. Icons depict her holding roses with the sweet smile of a young girl. Yet, her witness is anything but saccharine. She suffered terribly in her final days while dying with tuberculosis. What was worse than her aching pain was the internal warfare. “[God] permitted my soul to be swamped by the thickest darkness,” she said, “so that the thought of heaven which had been so sweet to me became nothing but a subject of bitterness and torment.” Some consider her the patron saint of atheists. She was attacked by thoughts of a godless universe, and prophesied that these numbing thoughts would arrive like a plague in the modern world.
How can we pray when God’s silence crushes us? How can we endure feelings of abandonment? There are times when God’s grace bathes our soul and overwhelms with joy. There are other seasons when you cannot feel God at all.
The saints often suffered a dark night of the soul, and their example teaches us how to persevere and triumph.
King David often despaired, “I am numb and badly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart” (Psalm 38:8). Job wallowed in existential abandonment: “Should [God] come near me, I see him not; should he pass by, I am not aware of him” (Job 9:11). St. Silouan describes the dark night that can inflict us for years: “The soul feels her fall from light as a spiritual death. God has wounded our heart with love and then departed…an austere struggle which may last for years…many, many years.” One philosopher calls the 21st century, “a flattened human universe where the escapes are boredom and distraction” (J. K. Smith).
Today, we read from the Gospel of St. Matthew, about a woman of Canaan. She was born and raised in an ancient culture, shrouded in darkness, where occultism, slavery, and child sacrifice were the norm. Her daughter is tormented by a demon. Many of us have watched a friend get dragged down by addiction or seen a child battle psychological illnesses. If you have, you can sympathize with the Canaanite women. She is hurting. She is a reject, and is so broken that she cannot even talk to Jesus Christ like a normal human being.
“Ekérazen, legousa, Elehson me.”
Ekérazen comes from the Greek word, krazw, which literally means shouting or bawling like a maniac. It is an onomatopoeic word. Her cry to Jesus Christ sounded like the hoarse cry of a raven or the barking of an animal.
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
Where can someone turn is such desperation? Her people cannot help her. The Jews certainly will not help her. The world has nothing to offer. She is hopeless and alone. So she turns to God. Then what?
“But he did not answer her at all.”
God is silent.
She turns to heaven and is rejected. Her prayers hit a wall — nothingness. At this moment, the Canaanite woman represents every man or woman today who feels spiritually starved. She prayed to God. She begged for His mercy. She looks up at the universe. What does she find? The atheist Richard Dawkins sums up her experience and the feeling of many who do not believe: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
“[She] came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But [God] did not answer her at all.”
Now the Canaanite does something that Richard Dawkins will never do. Heaven is silent and she keeps crying out.
“She came and knelt before him.” She got down on the dust and kept praying, ‘Lord, help me.’
She is like the widow who kept banging on the doors of the judge, demanding justice. That women was relentless too, and because of her fervor got her justice. “Will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? (Luke 18:1-8). The Canaanite woman cries out relentlessly. Does she get what she wants?
The moment arrives. Jesus Christ speaks. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Can you imagine? Heaven was absent for so long. God was silent. Finally, a crack bursts open in the wall between heaven and earth. God reveals himself. God answers her prayers, and God’s answer is painful.
After all her suffering, after all her vain prayers, she meets God face to face and God calls her a dog. The universe is suspended. The disciples are silent. The angels are silent. The sun and the moon are probably pensive at this moment. Now what?
This is not just about the Canaanite woman. This is about all of us. We too will stand exactly where she stands. When judgment day arrives, all humanity will stand before the judgment seat. Everyone who searched for God, everyone who doubted God, everyone who suffered through life wondering where is God, will meet God.
It is not easy to stand before God. Everything is revealed. We will see Him in all His beauty and perfection, and we will see ourselves in all our blemishes. For one moment of agonizing silence, we will stand before him like this Canaanite woman. How will we respond?
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Christ marvelled! “‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
God knows we are broken. God knows we are make a mess of things. He also knows we struggle with hurt and doubts. At times, he even steps back and gives us a taste of life without Him. But he never really abandons us. Even in the darkest moments He is there, waiting with magnificent love. Will we persevere? Will we surrender ourselves to Him?
St. Gregory Palamas praises this woman as a true hero. “Let us learn from this teacher with how much patience, humility and contrition we must persevere in our prayers. Even if we are unworthy, and even if we are sent away because we are soiled with sins, let us learn not to turn back, but to keep humbly asking from our soul.”
May our Lord teach us to persevere.