The greatest nothing I ever felt
When I first stepped into the chapel at my Christ Renews His Parish retreat this weekend, I felt a sense of nervous anticipation. My eyes gradually adjusted to the candle-lit room as we all filed into the pews for a moment of Adoration, and I gazed up at the monstrance on the altar. The movement of the swaying candlelight lent an ethereal feel to the room, and the ancient sounds of Gregorian chant lifted us out of the building off of I-35 in twenty-first century America and took us to some place where time and place were irrelevant and only God mattered.
If I were ever going to have a religious experience, it would be here.
Other women began to sniffle and lean their heads on the pews, and I grabbed a couple Kleenex from the box next to me for when my own powerful experience began. As regular readers know, God rarely speaks to me so clearly as when I’m in Adoration (as I talked about in my posts about the Adoration list and my moment of surrender on food issues), and it seemed inevitable that going to Adoration in such a beautiful chapel surrounded by such God-loving women at such a Christ-centered retreat would leave me open to the Lord’s promptings as never before. I crossed myself, prayed, gazed at the monstrance, and waited.
And waited some more.
I felt nothing, I heard nothing, so I said another prayer asking God to speak to me. I even did that thing where I make my inner chatterbox shut up for a minute so that I can just listen and see where the Lord seems to be leading my thoughts. Still nothing. My thoughts were only led to the facts that I had a slight headache and the room was cold.
When I looked up at the monstrance, I did not sense the Lord’s presence at all. If I am to be totally honest, my gut reaction was, “That really does look like it’s just a wafer.”
I leaned back in the pew, tucking my Kleenex into my pocket since I obviously wouldn’t be needing it, and looked around the room, casually glancing from the typed note about conserving energy on the thermostat to a clump of dust hanging from the ceiling.
As the minutes ticked past and I remained entirely unmoved by the experience, I waited for the inevitable frustration to bubble up within me. Based on how it usually goes, this was the part where I was supposed to silently rage at God, asking why I cannot hear his voice when so many other people seem to be able to, begging him to give me some sort of sign that he is there, demanding that he make me overcome with excitement every time my eyes fall on his Presence in the monstrance. I waited and waited, but it never came.
I felt fine. Actually, I felt great. I might not have had the pleasant emotions I wanted, but I had something else…perhaps, to my surprise, something even better.
It occurred to me that the knowledge and experiences God has given me over the past few years, along with the grace of the sacraments, has left me in a place that is best described not in terms of belief versus doubt, but simply in terms of awareness. Sometimes through reading and thinking, sometimes through great “coincidences” and seeing his hand at work in my life, I’ve been brought to a place where I no longer even think of it in terms of whether or not God exists — “exists” being a weak word with an obvious antonym, implying that nonexistence is possible. To say that something “exists” usually has the unspoken implication of a transitory state, since every material thing in the universe will eventually cease to exist. Duck-billed platypuses exist; spiral galaxies exist; I exist. The English language doesn’t have a proper word to describe the state of being of God, who always was and always will be, who is more real than reality, other than to simply say that God is.
I realized that this relatively new understanding of God gave me a certain kind of joy. It wasn’t a shout-from-the-rooftops, overwhelming kind of joy borne of a powerful visceral reaction to some event; rather, it was the calm, steady, quiet joy borne of knowledge of the truth. In place of the feelings I might have hoped for, I felt a great freedom — an emancipation from emotion.
Who knows why I couldn’t hear God’s voice or feel his presence the way I often do in Adoration: maybe I was too tired, maybe it was the headache, maybe there was a reason God wasn’t speaking to me the same way he usually does. But a smile spread across my face when I realized it didn’t matter, and it never would. I don’t know why it had never occurred to me until that moment, but there in that pew I could finally appreciate just how liberating it is to know that my fickle emotions change not a single thing about God. So often I had often carried with me, hidden in the back of my mind, a worry about future spiritual dry spells. “What if I don’t feel God at work in my life next week? What if I face a problem and it doesn’t seem like God is there? What if I go to Adoration and I don’t feel anything?” My whole body physically relaxed as I let those worries pour out of me.
As I looked up at what looked like just a wafer in the monstrance, again feeling nothing inside, I felt the quiet peace, the silent joy of being able to rest in the knowledge that its power comes not from how I feel about, but from what — or, rather who – it is. I basked in the presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament and all around me, aware of him not because I felt him, but because he was there.