Let Me Know You:
Steps in Discovering The Hidden God
Donald X. Burt, OSA
Originally presented on Wednesday - March 26, 2003
Introduction: Climbing the Mountain
Three of the four gospel writers tell the story of the first time human beings were called to ascend a mountain to see the transfigured Jesus-God. Matthew gives the following description of the event: Six days after his first prediction of his passion and death, Jesus took Peter, James and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. And his face shone as the sun, and his garments became white as snow. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking together with him. Then Peter addressed Jesus, saying, “Lord it is good for us to be here!” Matt 17:1-4
I have always felt that “climbing a mountain” is a fitting analogy for the story of our lives. All of us are searching for some “hill of transfiguration” and would dearly like to receive an invitation like the one given by Jesus to his three friends, the invitation to climb with him to the top of a mountain where finally we could see the glory that is God.
Some, like Albert Camus, were convinced that such a glorious mountain does not exist. The only mountain we have to climb in this life is the mountain of our daily tasks, a mountain that promises not glory but only frustration. We, like the doomed Sisyphus in the ancient myth, are condemned to push the rock of our burdens up the side of the mountain only to have it roll back down to the bottom at the end of the day, waiting for us to begin our struggles again the next morning.
Augustine disagreed with this pessimistic view. He was convinced that God exists and that though hidden he could be found. There is a mountain of “transfiguration” that even the ordinary human being can climb to discover a still hidden God.
Through his reading of Sacred Scripture Augustine came to see that the steps that lead to the “vision” of God had been outlined long before by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. (Isa 11:2-3) They are the stages in life that have come to be called the Gifts of the Holy Ghost.
In ordinary language these stages in our ascent to God can be described as periods of Darkness, Listening, Knowledge, Bravery, Love and Purification culminating in a Wisdom whereby at last we come to perceive the truth that is God. Today I would like to offer some brief reflections on these various stages in our search for God.
Fear of the Lord (Darkness)
My search for the hidden God begins in darkness. The emptiness I feel is therapeutic because if I were not empty there would be no need for something to fill me up. If I were not dissatisfied in some way with my present condition, there would be no urge to seek something more. If I did not feel empty despite all the things I have, I would not search for something beyond.
This sense of empty absence in our lives may occur in various ways. In its most radical form it occurs in a sudden disbelief in any God, any infinite being out there who truly cares about my life. It is a sudden conviction that literally my life is going no wherebecause there is no final where to go, no place, no condition that will bring that perfect happiness which I so desperately desire. Life does not have a goal, only an extent. I live out my allotted days and then I die and that’s the end of it ... and the end of ME!
In the last 18 years of her life, St. Thérese of Lisieux (the “Little Flower”) seems to have experienced such times of darkness. She describes her darkness as follows:
He (God) permitted my soul to be invaded by the thickest darkness so that the thought of heaven, up until then so sweet to me, seemed to be just a cause of more torment. It seemed to me that the darkness mocked me, saying: “You dream about a land of light, about a homeland permeated by the sweetest perfumes. You are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels. You believe that one day you will walk out of this fog that surrounds you! Well, I say to you, “In your darkness rejoice in your coming death, a death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the NIGHT OF NOTHINGNESS.”
(Quoted in Mary Frohlich, H.M., “Desolation and Doctrine in Thérese of Lisieux”; Theological Studies, vol 61 (2000) p. 264.
Augustine was convinced that, though the person going through such darkness is not aware of it, it is the grace of God that is pushing them beyond their accustomed way of living ... not by presenting (as yet) a more attractive alternative, but simply by revealing how empty is the alternative that they have chosen. The darkness is God calling them to a new form of life.
Whenever such darkness comes upon us, we become aware that our previous way of living is no longer satisfactory. We are like a butterfly tentatively emerging from its comfortable but confining cocoon, slowly expanding our wings for our flight into the next stage of our lives. By the grace of God in our continuing darkness we are somehow prepared to enter into the next phase of our climb to the hidden God: a period of pious listening.
Piety is the gift of the Holy Spirit through which we are able to patiently wait for some guidance in choosing what we should do to move on with our lives. Augustine believed that this docile attitude of patient listening is best exemplified by Job in the Old Testament, sitting quietly after losing most of what mattered to him, refusing to condemn God or anyone else, waiting for guidance, ready to yield to the will of God however it comes and whatever direction it gives. (Sermon 157, 2)
Augustine believed that it takes a truly docile mind to hear and act on the message sent to us by God through our reading of the Sacred Scriptures. (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount 1.3.10)
Docility is obviously required when we cannot understand the message conveyed by the words. At such a time of confusion we must humbly accept the fact that the words sometimes contain great mysteries that can only be understood after a long period of study, or cannot be understood at all.
Docility is also required when we think we do understand the message but are unwilling to accept the “hard” course it demands. For example, God may be telling me clearly that I must change my whole way of life. Faced with such a “hard saying,” I may gently demur and read into the message my own meaning, thinking that my interpretation certainly makes more sense.
If I have the gift of pious listening, I am able to wait quietly with an attitude of acceptance for whatever direction may come, firmly believing that through the Providence of God I will have the strength to do whatever is demanded of me. It is not easy. Augustine heard the call of God to change his life and become converted to Christ but it took him two more years for him to accept the message and to do what it directed. His hesitation caused him to pray: “Late have I loved you, Lord; late have I loved you.” (Confessions 10.27.38)
Once I accept with humility the fact that I need to listen to someone else, that I am indeed immersed in darkness and that I need some outside force to illuminate my mind and help me discover what I should do next, I am ready to receive the next gift of the Holy Spirit the gift of knowledge.
This is the first positive step towards that wisdom which brings the vision and love of the no longer hidden God. Through the words and life of Jesus Christ, I begin to get some inkling of what God is like. I begin to see what sort of life I must lead to become united with that God, to climb the mountain of transfiguration to find that peak where God will be revealed.
But also I begin to see and accept the good and bad in myself and the world. The honors and loves and pleasures that had been so much a part of my life in the past are now seen as they truly are: wonderful goods to be sure, but goods that are as fragile and as passing as the early morning fog on a warming sea.
My spirit is beginning to soar and dream of heaven, but the beauty of this earth, the delights of my “earthiness” still pull me back. I can no longer enjoy them as I used to because I have recognized their emptiness, but I cannot yet rejoice in the pleasures of the spirit because I am not yet free of the earth. I have not yet been liberated from my self and I am torn in many directions. Distressed with my condition, my crackedness, I begin to lose hope. It is then that I need the next gift of the Spirit, the gift of fortitude.
As we go through life there are many times we need to be brave in the face of troubling or confusing situations. For example:
1. We need the bravery to look honestly at ourselves, facing both our beauty and our blemishes.
2. Sometimes we need the bravery to admit that we are in the wrong sort of life and then not to persevere in it, but go out on a limb and try something new.
3. Sometimes we need the bravery to persevere in a life which is probably the right one, but is beginning to be a burden.
4. Sometimes we need the bravery to continue to plow ahead on our chosen path even though the end of the road, where we are going, is not completely clear.
5. Sometimes we need the bravery to continue on the road when the journey is becoming difficult, when proceeding further causes pain, distress, anxiety and various other bad things.
At this stage of my journey I have begun to recognize my goal, the peak of the mountain where God dwells, and to recognize how far I am away from the perfection that would allow me to reach the heights. At his point in my journey, I need the bravery to pray. I need to pray for faith to believe in the unseen God. I need to pray for a hope that will enable me to continue prayer even when there is no dramatic response. I need to pray for a charity to help me love the “great good God” that I believe and hope is “out there” somewhere, but whom I have yet to experience.
I pray for some help from one who is stronger than myself. In my continuing weakened condition, I ask “What am I to do?” The answer is given through the next gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of Counsel. The advice given is quite reasonable.
Augustine phrases it as follows:
If you wish to be helped by someone stronger than yourself, you must help those who are weaker than yourself.
(Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, 1.3.10)
Since forgiveness is the most powerful expression of love, if we want to be forgiven by God, we must first reach out in love and forgive others the real or apparent harm they have done to us.
Since I cannot be sure that I am loving God directly (since he is still hidden), I at least can show my wish to love the unseen God by loving those whom I do see, those human reflections of God that surround me. Although my love for the hidden God may still be developing, my wish to love him can be manifested by my effort to observe the commandment given my Jesus:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John, 15:12
Augustine explains the reason for this commandment as follows:
You do not now see God, but by loving your neighbor you will make yourself worthy to see him. By loving your neighbor you cleanse your eyes so that someday you will be able to see God.
(Commentary on the Epistle of John, 17.8)
How are we to express our love for others? The answer is (I believe) summed up in the so-called “DO NO HARM” principle. It commands two things:
First: As far as reasonably possible, do not harm others... at least by forgiving them any harm they have done to us.
Second: As far as possible rescue others from harm by trying to help them when they are in need or at least having compassion for them in their troubles.
The measure of the perfection of our application of these two principles will be the extent to which we apply it not only to our friends, but even to our enemies. As Augustine makes clear, the love of others that leads to union with God is not to be restricted to any special group of human being ... Christian or non-Christian, man or woman. No race is to be preferred over any other. Christ has commanded:
“We must love our neighbor as ourselves”
and it is clear that the word “neighbor”; embraces every human being. We are all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, all members of the same species. As a result (Augustine says):
Every human being is the neighbor of every human being.
On Christian Discipline, 3.
This fact seems confirmed by the words of Jesus Christ himself when he said: Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me!
There is no indication that Christ meant to restrict his meaning to any one class of humans.
Through the perfection of my love for others I have set the stage for the: Final Purification of My Spirit that is contained in the Gift of the Holy Spirit called understanding.
As I enter this new stage in my progress towards the vision and love of the hidden God, I have already gone through a purification whereby I have more or less cleansed myself of some of the excessive love of self and the world that had been holding me back from the summit of the mountain of transfiguration. But now the “love of others” so laboriously developed in the last stage must itself be perfected. It must be purified from such imperfections as loving others in the wrong way, loving them too much, loving them too possessively, loving them only for the pleasure they give to us.
This final purification of my self is called the gift of understanding because it begins to open my eyes to the vision of God. It is a healing of the eye of my spirit which has been clouded over by the residue of past misadventures. It is as though I had been looking too long at the sun. Even if I have now withdrawn my gaze from that shiny attraction, I am still blinded by the experience. My eye, though it is no longer looking in the wrong direction, is still blinded by its past experience. It must be healed before I can see the reality around me. Finally purified as best I can be, I am ready to receive that final gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of wisdom.
Wisdom: Waiting on the Mountain
In some way the person who achieves the divine gift of wisdom in this life will “see God,” will “see the Truth,” will see that “eternal light that is God.” But still the vision will not be perfectly clear. As Augustine remarks:
... the beauty of this light is still said to be seen “in a riddle and through a mirror” (1 Corinthians, 13:12). It is indeed becoming more evident to us on our pilgrim way but we must still walk more by faith than by sight.
On Christian Doctrine, 2.7.11
Assisted by the grace of God, we may have been able to climb our own hill of transfiguration and to finally appreciate the truth of the “human Christ” but there is no guarantee that we will be “lifted up” any further. It is up to God to take us the rest of the way to the vision of Jesus-God transfigured before us. Reaching the top of the mountain, all we can do is wait.
Simone Weil describes the need for such prayerful passivity as follows:
There are people who try to raise their souls like a man continually taking standing jumps in the hopes that, if he jumps higher every day, a time may come when he will no longer fall back but will go right up to the sky. It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction. But we need not search for God, only change the direction of our gaze. It is for him to search for us. Simone Weil, Waiting For God, Emma Crauford trans. (New York: Harper-Colophon Books, 1973), pp. 194 & 216.
We should not be distressed if we have tried our best to climb the mountain of transfiguration and are still waiting to be “lifted up.” There can be a certain peace in such patient waiting. We have done all we can do. It is up to God to move us further.
Like a little baby clutching the leg of its mother, we stand and wait to be carried, realizing that there is now nothing we can do to determine our future. We are like those patient folks described by Simone Weil:
They do not turn toward God. God himself sets their faces in the right direction. It is for them to remain motionless, without averting their eyes, listening ceaselessly, and waiting. If after a long period of waiting God allows them to have an indistinct intuition of his light or even reveals himself in person, it is only for an instant. Once more they have to remain still, attentive, inactive, crying out only when their desire cannot be contained. Simone Weil, op. cit., p. 211.
Is it possible to still have joy while waiting for God to come and “lift us up?” The answer must “Yes.” There is a quiet joy possessed by all good people who have tried their best to climb the mountain from darkness to wisdom by living a decent life. It is a peace that comes from a hope expressed by Augustine in the question:
Will he who gave so great assurances while I was on my journey abandon me on my arrival?
Commentary on Psalm 26/2, 10
As we wait for God to carry us to the heavens, we may legitimately ask, Besides this patient waiting, what am I supposed to do with the rest of my life? I know that I must love God, but how can it truly be said to “love” this God who is still hidden and will likely remain hidden this side of death? The answer is that we must turn our love towards those whom we can see, those with whom we share humanity. Augustine puts it this way:
How should we prepare for loving God? By loving each other! You may say to me, “I have not seen God.” Can you say to me, “I have not seen other human beings?” Love each other! If you love the human whom you see, you will love God too at the same time; for you will see love itself, the love that is the God who dwells within each of us.
Commentary on the Epistle of John, 5.7.2.
If we are able to love others with some degree of unselfish love, a pure love not dictated by our own self-love, then we are at least beginning to love God through them. This is the clear message the apostle John sent to his followers: It is true that no one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us. God IS love and anyone who lives with love lives in God and God lives in them. 1 John 4:7-21
Even though we cannot see the God of love, at least our love can be focused on the neighbor that we can see, doing those pedestrian things we sometimes do for those we care about. The rule of love is simple:
“IF WE CANNOT FEEL THE LOVE OF GOD, AT LEAST WE CAN BE KIND TO EACH OTHER.”
Such was the conclusion reached by St. Thérese of Lisieux when at the end of her life she no longer could sense the intimate presence of God. Mary Frohlich describes this period in Thérese’s life as follows:
Feeling herself at an immeasurable distance from God, she abandoned herself to letting God love through her all those who are “nothing.” She shifted her attention from desire for a heaven “elsewhere” to a passion to be involved in, to throw herself into the present moment, a moment composed only of love. She no longer expected to encounter the “essence” of God. Instead she dedicated herself to simply living neighborly charity in the ordinary “here and now.”
Mary Frohlich, H.M., “Desolation and Doctrine in Thérese of Lisieux,” Theological Studies, vol 61 (2000), pp. 270 & 274.
There is always something that each one of us can do for those we meet on our pilgrimage to heaven. At very least by lovingly serving others here on earth we prepare ourselves to love the God whom we will eventually see. In loving others we can come to know something about God. Though the best we can achieve is to see (like Moses) “the back parts of God,” it is a beginning. (The Trinity, 2.17.28)
In the meantime, we are at peace. We now know that we are not alone. We are surrounded by those we love. We are accompanied by the still hidden God who lives in them and who will stay close to us as we journey on through all the rest of the days of our lives. When we reach out to others in love, we make true for ourselves the happy fact preached so long ago by Augustine:
Wherever you go on earth, however long you remain, the Lord is close to you. So don’t worry about anything. The Lord is always nearby.
(Sermon 171, 5)
The seven stages in the ascent to the vision of God are not mutually exclusive. In the midst of the ecstasy of human love there may be fear. If we have scaled the heights to the place where God dwells, we still may suddenly be enveloped in darkness. For most of us, all of the stages may well be mixed together as long as we live, a succession of rising to the top of the mountain of transfiguration and falling again into the dark valley below.
The hope-filled message of faith is that God is already present in us if we are trying to deal with whatever stage is ours at the moment: hoping in darkness, listening with an open mind, learning with humility, praying bravely, loving others unselfishly, purifying our desires unwaveringly, patiently waiting for the still unknown God to come. Any and all of these noble acts would be impossible without the support of God’s uplifting grace illuminating our mind and strengthening our will.
We may never achieve any direct vision of God in this life. Even if we have been able to struggle to the top of the mountain by living decent lives as best we could. We may never be “lifted up,” we may never see the vision of the glorified Christ that was given to the three apostles on the hill of transfiguration. Does this mean that we have not received the gift of wisdom? The answer is “no.” It just means that wisdom must manifest itself in us through our patient acceptance of God’s will.
It is consoling to realize that the guarantee that we shall eventually see God for all eternity does not depend on whether we have had some mystical experience of him in this life. Rather it is determined by our continuing struggle to be worthy to receive that vision, by our struggle to keep our focus on what is above rather than what is below, by our continuing struggle against the temptation to turn back in despair.
We prepare to see and love God by trying to live a decent life and it is these efforts that insure our salvation. A mystical experience of God, a vision of God, an overpowering feeling of love for God, all of these are gifts that God may (or may not) give to us. The gift that we give to him is our effort to scale the mountain. It is up to him to take us the rest of the way and he may not do that until the moment of our death. Indeed, we may never get much beyond the first stage, the darkness of not-knowing. Only after death will all darkness disappear. Only then will we realize that we have been saved by our own efforts and God’s grace, not by moments of ecstatic vision granted to us in this life.
I have never seen the hidden God, but the words of the saints of the past and the experience of the saints of the present have given me hope and in that hope I find the beginning of happiness. Like the little “Donald-child” waiting for the father to start the family car for the trip to the sea-shore, I am happy anticipating the sweetness of the endless ice-cream that is sure to come.
Professor Burt’s presentation was part of a four part series on Augustinian Spirituality, sponsored by the Office for Mission Effectiveness at Villanova University. This text has been graciously provided by the author and is posted with permission. It may not be reprinted or retransmitted for public use without permission of the author. Brief quotations may be taken from the text without permission but must carry appropriate attribution.
For more information about this program, contact the Office for Mission Effectiveness.