[Jesus said,] because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you (John 16:6-7).
The sense of divine absence, of God being silent, inactive, distant, opaque as we face the trials that life brings our way … Any person of faith who has journeyed long enough has felt this. How do you face it? How do you pray in it? I think of St. Augustine’s musing on this:
Who would choose troubles and hardships? You command us to endure them, but not to love them. No-one loves what he has to endure, even if he loves the endurance, for although he may rejoice in his power to endure, he would prefer to have nothing that demands endurance. In adverse circumstances I long for prosperity, and in times of prosperity I dread adversity. What middle ground is there, between these two, where human life might be free from trial? Woe betide worldly prosperity, and woe again, from fear of disaster and evanescent joy! But woe, woe, and woe again upon worldly adversity, from envy of better fortune, the hardship of adversity itself, and the fear that endurance may falter. Is not human life on earth a time of testing without respite?
On your exceedingly great mercy, and on that alone, rests all my hope.
During the two years I spent reading endless commentaries on St John of the Cross’ writings for my dissertation, I wrote this line: “We very naturally long for the awareness of God’s presence, for a sense of inner fullness, and so desire to be filled with divine light always. Yet, faith is no such thing. St. John is quite unambiguous that, in this life, it is God’s felt absence, faith’s entry into the divine darkness that is the greater form of encounter with His presence. This insight from John floored me today: Absence is God’s presence under the form of yearning. For John, it is hunger and thirst, panting and yearning alone that stretch our capacity to receive the One who ever-exceeds our capacity and calls us into the deeper.”
Again, I think of Augustine:
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.
Then I thought: During the Mass, the moment when the priest begs the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine to transform them into the Risen Christ is called the epiclesis, which in Greek means “to cry out to.” Not to ask calmly, dispassionately, as if for some nice addition to life. No! To recognize what we seek is required for life itself, for any and all good things.
Epiclesis! Such a priestly prayer, which is for all of us to pray always in the “liturgy of life,” to me resembles hungry baby birds in the nest begging, stretching, pleading, clamoring desperately when the parent comes with food. Not because they don’t believe the parent wishes to feed them, but because they believe she does. But there’s more here. It was Jean Vanier who, years ago, made for me the astonishing link between this Greek word for the human cry to God (epiclesis) and the Greek word Jesus uses to name the coming-Spirit, the Paraclete. Both words contain the verb kalein, “to call/cry out.” As Vanier says,
The cry for communion in the poor and the broken makes us touch our own inner pain. We discover our own brokenness and the barriers inside of us, which have gradually been formed during our childhood to save us from inner pain. These barriers prevent us from being present to others, in communion with others; they incite us to compete and to dominate others. It is when we have realized this that we cry out to God. And then we meet the “Paraclete” (Holy Spirit) whom Jesus and the Father have promised to send us. The word “paracleta” means “the one who answers the cry.”
The Paraclete, then, is the presence of God under the form of epiclesis, crying out, yearning. My God!
In the Mass, the Paraclete comes and transubstantiates a bit of food and drink into the New Creation, which is itself the answer to every human cry for justice, mercy, peace, love, life… It is this form of Presence, effected by the meeting of cry-and-Answer, that we call Real in the Holy Eucharist, the Medicine of Immortality given to us by our crucified and risen God-with-us. He, the One who cried out from the Cross, is the One who, in the words of St. Maximus, “longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.”
And those of us who dare to consume this Food and Drink, receiving the Answer, consent to become “one who answers the cry.”
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. — Matt. 25:35-36