I’ve always thought that the phrase “eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani” (“my God, my God why have you forsaken me”) is the most heartrending phrase in the Bible. Why?
Well, from the point when, aged 15, I had an out of the blue spiritual (properly speaking mystical) experience which converted me instantly from an evangelical atheist to a believer in search of a language in which to talk about God, I set out on a quest to repeat that experience. It was, after all, “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”. I don’t think I missed out any of the techniques which I could find reported from whatever religious tradition as producing mystical or quasi-mystical experience, including several which I would not recommend that you try at home – or anywhere else, for that matter. Many I discarded quickly, including all those carrying a danger of arrest, addiction or serious physical harm to myself.
It seemed to me that teachers in very many religious traditions were, underneath the differences in wording and concept-structures, all talking about what was pretty much the same experience, and about ways in which it could be cultivated. In Christianity, St. Paul and St. John were the Biblical writers whose words said to me most clearly “here is someone who has had this kind of experience and is trying to put words around it”, but a study of the synoptic gospels and in particular Matthew also spoke to me through Jesus’ sayings, in particular his “kingdom” statements, which seemed to me to be underlain by the same kind of experience.
By my late teens, I had a regular praxis which would fit well the description “practising the presence of God” which was broadly Christian, but incorporating some Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu concepts of prayer and meditation, and while I rarely if ever experienced quite the intensity of the original experience, not infrequently I came reasonably close to it – but most of all, I came to have a near constant low-level consciousness of God’s presence, and when I wasn’t actually experiencing that, it was only a thought away. I would particularly access that state of consciousness when I didn’t see a clear answer to a problem, and not infrequently an answer would surface then or within days, with a feeling of confidence in it’s rightness. I’d do the same when painting, writing or, sometimes, playing music, and inspiration not infrequently came (hampered only by lack of technique, it seemed to me). Mostly, however, it was just for the joy of feeling that presence, and I well understood Baba Kuhi of Shiraz writing “In the market, in the cloister, only God I saw” and “I passed away into nothingness, I vanished, and lo, I was the All-living – only God I saw” and Meister Eckhart writing “When I was flowing all creatures spake God”.
I suppose I got too used to this; in my twenties, I stopped having a formal, regular praxis and became very informal; this continued through my thirties and into my forties with the demands of work, family and other interests making any praxis more and more irregular and infrequent – but still, when I turned and opened myself, there was God, just as before. My life became very difficult in my forties, and over some ten years I first descended into psychological collapse and then endured the results of that, looking to rebuild some stability. However, until about two years ago, when I could actually bring myself to open myself to God, sometimes there he still was, and this carried me through serious physical and psychological pain on many occasions.
With the benefit of hindsight, I remember the teenage me reading in several places accounts of the “dark night of the soul” or “dark night of the spirit” as being a stage through which serious mystics were expected to go before reaching real heights of experience, and wishing this would happen so I could (hopefully) experience the intensity of the original at will. This may be a delayed case of “be careful what you pray for, it may happen”.
In any event, something between a year and two years ago (I can’t now remember exactly when) the “opening” process stopped working completely. I could still use the techniques to calm myself, and did, but there was no longer any trace of the emotional connection which I used to feel so frequently. This began to produce occasional anxiety and even panic when despite longer and harder concentration, there was no feeling of connection. I gave up straightforward petitionary prayer many years ago – it was a case of “nevertheless, thy will not mine be done, O Lord” at the end for a considerable time, and then I came to see no point in asking in the first place, just to express what I felt was a problem and await direction, except when it involved some change in myself. It seems to me that this is along the lines of the “surrender to the will of God” which Islam sees as ideal, and moves towards the “non-attachment” of various Eastern traditions. Any outcome is acceptable; “the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord”. This, it seems to me, is fine when you have a base sense of connection with God to sustain you, but I now find myself without any such connection and without either any will to do anything in particular or any instructions on what to do.
I am feeling abandoned, empty. I tried to make of myself an empty vessel for God to fill with his purpose, and without feeling that purpose, it’s just an empty vessel. It has to be somehow my fault, doesn’t it? But I can’t think what to do to repair that. I look for other people’s direction in the meantime – if I can help someone else, someone who does experience a driving force, there’s at least briefly some sense of satisfaction; I can easily avoid actions which intellectually I think are damaging to anyone other than myself, but there’s no longer the feeling of “this is right”. Images of wastelands, of deserts spring to mind.
I think Jesus had a sense of connection far beyond what I’ve experienced myself; if I feel this way, what must he have felt as he asked why he was forsaken?