Conversatio Divina

Silenced Heart

Chloe Lynch

Chloe Lynch shares her bittersweet journey into the silence of God. At the end of herself, as old prayers and patterns seem to fall upon deaf ears, she’s begun to see the grace of God at work in entirely new ways.

01.  Introduction

Twenty years, give or take, after becoming a Christian, God enrolled me in a school of prayer. And, truth be told, I’m a slow learner.

It’s not that I did not pray in those twenty years. It is not that I didn’t adore, confess, thank, and supplicate. I paused, rejoiced, asked, and yielded. In fact, I’ve been round the evangelical prayer block a few times. I’ve read the books and downloaded the apps. I’ve done the thing enough that the next evangelical prayer acronym elicits only my groans.

I’ve spent more than twenty years praying. But only now am I beginning to see prayer’s reality.

02.  Bitter Silence

It began with a silencing. Prayer words stumbled. Evangelical enthusiasm foundered. In liturgical prayer, the words piled up, doctrine hammering against my ears. And though a theologian, I felt their overwhelm. In private prayer, my sense of failure was deep. I cowered before the needs of others, intercession’s task now insurmountable as words and strength dried up. Even charismatic-influenced prayer in tongues almost ceased.

My prayer life had, I felt, collapsed. There was nothing left to say to God, the effort of stirring my heart to words more than I could mostly bear. My truest prayer was one of passive surrender, a choice fully to feel the ache of his apparent absence and the suffocating press of his darkness.

It had happened once before, about eighteen years earlier. God had gone silent on me and my prayers had stuttered quietly into something that was more stillness than sound. But after nearly five years, my prayer had been returned to me. I’d become able to meditate again on spiritual things, wrap it all around in words to tell him what burned inside.

This time, though, was different. Silence now was accompanied by despair. Hope, both eschatological and intermediate, was gone. It’s not that I stopped believing in heaven’s promise, won by Christ. Nor did I stop believing in a God-given purpose for my life. But the images by which I had given this hope content now crumbled, insubstantial as dust.

Christ in me, the hope of glory, yes. But a hope that my heart no longer knew how to know. For in those moments when I reached for this beautiful promise, my mind would stumble at the last step. Words and images and concepts, half-formed, would fall away to nothing, leaving only truth’s wordless imprint there in my soul’s depths.

Yes, this time was different. And, weightiest of all, this time there was the fact that he had told me how it would be. In September, he’d whispered “dark night of the spirit.” In November, there was the promise to press the cross and its suffering more deeply into my life. And in December came the viaticum, Catholic liturgy of death: bread for the journey, given prophetically by the hand of a wise spiritual director.

Only later did I understand the promise was unto dying. And bitter indeed has been this sabbatical of desolation, five years now and counting.

03.  Sweet Silence

Yes, five years now and counting.

There is no simple sweetness here. Though I am an evangelical who loves a testimony of resurrection, my resurrection is yet to take place. I am buried even now, in anticipation of Jesus’ glorious coming.

I love him. But my love is not yet only for love’s sake rather than also for love’s trinkets. So I sit in his silence and I fight the temptation to turn away, this absence of words and of activity my only prayer. My prayer is not enough. And my love is not enough.

Truthfully, they never were. But, with the little I have, I can sit there and want him. I can choose to remain present to him, though I experience only absence. I can choose repeatedly to hold the gaze of Love, directing my affections towards him. And in this way, I can say my “Yes” to his darkness, to my own contingency. I can lay bare all my “Nos” and “Not Yets,” resistance to his demands. And all of it can be the highest of adoration.

Teresa of Jesus taught me the power of this gaze, saying, “All one need do is go into solitude and look at him within oneself.” She explains that it doesn’t mean complicated reflections about Jesus: all we have to do is look at him, even if we can only manage this for one moment at a time (The Way of Perfection, 26.3; 28.2).

This feisty nun, better known as Teresa of Avila, has been my companion. It’s odd, I know, for an evangelical to say so. But she and fellow Carmelite, John of the Cross, have guided me throughout this desert traverse. They have been sweetness in the bitter of what John calls a “dark night,” the gifts of a God who sees nothing wrong with a charismatic evangelical drinking deeply of Carmel.

I had long foundered in darkness, unable to admit it for fear that evangelicals would label me as “falling away”—hardly ideal for an academic in an evangelical theological college! Yet the Lord saw fit that my night’s worst would be experienced during my Carmelite formation as a spiritual director. In the season when darkness was at its greatest, during the years when I feared that the very structures of my personhood would not survive the wildness of God’s grace upon me, sweetness waited in the gift of required reading from Carmel’s saints.

Teresa reminded me that the experiential realisation of our friendship-union with Christ is possible.  She pointed me again to the sweetness of a Jesus who is present at the centre of a believer’s soul and who even appears to some in charismatic vision. Intimacy and mutuality with God, themes close to my heart, suffuse her writing. What had felt lost to me was promised again in her reiteration of gospel hope. Beautiful, too, was her parallel stubbornness that mere feelings of divine presence also do not matter in the end: instead, full union consists in the union of our will with God’s.

John’s sweetness was one of language. For a time, God used his Ascent-Dark Night as something of a handbook for me—enough that my inner evangelical repeatedly complained that John’s teachings were not the Bible and therefore not inspired. But against the background of my immersion in texts like Psalms 42 and 63, Song of Songs, John’s gospel, Exodus, and Job, this Spanish saint reassured me that darkness can simply be light too bright for weak eyes. Apparent absence, he told me, could be the effect of a presence so fiery as to immolate all human capacity to apprehend it. And silence may be only the making of space so that words might give way to Word.

As I write of John, this same inner evangelical winces even now. Evangelical spirituality tends to be kataphatic: it names so that it may know, preferring to remain in the realms of what can definitively be said and shown about God. Teresa’s earthy, practical spirituality is easier for us to embrace, perhaps. Notwithstanding the mysticism evident in her (fairly extreme) experiences of God, her relationship with him is a very concrete one—she knows him, almost unmysteriously, as Friend or King, Lord or Father—and, in Teresa’s eyes, love for God looks very practically like love for neighbour.

John, on the other hand, is so very apophatic, gesturing to what exceeds human capacity to know and to say about God. The categories, also, by which he understands the human soul are foreign to contemporary perspectives. John is hard to get hold of, perhaps especially for an evangelical who craves certainties.

Still, to this evangelical, John brought sweetness. My ways of knowing had already begun to disintegrate; my storehouse of images by which to conceptualise heaven had already begun to dissolve; and the full extent of resistance of my will had already been revealed. But John helped me see that this total collapse—of knowing God, of conceptualizing and desiring him—might even be of God, movement of holy transformation towards a new kind of knowing and desiring that far exceeded anything from before. A lifeline in the midst of a grace wilder than I have ever known, this son of Carmel encouraged me to persevere in prayer, clinging to the kindness of Christ in me—my very sure hope of glory.

04.  Suggested Reading

  • John of the Cross, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross.
  • Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle.
  • Heather Ward, Streams in Dry Land.

05.  Suggested Practices

  • Try following Teresa’s instructions for holding the gaze of Love in The Way of Perfection, 26. Sometimes it feels like struggling to hold a boat in place by rowing against the current of distractions! But repeatedly returning our attention to Jesus is worth the effort, forming in us the capacity to love “only for love’s sake.”
  • Commit to reading Scripture, no matter how dark or silent it gets. A Scripture memorization habit helped me with this, thanks to The Bible Memory App.
  • Consider seeking a spiritual director to help with noticing God’s activity in your life and responding to the invitations he is extending to you.

Footnotes

Dr Chloe Lynch is Lecturer in Practical Theology at the London School of Theology and also a Carmelite-formed spiritual director. She blogs about spirituality and leadership at The Art of Steering and has also written a book called Ecclesial Leadership as Friendship.