As a child, I sensed God’s presence in everything. This was not a learned perception but an innate one, evident in my earliest memories from the crib and the playpen (indeed, the sense of God’s universal presence formed the essence of my earliest memories–felt, of course, not understood) and surely predating those memories (by how long only the neurobiologists might say, and they are hedging their bets). As I grew, this intimation only strengthened. I felt God in the light and in the dark, in the vastness of the sky and the sea and the closeness of the puddle and the mud, in the succulent milkiness of the plucked dandelion stem and the brittle dryness of autumn leaves tossed skyward, in the wriggle of the worm and the prance of the stallion, in the mass of the whale and the fragility of the butterfly, in the caress of affection and the bark of admonition. There was both simplicity and wonder to this sense of God’s universal presence. Most of all, there was safety–I never had to worry about being apart from God for God was everywhere, in everything. Oddly, I never thought to wonder if God was also in me.
Then through adolescence and early adulthood, in a gradual evolution that lasted perhaps a decade, I sensed God’s presence slowly but resolutely withdrawing from the world around me, like the soul exiting the body, leaving the lifeless shell behind. These seemingly random departures–sometimes isolated, sometimes clustered–were revealed through images of war and violence broadcast on television and printed in magazines, in the greedy and short-sighted destruction of woods and swamps and fields to make room for shopping malls, highways, and housing developments, and in the acts and words of cruelty and malevolence witnessed first-hand. I still saw God in some parts of his creation–in the sun’s rising and its setting, in the moon’s silver glow on a frost-tinged night, in the howl of the wind or the crack of thunder, in the ebb and flow of the river to the sea. But God’s presence was growing steadily more ponderous and remote, his nature more abstract. Gone was the wonder of God in the puddle and the mud (tainted now with oil and salt, ugly with human pollutants), replaced by God in the endless and inscrutable stars of night.
Then in adulthood–in due time and over years–God came close again, this time as love. This new approach of the divinity began as an abstraction, or rather as an ideal. If only I could find this perfect love or when I find this love were expressions of hope for the return of God’s proximate presence, for a lifelong purpose and calling in a particular person or, lacking that single mate, in a group that would come to define God’s intimate presence. Over time, and to my enormous blessing, this hope became a reality–in individuals, in offspring, in community: God again close by, not in a particular person or group but in the sharing and formulating and commitment to a common vision and cause, as family, friendship, communal effort. In short, God came back as selfless love.
And stayed with me for a long time, at least long as measured by the span of my rich life.
But now God seems to be changing again, not fleeing as in those indelible images from adolescence, quitting the proximate and hiding out in the remote reaches (or non-reaches) of the cosmos, but taking the brightness of selfless love and receding into a darker chasm, like the green crabs of my childhood jetties, slipping from the sunlit water into the dark and forbidding crevices of the jagged and barnacled tidal rocks, daring me to follow, risk tender fingers, thin-skinned wrist.
Like God’s previous changes, this recent retreat has evolved over a number of years. At first it was met by shock and denial–This isn’t happening. How could love be withdrawn, God absent? This was followed by resignation–I don’t know how or why. I just know it is. But somewhere down in that dark chasm–Was I really brave enough to follow? Was my following a choice?–I seem to have found God again. Or at least I sense God’s proximity in the darkness.
But God’s nature has changed once more. She is no longer love but suffering, and not just any kind of suffering but the suffering that is the inevitable product of love. She is Jesus on the cross and Mary at the base of that cross. She is the seafarer’s wife looking out over the water, the teenager’s mother waiting up in the dark, the feverish child’s father applying a cooling cloth. She is the brother beside the hospital bed, the addict’s sponsor on the phone all night, the minister clutching the newly widowed man’s hand. This suffering God is present in any boy or girl, man or woman who sets aside personal need and comfort to suffer with or on behalf of another out of love. There’s nothing noble about such sacrifice. But there is everything divine.
Or so my present and proximate God is currently telling me, somewhere down here in the dark.