Sometimes we understand things through their absence. The experience of loneliness teaches us about love. Sometimes too the more painful the absence, the more we’re opened to what we’re missing. The more fierce and raging the loneliness, the bigger the cavern for love it creates inside of us.
That’s true too for our understanding of God and what it means to draw life from God. If loneliness is what we feel when love is absent, what do we feel when God and grace are seemingly absent? And if loneliness stretches our hearts for deeper love, what does a feeling of God’s absence create inside of us?
We feel the seeming absence of God whenever we feel these things: anxiety for no apparent reason, feelings of guilt we can’t explain, a helplessness we can’t do anything about, fear of death, a nagging sense that something isn’t right, a feeling that somehow we aren’t good enough, a restless drive to make a name for ourselves, a greedy need to drink in as much life as we can, and the inchoate feeling that nothing’s enough, that we aren’t enough, that life isn’t enough, that we’re standing on the edge of nothingness.
At one level, these feelings can all be explained away as nothing more than neuroses, hang-ups, signs of immaturity, lack of robust health, lack of resiliency, over-sensitivity, as signs that we’re weak, over-timid, out-of-sorts.
That can be true, but sensitivity also indicates life, humanity, depth, feeling, faith. What’s alive is sentient, tender to feeling. It’s what’s inanimate and dead that’s never crippled by feelings. Brute things don’t suffer anxiety, rocks don’t worry about betrayal, and self-centred egoists aren’t concerned about sin. To be anxious, uneasy, haunted by the unseen, and worried that somehow we aren’t good enough, can also be a sign of being in touch with something deeper, namely, of being sentient and attuned to the fact that we’re creatures and not God and we must, therefore, be graced and justified by God in order to receive life and salvation.
What does that mean?
Catholics and Protestants have used different languages to explain this, though, in the end, we’ve both had the same concept.
Those of us who were raised Roman Catholics, grew up with the notion of “grace”. For us, the key to living was to be always “in the state of grace”. The big worry was to die “outside of grace”. Negatively, we understood grace as the opposite of sin. Positively, we defined it as being alive inside the Body of Christ.
Protestants mostly used a different language (even as they wrote the timeless hymn, Amazing Grace). They spoke of “justification”, a concept they took from St. Paul. For them, life ultimately had meaning or not and one entered heaven or not on the basis of being justified by God.
But what does that mean?
This isn’t an easy concept to grasp or explain. The biblical language is clear, but concept, like most deep things, is not something we easily get our minds around.
“Justification” (which can also be translated as “Righteousness”) is, first of all, something inside of God. What?
We can only dance around its meaning. It refers to a substantiality, a wholeness, a goodness, a perfection, and an immortality that we can’t imagine but can partially intuit through our experience of its absence. What are we missing that God has?
Classical theology defined God as “Ipsum Esse Subsistens”, self- sufficient being. Only God does not need anything outside of Self in order to come into existence and remain in existence. Everything else, including every human person and humanity itself, needs someone or something outside of itself to be born and to stay in existence. Alone, all by ourselves, we lack a substance, a meaning, and a goodness that we’re powerless to give ourselves. Alone we do stand on the brink of nothingness – and, when we’re sensitive and attuned to things, we know it!
And what we lack is what’s inside of God – substance, life, meaning, beauty, goodness, community, love. Only God can give these to us. Classically, for Roman Catholics, God gives them to us through grace; for Protestants, God gives them through justification. Either way, there’s no life, no meaning, and no future outside of this gift.
And though we can deny this to ourselves, our experience belies that. We feel our vulnerability, our mortality, our powerlessness in every breath we take. We can’t give ourselves life and we can’t even protect ourselves in the life we’re living. Nobody is invulnerable.
No matter our achievements, no matter how strong our self-image, no matter how blessed we are in body, mind, and possessions, in the end, we’re all insubstantial – and we feel it!. We aren’t Ipsum Esse Subsistens.
We can’t give ourselves life, meaning, love, immortality; and, when we feel this, we’re opened, soul, mind, body, to the gift of life and salvation that can only come from God. God can give to us what we can’t give to ourselves.