In 1946, with the memory of war still fresh and the ruins of bombed buildings all around him, Karl Rahner preached a series of Lenten sermons in Munich. He reminded the people of the war and their fear:
“Do you remember the nights in the cellar, the nights of deadly loneliness amid the harrowing crush of people? The nights of helplessness, of waiting for a meaningless death? The nights with the lights out, and horror and powerlessness gripping our hearts? When we were just playing at being brave and relaxed? When our own pleasantries and brave expressions sounded so strangely wooden and empty and seemed to have died on us even before they reached the other person? When we just gave up, when we were quiet, when we were just waiting without hope for the end, for death? Alone, powerless, empty.”
Rahner then extends this image, of being “blocked-up” in a cellar, to the way we feel “blocked-up” in our hearts. What’s to be done when we feel like that, lonely, frustrated, our words sounding empty even to ourselves? Here’s his advice:
First, don’t be surprised to feel so lonely and shackled:
“Don’t be shocked at the loneliness and desertedness of your inner prison, which seems to be filled only with powerlessness and hopelessness, with tiredness and emptiness! Don’t be shocked!”
To feel shocked and abnormal at the chaos of our own loneliness and complexity is to not yet have been properly introduced to ourselves. To sometimes feel emptiness and near-despair is normal, a sign of sensitivity and emotional health.
Second, stay inside of that emptiness. Don’t run from it.
The natural temptation is to try to get out of loneliness by plunging ourselves into busyness, distractions, amusements, and social life with the hope of fooling ourselves about our own despair. Part of that too is the tendency to see our emptiness and frustration as a sign that there isn’t any God. Emptiness and chaos can easily cause us to doubt.
But, says Rahner, in this kind of despair we are confusing the true God with the God of our own imaginings. The God of our imaginations, rightly, does not exist. But God is not as we imagine him to be, namely, “the God of earthly security, the God of salvation from life’s disappointments, the God of life insurance, the God who takes care so that children never cry and that justice marches upon the earth, the God who transforms earth’s laments, the God who doesn’t let human love end up in disappointment.” That God doesn’t exist.
Tough words, but true. When we break down, it’s not the real God we despair of, but only God as we imagined him. What we feel in emptiness is not the death of God but rather the space within which God can be born. What loneliness and despair deprive us of is not God, but our illusions about God. The finite, not the infinite, is what’s taken from us.
Rahner goes on to say that, if we stay inside of our loneliness, we eventually become aware that our “emptiness is only a disguise for an intimacy of God’s, that God’s silence, the eerie stillness, is filled by the Word without words, by Him who is above all names, by Him who is all in all. And his silence is telling us that He is here.”
At the end of the day our task is to recognize that God is in the silence, the frustration, the loneliness, the emptiness. Our job is to become aware of this.
We should never be shocked at our own emptiness, nor should we run from it and think that God is dead. God is in the emptiness. But the God who is found there is not God as we imagine Him. The God we find in loneliness and emptiness is the real God, the God that nobody can look at and live because that God is too real, too ineffable, too infinite, too unnameable, too wild, and too much pure fire to be captured in any concepts, words, imaginations, or even feelings. That God, of course, can be met and known; but, this side of eternity, perhaps that God is most easily met precisely when our own words sound flat and empty.