An expedient absence.
St. John’s Gospel today bears the words “It is expedient to you that I go: for if I go not, the Paraclete will not come to You”. (John 16:7) Homilists around the world have explained in great beauty and with great wisdom the meaning of this text and the vital importance of the advent of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. However, it can be also especially useful to consider the words of Christ in a different manner, taking only the first part of the statement and examining those occasions when God seems truly distant - “It is expedient to you that I go”.
In what manner and in what time can we really state that it is good for us that Christ remove Himself from us! Truly, of course as the Gospel teaches, so that the Holy Spirit may be sent. But we have decided to leave aside this truth for a time and consider the line differently. So how can it be expedient for Christ to leave us? Surely we will fall miserably into all manner of failings and fall from our place in the spiritual life?
Let us take a familiar example to examine the question and provide some form of answer. When a child is learning to walk, there comes a time when his mother must relinquish her hold on his hand in order that he might learn to support himself. Instead of carefully guiding him with her own hand, perhaps she might stand a few paces away and encourage her son to walk to her. If she did not do so, then her child would rely constantly on the full support she provides and not mature into a capable adult. But by putting his trust in her and walking towards her, he will learn to trust her more. Whilst it might seem like his mother has abandoned him, eventually the child will understand how such an action was actually for his greater good.
We can apply this example, albeit slightly imperfectly, to the gospel passage in question. For just as the child must be taught to walk towards his mother, we must learn to do the same with God. By apparently withdrawing from us, God is in fact watching over His children and gently encouraging us towards a deeper love and union with Him. When the mother lets go of her child’s hand, he feels suddenly unsteady and perhaps at a loss. It is just so when God appears to withdraw some of the sensible spiritual comforts which we have hitherto enjoyed. Like the unsteady child, we can be tempted to topple or fall, uncertain of what to do.
However, just like a loving parent, God is not absent, but merely a few paces away, calling us to Him. If we rely on our own capabilities, then our swift trip or fall is certain; but if we turn our eyes towards Him and place our trust in Him, then we will make our way towards Him. Instead of gazing down at the floor or at ourselves, we are called to place our faith in God and look only at Him. With our gaze firmly fixed upon He who is ever constant, such apparent abandonment is in fact a time of great grace.
The saints mention periods of even many years when they experienced the ‘dark night of the soul’: a time when they were bereft of spiritual comforts and filled with confusion and doubt. Notably, St. Teresa d’Avila and St. John of the Cross spring to mind, for they wrote in great beauty about the spiritual trials and benefits of such times of aridity. In times when our prayer goes seemingly unanswered or we endure great sufferings and trials, it does indeed feel like God has withdrawn from us, but that it is not expedient for Him to have done so! All our woes rise before us, threatening to engulf us and it is then that if we gaze only at ourselves then we will indeed be lost in misery and despair.
Yet we have discussed only recently the importance and great value of sufferings and their purpose in the spiritual life. The Church teaches that our sufferings are given for a purpose, and such a purpose is not to provide an occasion to wallow in misguided self-pity. Far from it, for on these occasions when God appears to have withdrawn from us, He is in fact granting an opportunity to increase our love and dependance on Him. God is, in a sense, merely withdrawing a few steps and encouraging us to walk to Him. Nor even are we walking through our own power, but, “through Him, and with Him and in Him”, as the liturgy states.
So how then is it expedient that God should depart from us? In order that we might join Him through patiently bearing suffering and uniting this to the cross; in order that we might learn our dependance upon His grace and mercy; in order that we might see that without Him we can do nothing; in order that we might use this opportunity to deepen our love of Him and mature in the spiritual life. Seen through the eyes of the world, divorced from God, any trials and sufferings may indeed seem like God is no longer with us, nor is it expedient that He has withdrawn His presence. Yet, when we put our faith in Him like little children, then the apparent withdrawing of the Divine presence is in fact expedient, helpful and even necessary for the spiritual life.
Before finishing this short meditation there is one important difference which we must make between the mother and God - for whilst the mother allows her child to walk unaided, God, although seemingly absent, never truly abandons us, nor can He ever do so, for Christ taught that “behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world”. (Matt 28:20). St. Paul teaches that “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able: but will make also with temptation issue, that you may be able to bear it”. (1 Cor 10:13).
“It is expedient to you that I go” - our prayer this day should be that we learn to love and trust God even more, especially on those occasions when He seems distant, for it is in these times that He is working His wonders.