Asking in the Absence
Providence came to our church just ahead of the pandemic.
In late January, we unfastened the book of Esther for a series of sermons called “When God Seems Silent.” God never speaks—and isn’t directly invoked—in this Old Testament book, but divine presence suffuses the story. Ever faithful to his eternal project of love, God uses means and moves history to give his endangered people sanctuary.
The framework of Esther heartened me when our home became a different sort of shelter. Left to my magpie inner monologue and an anxious world feeding back through its amplifier, God’s voice became nearly impossible to hear. In the silence—or with his still, small delivery buried beneath the noise—trust beyond my spiritual senses became paramount.
The art of perceiving God when every shred of evidence damns him as a deadbeat comes to the fore in Nick Ripatrazone’s book Longing for an Absent God. As worthy a guide into the abyss as readers could line up behind, Ripatrazone traces seams of doubt and shifts in devotion as revealed in the work of both culturally and resolutely Catholic novelists.
Ripatrazone sifts usual suspects such as Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene, and reads spiritual drifters, looking for the subtext of unspoken prayers and clues leading to God’s safe return. Citing Thomas Aquinas, he defines the Catholic conception of God as “presence.” He documents where God shows up in the details of certain novels, and haunts the white space of others. Even the dormant believer responds to divinity in some way, he argues.
“Rather, because they have felt the severe, sensuous nature of Catholic belief, they understand what it means to have God absent from that space,” Ripatrazone writes. “In many ways, we might consider the fiction of lapsed Catholics to be a statement of this longing for God, or at least a longing for that forgotten joy of belief.”
In an early passage, Ripatrazone quotes Graham Greene, who says a Catholic writer never tries to be Catholic. “Everything that he says or writes inevitably breathes Catholicism.”
I came of age in a culture resembling, yet so unlike, the Catholicism Ripatrazone chronicles. The evangelicalism of my youth only knew God in earthquake and fire, failing to discern the whisper. We waited to exhale rather than breathing in the presence of God like oxygen around us.
Believing God only existed in capital letters and exclamation points, we counted the number of times his name showed up in songs. We shoehorned him into existing advertising slogans, then screen-printed him across T-shirts. We hassled bands who “happened to be” Christians, treating divine inspiration as the enemy of divine assertion.
Time, and the demands of living in a mostly gray world, taught me to scout out the evidence of God in quieter moments, on lips that prayed to him in the secret fashion of Jesus—or never breathed his name at all. Once I wasted hours asking “Is this a Christian artist?” Now I don’t even know what to do with the question.
Poets like Christian Wiman and Mary Oliver qualify; bands such as U2 and The Mountain Goats more than make their case. Beyond these examples and some like souls, I hesitate to even entertain the conversation.
Reading Ripatrazone set fresh fire in my belly, and sent me retracing sacred footsteps tracked through my favorite art. Daydreaming about books and films and records, I carved out spiritual jigsaw puzzles, then reassembled them to see where God shows up. At the borders, in the center or somewhere just outside the picture frame.
He is the spring thaw beneath the surface of a placid, frozen lake in the music of Bon Iver. On Jason Isbell’s seminal album “Southeastern,” he animates a steadfast companion and supplies the willpower to keep the songwriter sober. He groans on our behalf, pleading for the kingdom to dawn in Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”
He inhabits the world of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, an object of worship characters grope for but never grasp. In James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, he is the swirling inner light that sustains Tish and Fonny—and he is in us as we recognize, then name, the injustices visited upon this young couple.
God resounds in some of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, arriving with strange mercy in the plagues of Magnolia. In others, we strain to hear him. Neither the oil man nor the preacher exalt him in There Will Be Blood; perhaps he is the Jonny Greenwood score.
He plays through the rests and sets up somewhere just off-screen. If the rocks cry out, so can paragraph breaks. Accept him in the silences, and it makes sense to interrogate the cultural goods which declare him in loudest voice. Ask where God is in the “God’s Not Dead” films before you question David Lynch; analyze any number of Christian self-help texts before tossing Haruki Murakami from bookshelves.
I bristle a bit when others repeat that “all truth is God’s truth.” I agree in principle, but usually find the application lacking. But I know this: all longing is God-longing. When the art does the asking, perhaps the asking itself supplies the answer. If we know enough to question him, we know deep down that he is. God screams in the silences, exalts himself through the experience and waits patiently as we work it all out.
In so many ways, we change the direction of Eden’s curse. Once an omniscient God asked after the whereabouts of Adam and Eve. Now we, disoriented and disillusioned, ask where he resides. But our every expression is a gesture. He is here—even in our denials, even in the silences. Of course he is.
In the final sentence of his book, Ripatrazone writes, “Practicing or lapsed, Catholic writers long for God, and their longing creates a beautiful and melancholy story.” I agree and, spreading that longing to fill every crook and occupy every corner, I know this is the story we all live and tell. In our writing, in our songs, in our moving pictures, in the everyday. When God seems silent, the earth still fills up with the knowledge of his glory.