the (dis)appearance of God

It’s been more than two years since I had the experience that I call “the  suck” or “the empty  holodeck.” Although the experience really lasted just a moment, in some ways its consequences have been far lasting. Because of my own attachments, I’ve probably resisted describing it as honestly as I could have. 

What really changed most is that I no longer experience God as a felt Presence. This was jarring and unsettling to me, because for well over thirty years, I did. After a brief agnostic period in my youth, I had a born-again experience that left me incapable of doubt. I knew God was there, because I felt that Presence with me. I was never alone, and I knew it. It was like I had an invisible Companion who was always there.

I took me a long time to realize (in fact, it still amazes me) that most people, including most Christians and other religious people, don’t  have a continuous experience of Presence. As a consequence, for most, religious conviction is based on belief rather than a knowing based on lasting experience.

It would be an exaggeration to say that “God left.” However, for a short while, I felt utterly alone, and although it was jarring, it wasn’t entirely bad. For example, for the first time in my life, I felt like I had privacy!  And in addition, I was able to understand other people’s groping in the dark for a belief to give them a sense of the Ultimate, and I was even able to really understand the skeptics who dismissed it all out of hand.

I don’t want to go back, and earIier this year I even rejected the idea of returning to a previous view. Now I’m  beginning to realize what really happened was that I was blessed with a spiritual experience that lasted so long, I couldn’t even recognize it as an experience. Now it’s over, and I’m having a different spiritual experience. Everything changes, even experiences of the Changeless.

Keeps it interesting, nicht wahr?


17 thoughts on “the (dis)appearance of God

  1. Thanks for that Jon. Could you tell me, did you once again have the experience of the presence of God after this experience of the disappearance of God.

    I myself have an almost continual experience of the presence of God and struggle to understand how other people manage to engage in the spiritual life without such a presence. At times the presence is not as clear as at other times, but when I center myself and look for God I can always find Him (So far anyway 🙂

    I’m not sure what I would do if this presence went away for a long time. I think it would disturb me!

  2. These things are extremely difficult for me to speak about. Often I wonder if we’re not all trying to say the same thing, but use different words and concepts to say it. An atheist is very likely to reject the notion of “Presence” but at the same time can be suddenly overcome by a powerful awareness of the “Oneness” (for lack of a better word) of life and the Universe. Question in an attempt to understand. Does this make you (everybody posting) feel the Presence of God?

  3. This presence you speak of is very interesting. How does it manifest itself? What makes you think it is a presence of another being? Am I understanding this at all? I do not feel any presence other than my own.

  4. @Jacques
    I can’t say that I sense “nothing” now, especially when I quiet myself or practice spiritual disciplines like contemplation or tai chi. I’ve tried describing the “something” as a medium, (see The Swimming Pool. But the personal aspect, like always having an invisible companion, is gone. And yes, it was disturbing.

    Thanks for sharing that lovely video. Your very right about words. They’re great for naming and labeling objects, but rather poor for communicating anything about interior life except at the grossest level. Atheists and theists alike have the very human problem of thinking that their beliefs about the unseen level of existence have any importance at all.

    John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” I think that could be extended to: “Life is what happening while you think about life.”

    I think that means you’re normal!

  5. That’s really interesting. I was always very certain of God as a felt presence, too and lost that feeling of presence 8 years ago.

    It hasn’t returned, but that’s been OK. It’s not like an absence of God. More like the whole idea of the presence or absence of God was the wrong approach in the first place.

    (The idea of God being more like looking at the finger pointing at the moon rather than actually looking at the moon?)

  6. Sorry for my delay in responding, Arulba. Things have been a bit busy. I agree, the “non-presence” is definitely OK. The main thing I think is that what I call the “personal metaphor,” the language and perception of God as a “Person,” has completely and forever broken down, and I don’t miss that at all.

  7. Well, Jacques, one way I have of making sense of it is an Eastern Orthodox teaching on the “essence” of God as opposed to the “energies” of God.

    All human experience of God is through divine manifestations… the energies of God. These are felt in infinite ways and levels, from admiring the beauty of a sunset, to human love, to the experience of God’s presence in a personal way, even to the hypostases or personae (wrongly translated “persons”) of the Trinity.

    The essence of God is what’s behind all the masks. It’s indescribable. Beyond thought or concept. To speak of it is to immediately lie about it. And there it’s neither personal, nor anything else. But from that infinite Emptiness, “reality” flows. That is the mystery.

  8. I hear you Jon, but I’m still struggling with understanding this in a completely non-personal way. I mean where does PERSONality come from if not as a manifestation of God. Yes, God’s essence is beyond comprehension and to speak of it is in a sense impossible, but surely God is conscious intelligence and not unconscious. If God is love then God is “a person” not like you and I are persons, but that there exists such a thing as the Mind of God and that in that Mind God chooses intelligently to Love.

    I wonder if you have ever come across the writings of James (Jim) Arraj – He writes extensively on the relationship between Christianity, Eastern Mysticism, Jungian Psychology and other wonderful subjects.

    In some of his writings he discusses the relationship between Hindu/Buddhist encounters of the non-personal Brahman and Christian encounters of God as Loving other. He and others have put forward the proposal that the Hindu/Buddhist experience is the encounter of God as the Ground of Being/Existence. At the point where all of creation is given existence by God they are all One and the same (In a panentheistic way – though I do not state this as well as he does) and so God and Self and everything else is experienced as One – Everything – Nothing. However, this is not the only or even the most important/highest of mystical experiences. Rather, God, experienced as a loving other is the Biblical model of our relationship with God and the experience of most/all Christian mystics even if they do have some nondual experience of God as the Ground of Being.

  9. Jacques, What can I say? Some people experience a shift in their experience of God. others apparently don’t. Even the most “apophatic” or Zen-like Christian mystics sometimes use “personal” language. When I pray, I myself usually use as “personal” a language as anyone.

    All I can say, is that the conceptions, pictures, and even experiences we have of God all are incomplete because our attempts to grasp them are with our limited, subjective perception. They should be treasured, yes, but not mistaken for the inexpressibleness of the Mystery that provides every moment of existence.

  10. What I’ve been trying to say with words that fall lightyears short of what I mean, is reflected in today’s liturgy. Job speaks about a Person who commands the Universe. For most of us it is rather difficult to “speak to God” if we do not envision God as a Person, our most intimate friend who accepts us totally and pays the ultimate price to set us free. I see this as a metaphor for something else I can’t express in words. Job did it a lot better than me.

    Direct link to mp3 of a prayer on the liturgy of Oct. 1, Jesuit method of prayer

    I very much like “The Cloud of Unknowing”, the Zen of Christianity which is finding expression in “Centering Prayer” in the modern world.

    “Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love […] and must always be overcome. For if you do not overcome this need to understand, it will undermine your quest. It will replace the darkness which you have pierced to reach God with clear images of something which, however good, however beautiful, however Godlike, is not God.” – The Cloud of Unknowing -author unknown.

  11. Very encouraging! I’ve had similar experiences but living without God’s presence seemed to make me look at things a bit differently. I’m still learning.

  12. Hey Jon, this is all very interesting. I’m wondering if this realization invalidates some/any of your previous views on spirituality. I’ve been reading your site for a couple years and find it beautiful and encouraging. But the realization you’re talking about doesn’t seem to be compatible with a mystical approach, which to me basically means that you are trying to know God as directly as possible. Is it possible to know something that isn’t a presence? I guess my question is, is mysticism a thing of the past for you now?

    I’m just curious. I do experience God as a presence and can’t imagine any religious or spiritual approach that doesn’t in some way aim toward connecting with that presence. But I’m not interested in pushing one approach as right or wrong. My experience is that the moment you take up one view as right or wrong, the divine comes along and lets you know you don’t “get it” just yet.

    Just a few various thoughts and questions for you.

    Great site.

  13. Well, Mike, it is consonant I think, with the more apophatic mystical approaches; for example, the Eastern Orthodox have a teaching that we can only know God through his “energies,” and that the *essence* of God is completely beyond human understanding.

    I do feel something, but now it’s more like an energy than a presence, and it’s internal, not external.

    As to the question does this invalidate some of my previous views of spirituality, I guess I’d have to say yes and no.

    Yes to the extent that previous words, concepts, and images no longer really resonate. Words like “Christian,” “Catholic,” “Trinity,””Heaven,””Buddhist,” etc. seem kind of like a distant memory.

    But No, because I’ve known for a long time that it’s not about belief, and I’ve tried to not believe in my beliefs too much.

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