A Meditation on Exodus 40:16-21, 34-38
“The cloud covered the meeting tent.”
“For God has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6b). In yesterday’s meditation, we saw how the veil separating us from God has been rent, how in Jesus we have been granted full access to the Heart of God. But it is also clear that this access, during the pilgrimage of this life, occurs in the “obscurity” of faith. For “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7), and the glory that shines in our hearts remains, as it were, veiled nonetheless. This is a great mystery. The veil has indeed been removed, and yet it has not been definitively removed. We truly share in the life of God; we truly dwell, already, in the Trinity’s embrace, and yet we do so in the midst of the hiddenness of this life. As Saint Paul says: “You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3); and yet we do not yet experience this reality in all of its truth, hidden as it is from our eyes.
We encounter this dynamic symbolized in the presence of God among his people Israel as they wandered in the desert. After building the ark and the tent according to God’s command, Moses witnesses the cloud of the Lord’s presence descending upon it: a symbol both of God’s closeness and of his transcendence. Precisely because God is so close, Moses cannot enter the dwelling-place. The cloud both brings the Lord near and veils him, for he is so much greater than we can grasp or comprehend, in his very closeness. In our own day, have we perhaps forgotten the immensity of God, how truly great and awesome he is, to be approached only in humility and awe, in an inner prostration of the heart?
The mystics of the Church often describe our approach to God as occurring in a kind of “night” or in the midst of a “cloud.” The light of God is so brilliant and pure that it, as it were, overwhelms our natural capacities and makes us blind. Only thus, purifying our ordinary way of seeing, does it then gradually teach us to see anew, to see with spiritual eyes.
We can complain of God’s apparent absence, his silence in the face of all the suffering of our world, of the longing of our own hearts. Why does he not make himself more visible? However, the true response to such an objection—while taking account of the true struggle that such a reality poses—is to show how God is indeed close. Yes, he is so close to us that he could not be closer. Only, his ways of making himself known to us are not as we expect, or as we ourselves would choose. But they are indeed best, the pedagogy of the most loving Father, the loving “tactics” of the greatest of Lovers.
There are many things that could be said at this point, but let it suffice now simply to speak of God’s presence in silence and in “darkness.” For God makes his word known to us precisely in the midst of silence, and if we refuse to enter into the silence, we cannot hear his voice. God pours out the radiance of his light in the midst of darkness, but if we flee from facing the darkness of our own neediness, we do not encounter his healing light. But to say that God speaks in silence and gives light in darkness is not to say that he is present only in some “mystical sphere” of our lives. Rather, this silence and darkness—both concealing and revealing the Word and Light of God—are present in the very concreteness of our everyday lives.
This is the beautiful mystery. God is indeed transcendent, beyond all that we can imagine, and yet his transcendence is expressed in his very closeness to us. This is the attribute of God: he cannot be contained by the greatest, and yet he is present in the least. We struggle to see him not because he conceals himself, not because he is far away, but because, to find him, we are invited to descend in humility to where he truly dwells and makes himself known. In truth, the entire Trinity dwells in the inmost recesses of our hearts, carrying on ceaselessly its dialogue of love, this intimate exchange between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The problem is simply that we live on the “periphery,” very far from the inner sanctuary of the heart, preoccupied with many external, passing things, and tossed about on the waves of anxiety and uncertainty. To cast the anchor deep into the heart requires courage and trust.
And only in this courageous movement which faces the hidden truth of my own heart, my heart in its poverty and neediness before God, can I find this neediness opened up to the presence of the One who loves me. Yes, God is indeed in this place. He is ever alive in my heart, giving birth to me in his love at every moment, sustaining me in fatherly tenderness, rejoicing in me even in all of my brokenness, seeking to heal me in so many humble and hidden ways. As I allow myself gradually to be “re-integrated” into the place of the heart, I find that the darkness is not indeed ultimately dark; for I discover that in God there “is no darkness at all,” and his “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1 Jn 1:5b; Jn 1:5).
Indeed, this is not all. Upon encountering God here, where he always seeks to encounter me, I gradually learn to encounter him in all the places where I did not see him before. I learn to discover his “unveiling” precisely where before I saw only his hiddenness. For God reveals himself precisely in emptying himself out. He exposes his Heart precisely in descending into our lowliness: to become present under the lowly appearances of bread and wine, to conceal himself in the heartbeat of every human person, to whisper gently his love for us in the breeze caressing our face, to show his thirst for us in the aching desire of our own heart, to knit us to himself and to one another in every event and circumstance of our life.