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Introduction - No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers


"This book is one of the most lyrical and moving reflections on God I have encountered. It is also remarkably generous, both to believers and nonbelievers. Most helpfully it is about how to pray, and how to suffer through the dark night in which answers, and communication, seem absent. A remarkable book by a remarkable man." - Peggy Noonan

Novak10The Darkling Plain

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain ...

- Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach"

Just as I was writing this book, Christians and non-Christians alike wrote to question me about the meaning of Mother Teresa's forty-five years of inner emptiness, feeling "neither joy, nor love, nor light . . . and on a darkling plain." The experience of this darkness is common to all, believer and unbeliever. The fact that Mother Teresa experienced it surprised many people, friend and foe. It should not have. But it did.

In a way that has startled many readers today, Mother Teresa revealed her own darkness in confidential letters written to her spiritual directors during the long time that she suffered from it. Since these letters necessarily became part of the inquiry required for the process of canonization, and since this process would become public fairly soon, an editor was charged with putting them together in a book for the general public. The point of picking out an outstanding Christian in a public way as a "saint" is to shed light on one unique way in which the gospel of Jesus Christ was realized in history. We learn a great deal from the lives of others. There is a "community of spirit," which is also a community of those who have experienced the common darkness.

Many of my correspondents had not recognized Mother Teresa's inability to sense the presence of God, and the inner agony in which this left her. All they had seen was her amazing smile, as if she felt God's love in her heart (when in fact her heart felt empty) during long days and nights when she brought tenderness to abandoned persons dying in the streets of Calcutta. If she couldn't find God, why did she go on believing in Him? Why did she go on bringing tender care to the abandoned, when she herself felt so abandoned?

Some atheists, such as my friend Christopher Hitchens, now gloat that Mother Teresa was just an unbeliever like the rest of "us." But few atheists — and, alas, not many believers — understand the depths of the interior life of Jewish and Christian faith. They don't understand that it is a never-ending struggle. In the Talmud, Moses points to the vision God has shown him of the great Rabbi Akiba viciously tortured to death by the Romans. Moses says to God, "Master of the Universe," "This is Torah and this is the reward?" And God can only say, "Quiet! This too has occurred to me." Biblical faith demands putting childhood behind, and adolescence, and the busyness of young adulthood. It requires an appetite for bravery — for going into unknown territories alone to wrestle against inner demons, and a willingness to experience darkness, if darkness comes. Faith is not for those who seek only man-made pleasures.

I had one tiny reason for feeling especially close to Mother Teresa from the first time I heard of her. My younger brother Richard was also a missionary to Bengali speakers, as Mother was. But Richard did his work across the ocean from Calcutta, in Dhaka, then part of east Pakistan. Two years after he arrived there, as he was setting out by bicycle on a mission of mercy during the cruel Hindu-Muslim riots of January 1964, Dick was knifed to death by a group of young men who seized his bicycle and his wristwatch. He was twenty-seven years old. They threw his body into a river already thick with corpses.

Dick's favorite saint was Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), a frail Carmelite nun, the most beloved of all Catholic saints, second only to Saint Francis of Assisi. (I have only once in years of traveling around the world found a Catholic church without some depiction of her.) Saint Thérèse lived for most of her adult life in utter darkness and dryness and abandonment by her divine Lover. She wrote an autobiography about her experience, and how it led her to interpret the inner heart of Christianity. So powerfully and clearly did she write that Pope John Paul II inscribed her name among the historic handful of "Doctors of the Church" — teachers so profound and so sweeping in their wisdom that they instruct the whole Catholic people.

The canonization of Saint Thérèse in 1925 was at that time one of the swiftest on record. Miracles attributed to her care and her attention to the needy — which she promised she would "shower down" from heaven — were too many to count. As early as the war of 1914, Thérèse was the favorite saint of French soldiers in the trenches, held by them coequal with Saint Jeanne d'Arc. And so she remains today, this twenty-four-year-old victim of consumption, who after the age of fifteen never set foot outside her cloistered contemplative convent — with Jeanne d'Arc copatroness of France.

The kernel of Saint Thérèse's teaching is often called "the little way," meaning that no Christian is too humble or too insignificant to follow it and no thought or action too negligible to infuse with love. In other words, God cherishes not only great actions of love, but also minor, childlike ones.

The kernel of Saint Thérèse's teaching is often called "the little way," meaning that no Christian is too humble or too insignificant to follow it and no thought or action too negligible to infuse with love. In other words, God cherishes not only great actions of love, but also minor, childlike ones. No matter what spiritual darkness you find yourself in, choose as your North Star a tender love of the persons that life's contingencies have put next to you. Do not go looking around for more fascinating neighbors to love. Love those right nearest you.

You cannot see God, even if you try. But you can see your neighbor, the tedious one, who grinds on you: Love him, love her. As Jesus loves them. Give them the tender smile of Jesus, even though your own feelings be like the bottom of a bird cage. Do not ask to see Jesus, or to feel Him. That is for children. Love him in the dark. Love for the invisible divine, not for the warm and comforting human consolation. Love for the sake of love, not in order to feel loved in return.

It happens that Agnes Bojaxhiu of Albania eventually became a missionary nun in Ireland, and chose for her religious name Thérèse, in the footsteps of her patron saint of darkness from Lisieux. In Spanish, the same name is Teresa, and Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Doctor of the Church, builder of scores of convents of Carmelite nuns all over Europe — administrator and guide extraordinaire, and a canny operator in bureaucracies, running rings around most of the male hierarchy of her time — was also an experienced traveler in inner darkness. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux took the name Teresa as an honor, and followed her in her way, as inscribed in Teresa's books and in the traditions of the Carmelites. (Pope John Paul II was a close follower of the Carmelites.)

For those who love God, that way is excruciating. They would like to feel close to God, but they find — nothing! Like Saint John of the Cross, Teresa gradually came to see that if God were a human invention, a human contrivance, then warm human feelings would be quite enough. But God is far greater than that. He is beyond any human frequency. He is outside our range, divine. One must follow Him without any human prop whatever, even warm and comfortable inner feelings. That may be why Jesus loved the desert as a place for prayer.

The Jewish scholar David Gelernter has written:

This exactly (or very nearly) underlies Judaism's ubiquitous image of the veil, and God beyond or behind it. In its simplest form this veil is embodied in the tallit or prayer-shawl men wear at morning prayer. A more substantial instance: in the First Temple destroyed by Babylonians, worship centered on the Holy of Holies, which contained the ark of the covenant. In the Second Temple destroyed by Rome, worship centered on the Holy of Holies — which was an absolutely empty space. After that — today — the holiest site in Judaism is a blank wall (the Western Wall) with nothing behind or beyond it. This sequence is no accident. It's part of the Jewish people's coming of age and being weaned from what you properly call the child's view to the adult's understanding of God.

That is to say, our senses cannot touch God. Neither sight nor sound, scent nor taste, nor touch, either. Our imagination cannot encompass Him, nor even bring Him into focus. How can we count on our memory? Our minds can form no adequate conception of Him; anything the mind imagines is easily ridiculed. The God who made us and out of His infinite love redeemed us and called us to His bosom is divine, not human. As such, He cannot be found using human perceptual equipment.

This is not a new idea. Serious and devout believers from the time of Elijah and Job have known about the darkness in which the true God necessarily dwells. In order for one's soul to be ready to go far beyond any human contrivance, one must be willing to go out into the desert and the night. Thus we read of the prophet Elijah:

And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, . . .

Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake:

And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah? (I KINGS 19:9-13, KJV).

Thus, also, Job, after he had been stricken with painful boils all over his body, and sat outside where others might mock him, scraping off the scabs, and unable, now, to find the Lord in whom he had placed such utter trust:

But if I go to the east, he is not there; or to the west, I can not perceive him; Where the north enfolds him, I behold him not; by the south he is veiled, and I see him not. Yet he knows my way; if he proved me, I should come forth as gold. My foot has always walked in his steps; his way I have kept and have not turned aside. From the commands of his lips I have not departed; the words of his mouth I have treasured in my heart . . . Therefore am I dismayed before him; when I take thought, I fear him. Indeed God has made my courage fail; the Almighty has put me in dismay. Yes, would that I had vanished in darkness, and that thick gloom were before me to conceal me. (Jos 23:8-12, 15-17, NAB)

The teachings of Elijah and Job were not so different from those of the teacher of Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), the other great Spaniard who founded the male order of Carmelites, expert practitioners of the way to God in the darkness.

There is thus a great difference between aridity and lukewarmness, for lukewarmness consists in great weakness and remissness in the will and in the spirit, without solicitude as to serving God; whereas purgative aridity is ordinarily accompanied by solicitude, with care and grief as I say, because the soul is not serving God.

In more than one book, but especially in Dark Night of the Soul, Saint John of the Cross proceeded lesson by patient lesson to mark out for the novice at prayer the terrors yet to be faced in the desert, while human expectations were shed for those seeking to receive the divine. He vividly described the aridity and emptiness that the lover of God ought to expect, as he traded a child's faith for that of an adult, as he was weaned away from the sweet milk of infancy and obliged to live on hard, dry bread, for long stretches of time. And what the North Stars are. And the dangers to watch for. And the characteristic temptations of every stage of the journey.

Beginners who are prone to "spiritual gluttony" are, in fact, like children, who are not influenced by reason, and who act, not from rational motives, but from inclination. Such persons expend all their effort in seeking spiritual pleasure and consolation; they never tire therefore, of reading books; and they begin, now one meditation, now an other, in their pursuit of this pleasure which they desire to experience in the things of God. But God, very justly, wisely, and lovingly, denies it to them, for otherwise this spiritual gluttony and inordinate appetite would breed innumerable evils. It is, therefore, very fitting that they should enter into the dark night, whereof we shall speak, that they may be purged from this childishness. (Chapter 5)

There is thus a great difference between aridity and lukewarmness, for lukewarmness consists in great weakness and remissness in the will and in the spirit, without solicitude as to serving God; whereas purgative aridity is ordinarily accompanied by solicitude, with care and grief as I say, because the soul is not serving God. (Chapter 9)

Dark Night of the Soul is not an easy book to read. For one thing, it relies heavily upon the experience of the reader. It is intended to show the voyager of the spirit the ways through the night and the desert. How can anyone who has not known the night and desert recognize the symptoms and the signs? This is not a book for reading, but for experiencing.

Perhaps its main point may be expressed thus: Go seek with love your Beloved, follow wherever He leads. Yet even when you come up to Him you must anticipate that there will be no one to be seen. Your faculties are simply inadequate. Were you actually to see, you would be destroyed. It is too much. Your bulbs would short out. Be prepared, therefore, to walk in darkness. Not at all in doubt; on the contrary, for the first time ever, aware that you are not now following illusions, but only the true darkling light of the true God, beyond human range. Anything else is human contrivance and illusion.

Saint John of the Cross imagines his soul as the bride, the spouse, eagerly seeking her Beloved for just one sight of Him. This is his great classic song to the Dark Night of the Soul, in eight brief stanzas, of which the following four are the most telling.

  1. On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings — oh, happy chance! —
    I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest
  2. In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised — oh, happy chance! —
    In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.
  3. In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me,
    Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned
    in my heart.
  4. This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me — A place where none appeared.

It would be easy here to multiply texts from Saint Teresa of Avila, the distant mother and guide of her young follower of three centuries later, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, meditating on this dryness, even as they, too, were surprised at how acute was its pain. Instead, let us take up only a few samples:

The memoirs of Saint Teresa of Avila recount years of spiritual aridity and torment:

I may say that it was the most painful life that can be imagined, because I had no sweetness in God, and no pleasure in the world.

I believe that it is our Lord's good pleasure frequently in the beginning, and at times in the end, to send these torments, and many other incidental temptations, to try those who love Him, and to ascertain if they will drink the chalice, and help Him to carry the Cross, before He entrusts them with His great treasures. I believe it to be for our good that His Majesty should lead us by this way, so that we may perfectly understand how worthless we are .. .

It is certain that the love of God does not consist in tears, nor in this sweetness and tenderness which we for the most part desire, and with which we console ourselves; but rather in serving Him in justice, fortitude, and humility. That seems to me to be a receiving rather than a giving of any thing on our part.

Recently, a Jewish friend wrote me as follows:

Yom Kippur was a few weeks ago; the day-long prayers end in the N'eilah service, in which the fasting congregation, which stands throughout this hour-and-a-half-long concluding ritual, repeats in Hebrew with increasing fervor, or desperation, the verses spoken to Moses — "The Lord, the Lord God merciful and gracious, long-suffering and full of goodness and truth" — and it all concludes with the mournful blast of the shofar. But it sometimes happens, as it did this year at my synagogue, that after all this, the exhausted congregation breaks out spontaneously in what you'd call a joyous song, and dances together round the Torah-table at the center. Jews know the dark and accept the dark, but are obligated nonetheless to rejoice. I wonder whether this might not be a fundamental distinction between Jewish & Christian worldviews.

Yet Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa, and Saint Thérèse all break out in joy in an analogous way. Dante saw the Christian story as a happy one (commedia), not a tragic or crestfallen one, as Easter follows Good Friday.

For example, of her own spiritual aridity, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux wrote:

But during the Paschal days, so full of light, our Lord allowed my soul to be overwhelmed with darkness, and the thought of Heaven, which had consoled me from my earliest childhood, now became a subject of conflict and torture. This trial did not last merely for days or weeks — I have been suffering for months, and I still await deliverance ... I wish I could express what I feel, but it is beyond me. One must have passed through this dark tunnel to understand its blackness.

Sometimes, I confess, a little ray of sunshine illumines my dark night, and I enjoy peace for an instant, but later, remembrance of this ray of light, instead of consoling me, makes the blackness thicker still ... And yet never have I felt so deeply how sweet and merciful is the Lord.

The forty-five years of emptiness, darkness, and inner pain experienced by Mother Teresa, and honestly set forth in her private letters to her spiritual director, follow in a long tradition.

This is the context in which the new book by Mother Teresa of Calcutta must be grasped. These are her two "mothers" in spiritual growth and authentic Christian faith, in the light of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. The forty-five years of emptiness, darkness, and inner pain experienced by Mother Teresa, and honestly set forth in her private letters to her spiritual director, follow in a long tradition. They are not really signs of doubt, although the black darkness feels like that. They are in fact signs of Christian adulthood, following in the only way in which illusions of human contrivance can be scraped away, as Job tried to scrape away the dry boils on his arms and ribs. And in which the truly faithful, like Job and Elijah, can find Him whom they love in the darkness, while denying Him not. "Then his wife said to him, 'Are you still holding to your innocence? Curse God and die: But he said to her, 'Are even you going to speak as senseless women do? We accept good things from God; and should we not accept evil?' Through all this, Job said nothing sinful" (Job 2:9-10, NAB).

It is from "human fabrication" that the darkness and the desert free us. When God subtracts His gifts, as He subtracted Job's, Job does not take this withdrawal as punishment. Job knows his innocence, he knows his fidelity, even in the darkness and in utter suffering. He utters not one denial of his Lord. His soul stands firm beneath the pain.

So also Mother Teresa of Calcutta stood darkly in the presence of her Beloved, confident that even unseen, He was best found where love for her nearest dying neighbor presented Him.

To the place where he (well she knew who!) was awaiting her — A place where none appeared.

Turning Now to More Secular Lessons

In the glory days of ancient paganism, even while others may have believed their nation's gods hovered close, watchfully and efficaciously, many learned men did not believe in those multiple gods. In the most robust eras of Judaism and Christianity, similarly, there were always those who mocked the faith around them. In the so-imagined "Age of Faith" of the Middle Ages, a great many did not believe, and many others believed only weakly. Cynics have abounded in every age, in the dialogues of Plato, in biblical narratives, in all times.

In our time, many scholars have held that for some generations now, day by day, the world is becoming less religious. One day, they hold, the secular conscience will prevail, and the religions of the past will slip away, like pink sand from an almost empty hour glass. That will be a happy day, their theory has predicted.

Almost as long ago as I can remember, the atheist position seemed to me credible, attractive, real. I was born into a strongly Catholic family, a family also built upon the Harvard Classics, the first joint purchase of my mother and father, poor as they were, when they were married in 1932. On this basic library, my father wanted to build his family. From about the age of twelve I was be coming fairly certain that I must test a vocation to become a Catholic priest. Therefore, it was important to me whether or not there is a God. That was a question I needed to confront for myself. For I did not want to be surprised later in life by encountering realities I had not faced internally before the fact. To me, atheism was not so much a temptation as a real possibility. The important question was, But is it true?

I also thought non-Catholic versions of the Christian religion were real possibilities. After all, most people in the larger world — as I began to become aware of it — manifestly think that Catholicism is false. The Protestants and the Enlightened have both named themselves for their opposition to the Catholic faith. Many in the West define themselves still today against the Catholic ascendancy, aka the "Dark" Ages. Compared to the "Bright Ages"?

As a consequence, I used to study carefully articles on apologetics (why Catholics believe this or that; the advantages of belief over atheism) and also articles by Protestant writers and atheists (why they thought the Catholic faith was wrong and even dangerous), as well as articles portraying the satisfactions of alternative ways of life.

All this did not mean that I was blown off course. I kept plowing ahead, yet quite aware that life is long, and evidence flies thick around like a winter blizzard. There was plenty of time to make up my mind.

As a consequence, I used to study carefully articles on apologetics (why Catholics believe this or that; the advantages of belief over atheism) and also articles by Protestant writers and atheists (why they thought the Catholic faith was wrong and even dangerous), as well as articles portraying the satisfactions of alternative ways of life.

By the time I was fourteen, I had entered a minor seminary on the quiet shores of St. Mary's Lake — catty-corner from the candlelit grotto of Our Lady — on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. But I kept my eyes open.

Down through the years, we in the seminary used to devote nearly four hours a day to formal prayer, beginning with a half-hour meditation before six-thirty in the morning, followed by the Holy Mass. Of course, we tried to keep in prayer all day long, too, as we went about our work or energetic play on the basketball court, baseball diamond, or football field. Prayer, we were taught, is minute-by-minute conversation with God.

Many, many times our prayer (mine at least) seemed empty, a constant round of temptations to think of other things or simply to doze off. Many times there seemed to be no God present to talk to, no God who sees my necessities. At such times, I wondered if I were an atheist — or, more exactly, what made me any different from an atheist. For the atheist, too, I imagined, the term "God" conjured up an emptiness, an absence. A nothingness. And I empathized.

Somehow I early learned that the important move in prayer is to direct an inner, quiet, steady will toward God's love, to be united with that love, even in dryness and aridity. Prayer, essentially, is saying "Yes" to the will of God. Not knowing exactly what that will is now, or yet will be, saying "Yes," in any case — and in whatever tranquility one can bring to one's disorderly, discordant self.

From about fifteen I had come in contact with the example, and eventually the writings, of that little Carmelite nun of France, Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897). That is probably where I learned to pray. And not to be overly distressed by kneeling (or sitting) silently in nothingness.

As my studies in philosophy and the history of the spirit proceeded, I came to learn that, while one can come to know that God is present, our minds are unable to form an adequate conception of Him, or to grasp Him with any of our five senses, or to imagine Him. His mode of drawing us into His presence is necessarily by way of absence, silence, nothingness. I remember an image fixed in my mind by the poetry of Saint John of the Cross, mentioned earlier: "The place where he . . . was awaiting me — A place where none appeared."

It must necessarily be so. The true God is beyond human concepts, senses, imagination, memory. On those frequencies He is not reachable. Mother Teresa of Calcutta acknowledged her inability to reach God on human wavelengths in a 1979 letter to one of her spiritual directors, the Reverend Michael Van Der Peet: "Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me the silence and the emptiness is so great — that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear."

If a Christian has not yet known this darkness and aridity, it is a sign that the Lord is still treating him like a child at the breast, too unformed for the adult darkness in which alone the true God is found. Any who think they can make idols, or images, or pictures, or concepts of God remain underdeveloped in their faith. Darkness is not a sign of unbelief, or even of doubt, but a sign of the true relation between the Creator and the creature. God is not on our frequency, and when we get beyond our usual range, which in prayer we must, we reach only darkness. This is painful. In a way, it does make one doubt; in another way, experience shows us that it is reassuring. When one is no longer a child, one leaves childish ways behind.

Our intellects, our will — these can reach out to God, like arrows of inquiry shot up into the infinite night. These are not shot in vain. They mark out a direction. Waiting in silence, in abandonment, even in the dry sands of the desert, one comes to know His presence. Not believe in it. Know it. In a 1959 interview with the BBC, C. G. Jung once made the same point. Asked whether he believed in God, Jung replied, "I don't believe — I know"

This is a dark knowledge. One cannot expect anyone else to know it, unless they have also walked the rocky and darkling path — or somehow by God's grace been brought to it by a different journey, along a different route. Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove, I called another book of mine. Some of us labor sweatily, others are borne on eagle's wings.

I do not mean that this knowledge consists of warm sentiments, feelings of devotion, uplift, and "faith." I mean a certain quiet emptiness. A dark resonance of wills. Echo to echo.

Mother Teresa wrote of her own emptiness in 1961: "I accept not in my feelings — but with my will, the Will of God — I accept His will."

This is not a "will" characterized by effort, unrelenting desire, unshakable determination. I mean something almost the opposite: the quiet of abandonment, and trust. This is another mode of will, quite different from the striving will. It is the willingness to forgo any other reinforcement except the blind and dark love we direct toward that infinite Light, on which we cannot set our eyes.

Nor do I mean a turning away from intellect or rationality. On the contrary, I mean taking these with utter seriousness "all the way down" to the very roots of the universe. I mean trusting our own rationality, our own intellect. I mean serene confidence in infinite Light, even when our senses go quite dark. Trust the light, the evidence-demanding eros of inquiry, within us.

I mean the suffering love in which that Light issues forth among us. Not to remove us from suffering. But to transfigure us by means of it.

All this, I know, is senseless to the atheist, even a repulsive childishness. In this, too, there is a kind of necessity. The conditions of the two states of mind are such that the one cannot help regarding the other (at times) with dismay.

In my own life, I have tried to keep the conversation up between the two sides of my own intellect. The line of belief and unbelief is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us. That is why the very question stirs so much passion.

Nonetheless, those who share the one state of mind and those who share the other are doomed to everlasting conversation, forever. In every age there have been atheists. In every age there have been believers. Sometimes I think that the proportion of each hardly ever changes. True enough, within a given civilization the relative prominence of one may favor it far beyond the other. Furthermore, many people at any one time may take neither choice with much seriousness. Swirling along the streets, the fallen leaves of autumn. Too passive to act, one way or the other.

In my own life, I have tried to keep the conversation up between the two sides of my own intellect. The line of belief and unbelief is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us. That is why the very question stirs so much passion. I have known people who declaim so passionately and argumentatively that they do not believe in God that I am driven to wonderment: Why are they so agitated, if, as they insist, God does not exist? Why, then, do they pay so much attention? Some of the greatest converts, in either direction, are those who wrestled strenuously for many years to maintain the other side.

I want to add here, before I go back to an earlier theme, that I left the seminary after twelve years, but not out of lack of faith. On the contrary, I was much deepened in its darkness, convinced only that I could not be a good priest and also experiment and write as by then I knew was my true vocation. Maybe others could do it. I could not. Besides, the attraction of women was more than I thought that, over the long run, I could bear. For a long time, yes. But forever? It seemed to me that life as a layman would be far better for my soul. So I returned to my philosophical studies, experiments in fiction, and close attention to Albert Camus.

What particularly struck me in Albert Camus was his insistence that we begin within nihilism. Only by finding our way out from nihilism could any new civilization rest on solid ground. He meant: finding our way out by intellect, the kind of intellect that can engage with the Absurd. Now some fifty years after my first book, much of the spiritual terrain has changed — on a massive scale, and more than once.

My aim at the present moment is to give one more report from that no-man's-land, at the crossroads where atheist and believer meet in the darkness of the night.

What is it that keeps us from getting through to each other? What is it that needs to be looked at from a fresh perspective, or disentangled in one's own mind, before true disagreement can occur? What goes through the minds of some when they use a name like "God" is very different from what goes through the minds of others.

Naturally, coming face-to-face with God is to be feared. (Mysterium tremendum et fascinans, "The Mystery fascinating, attracting, and to be feared," in Rudolf Otto's phrase). Happily for some, this encounter within the self is fairly easy to avoid. There are many ways to avoid inwardness and to "kill time" simply by keeping busy; frequenting rooms throbbing with the strong beat of certain kinds of music; picking up the car keys to search somewhere else for something to do.

It is not at all hard for a believer to become an unbeliever. A great many do. The seed has often been thrown on dry ground, or on thin soil over rocky shale, and cannot bear the heat of the afternoon. Often enough, faith leads one to feel abandoned to darkness, isolated in inner dryness, undermined by a fear of having been seduced into an illusion. For a believer, it does not take a prolonged thought experiment to imagine oneself an unbeliever.

Yet atheists may actually find it harder to imagine themselves coming by way of reason to know God than believers to imagine the opposite. I hypothesize that unbelievers, especially those who have never known religion in their personal lives, or who have had bad experiences with it, experience a revulsion against reasoned knowledge of God, and even more so against a Jewish and/or Christian faith. Indeed, they find it harder to imagine themselves as believers than believers to imagine themselves as unbelievers. Am I wrong?

Into The Dark

We had a secularist woman living next to us in one of the homes in which I grew up. She had lost her husband and was herself intermittently ill. Yet it was not her illnesses that bothered her; rather, now in her seventies, it was her relative health. Without youth, without children, without any work to do, without enough strength in her bones for volunteering, she felt useless. An energy-sapping pointlessness pursued her every minute and followed her into every room she entered. She lived in anguish. She told me so herself. She did not believe in God, and her sand was flowing out. The question "why?" no longer had an answer.

I have known people who declaim so passionately and argumentatively that they do not believe in God that I am driven to wonderment: Why are they so agitated, if, as they insist, God does not exist? Why, then, do they pay so much attention? Some of the greatest converts, in either direction, are those who wrestled strenuously for many years to maintain the other side.

My neighbor thought she would be better off dead. Yet she was afraid of death's finality. I could hardly bear to look into her mournful eyes, feeling totally inadequate to help. She was a very proud and independent woman. She was utterly isolated. She would have resented any attempt to suggest a different outlook.

When he was asked, What is nihilism? the answer Nietzsche gave was my neighbor's: "The aim is lacking; 'why?' finds no answer." Later he approached the definition another way: "Some thing is to be achieved through the process — and now one realises that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing."

In our age and in our kind of society — mobile, fast, free — the experience of "nihilism" is common even among fourteen-year-old "valley girls." Boredom today is the first taste of nothingness. "Waddya want to do tonight, Beth?" Beth, chewing gum: "I dunno, what do you wanna do?" Nowadays, one of them is likely to have a cell phone to her ear. The interest of the other runs to shopping malls, movie theaters, boys in cars.

The experience of nothingness is, therefore, practically universal. Yet some in the two groups mentioned earlier seem blessedly to have been spared it. Trying to understand it, however, I prefer to speak of this experience without the -ism, prior to any ideology about it, as "the experience of nothingness." How we are to understand that experience, in Nietzsche's way or in any other, is a different matter.

It is an experience I well know in my own life. Everybody does.

Without being tedious, but to make certain that the point is as clear as examples can make it, let me mention Joan, who married for the first and only time when she was forty-three. Not immediately but some three years later and much to her surprise and joy, Joan conceived a child. Months of happy expectation followed. On the day after the child's exhilarating birth, however, she learned that the dear little boy was afflicted with a rare disease that meant her son would probably live only until nine or ten, and would for all the years until then need extraordinary care. The question "Why?" arose inside her with much anguish.

A couple I know of had a handsome, athletic, extremely smart and warmly popular son who excelled in almost everything in high school. It was only at the end of his first year in college that his health faltered, and then slowly it became apparent that he was afflicted with an incapacitating case of schizophrenia and would have to be hospitalized. His nearly adoring parents were crushed. He was an only child. Their world fell apart.

A student I once had in class had been acing all her classes at Stanford, a perky and happy and optimistic young woman determined to get into medical school, in the tradition of her family. She had not a doubt in her mind. Her sailing was exceptionally clear. Until one day. One day it suddenly hit her very hard that she did not really want to become a doctor. Her grandmother had years ago, seeing the child care for a wounded robin, been the first to say that Janette would make a great doctor. Janette's life dream had been implanted in her imagination from that day on.

Now suddenly, as a sophomore, some inner tunnel collapsed and all her dreams came tumbling down. The irrepressible thought had overpowered her: that she had been thrown into this project, it was not her project, she had never given it any real thought. She was just so darn good at it, and her record had gotten her into the university of her dreams, and everything looked far too rosy to endure. And it didn't. She began to show the symptoms of the experience of nothingness that many sophomores come down with: She began to sleep a lot. She could hardly get out of bed. She could no longer see any point to it. With her friends she was, as never before, short and cynical. They knew she wasn't well. But she wasn't sick, either, except with the disease of autonomy and inner freedom.

Granted that I am overcome with the experience of nothingness, how should I live? The alternatives come down to two: some form of suicide (drugs, drink, fast living, killing time will do) such as Albert Camus contemplated in the Myth of Sisyphus. Or this: creatio ex nihilo, reaching down into nothingness to create a new being. But by what light? Following which stars?

Woody Allen found his: "The heart wants what it wants." Even the U.S. Supreme Court has abandoned the Constitution to dabble in its own philosophy of life in Casey: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life." This is not the American legal and moral tradition, but contemporary postmodernism.

Another man I met along the way figured out in his twenties that life is a game. The only trick is to think up a game that will last for a lifetime without ever being finished, but with the satisfaction of reaching certain marks along the way. He chose to visit every town on this planet with a population greater than 25,000. He had the kind of job that allowed him to make quite a lot of money as an independent contractor, enough money to work at most two years and then take a year off to begin visiting the towns carefully highlighted on his regional map. Visiting one, he would put an X through it on his map, and head for the next. He thoroughly enjoyed himself, and found that in a single year, with good planning, he could fulfill his objective on almost one entire continent, except Asia and Africa. In many places, transportation was unreliable and rather primitive. The beauty of his life plan, he once told me, was that the population of cities kept expanding. So he would always have reason to return to one continent after another to cross new towns off his list. His seemed to me an empty project, but where it got its energy was from his recognition of the pointlessness of life.

In a year that was especially dark for me, I remember once hearing my infant son Richard crying out in the middle of the night. Untypically, I was the first to hear him, not my wife. His cry was like a moan, and when I got to him in the next room in his crib, his bed clothes were soaked with sweat, and he was crying out as in a fever. I lifted his hot body to my shoulder, and then I told him: "It's all right, Richard. It's daddy. Here's your dresser, here's your Teddy." I tapped the crib, the closet door, the dresser, trying to reorient him from his fevered dream back into the world of solid things. "You'll be all right, Richie," I said to him, lightly patting his back, as his cries softened to occasional breathy sobs. "You'll be all right. Everything is all right."

Then I wondered to myself: Is this a lie? Shouldn't I be telling him how awful life can be, how much closer life actually is to his fevered dream than to these supposedly solid objects I am trying to orient him to? An image of all those bodies stacked like bags of sand came over me. Am I lying to him? Am I lying to myself?

Nothingness Inside Out

I went back to reflecting on illusions and realities in later months. Something told me that Nietzsche's mad nihilism is not the only, nor the best, theory for explaining life-crushing experiences of the sort he adverted to. I noticed that Nietzsche and Sartre, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, and all those other early writers on nihilism did one remarkable thing at variance with their theories: They wrote books for others to read. In a world that makes no sense, why would they endure the hours and hours of sitting on their back sides, moving old pens across resisting pieces of blank foolscap: If everything is as meaningless as they say, why would they do it?

Yes, there are such things as relativity and meaninglessness and pointlessness. Question is, What are we going to do even if that is true? We will not be able to escape practicing honesty, courage, community, and practical wisdom — or else withering into dry leaves for stray winds to blow about. The choice is ours, and unavoidable.

And since some people seem oblivious to the experience of nothingness, what is it that those who have the experience do, that others don't do?

I began reflecting on what goes on inside the experience of nothingness, first within myself, and then among others I could talk to about it. Here a brief summary will have to do. The normal way in which Nietzsche, Sartre, and we ourselves come to an awareness of the experience of nothingness is through four activities of our own minds and wills. The one Nietzsche and the others most stress is ruthless honesty, forcing ourselves to see through comforting illusions and to face the emptiness. The second is courage, the habit that gives force and steadiness to our ability to see truly. Without courage, we would avert our eyes, as so often we have done.

Third is the ideal of community exemplified in reaching out to others through books — the good moves outward to diffuse itself. There is a kind of brotherhood and sisterhood among those who recognize the experience of nothingness in one another. There is a sort of honesty and cleanness in it one wants to share. One of the marks of "the good" is that, as the Latin puts it, bonum est diffusivum sui — the good diffuses itself. It wants others to participate in it.

Fourth is practical wisdom, that is, practical reason applied to action, by an adult experienced enough to take virtually everything concrete into account — or at least to avoid most of the common mistakes of the inexperienced. When the experience of nothingness hits, one cannot simply take to one's bed. Well, sometimes one does, but then one can't stay there. Moment by moment, in a kind of staccato, action keeps calling to us. Sooner or later, I have to start acting as an agent of my own future again. "Granted that I have the experience of nothingness, what should I do?"

Yes, there are such things as relativity and meaninglessness and pointlessness. Question is, What are we going to do even if that is true? We will not be able to escape practicing honesty, courage, community, and practical wisdom — or else withering into dry leaves for stray winds to blow about. The choice is ours, and unavoidable.

These four virtues do not constitute a complete quiver of all the virtues needed to be a good man or a valiant woman. Still, these four do constitute quite an admirable list. They are a wonderful starting place for an ethic rooted in the experience of nothingness. Here is the point at which Albert Camus began his own ascent out of the problem of suicide (The Myth of Sisyphus), on the road to the heroic and clear-eyed compassion of Dr. Rieux in The Plague. Sartre, locked inside his own solitariness, writing that "hell is other people," faltered on the idea of community. No, hell is not other people. Hell is total isolation within one's own puny mind. It is solitary confinement. (To step out of philosophy for a moment and into the terms of Christian faith: Hell is the solitary soul who freely and deliberately rejects friendship with God.) Hell is becoming conscious of what one has irretrievably chosen for oneself. This Hell has been deliberately chosen.

What we do with the experience of nothingness depends on our proven reserves of practical wisdom, community, courage, honesty. By the end of our lives, learning from experience, we ought to be wiser than we were in the beginning.

Interpreting Our Time

If I am right in this analysis, however abbreviated, we may observe how the generation that fell into the nihilism of the 1930s at last stumbled onto the way out (see Appendix I). In the concentration camps and prisons, many a poor wretch unexpectedly felt himself morally bound not to become complicit in the lies their torturers demanded them to sign. But why? Why, if before they had thought they were nihilists, why couldn't they manage to be cynics and nihilists and liars here at the end, under torture and torment and soft temptation ("You can go free, you can have drinks with your friends again")? Is not a lie a small price to pay in a world without truth? What would a lie mean anyway? "No one will ever know. No one will ever care."

But the liar himself would know, his soul would know; in his own mind's eye, his integrity would forever lie in the dust, humiliated. And his torturer would use this petty surrender to weaken the will of his next victim. "If he did as he was told, why can't you?" The aim of these torturers was to destroy every last vestige of the moral sense, every fiber of integrity of soul within everyone. For those in prison, the torturers could use the harshest methods and take all the time they needed to break a man. The integrity of the entire public could be assaulted by incessant intimidation and occasional, unpredictable terror. After seducing almost everyone to spy on their associates, they could easily blackmail them forever. These poor sinners could never forget their own treason to loved ones.

Even with their almost unlimited power and ferocity of will, it proved impossible for totalitarian regimes to instill nihilism into everyone. Nihilism turned out to be antihuman. However powerfully nihilism is enforced, the human spirit is sometimes able to triumph over it by honesty, courage, community, and practical wisdom.

Those who have doubts about the power of this argument should read the biographies of Anatoly Sharansky, to whose stirring memoir we will turn our attention in chapter one; as well as the stories of Vaclav Havel, Mihailo Mihailov, Armando Valladares, Pavel Bratinka, Irina Ratushinskaya, Maximilian Kolbe, and hundreds of others. From the ashes of nihilism, the human spirit rose stronger and truer.

I have tested this moral principle and have found it fortifying: Accept the experience of nothingness as a gift, search deep into it, live by its living streams. One thing I particularly appreciate about this moral principle is that it requires no illusions. Far from shutting one's eyes to the nothingness and the meaninglessness, one keeps the cellar door open in order to feel, at all times, its cool, stale draft. In that way, one is never allowed to forget. And from these four moral virtues, one forges creative strength. Creation out of nothingness.

Freedom means choosing every moment who I am, and what exactly I must do this minute. Self-government — yes, precisely that.

Yet not exactly without community, community down through time, community around the planet. Not exactly isolated. One's ancestors continue to live in one's own consciousness. One's universal brothers also do.

All together, on a darkling plain.

In "Dover Beach:' Matthew Arnold wrote of an ebbing Sea of Faith:

But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

But today there is a difference. The melancholy roar of a receding sea belongs to atheism.



Michael Novak. "Introduction." No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 19-32.

Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Religion - Inspirational | Doubleday | Hardcover | August 2008 | $23.95 | 978-0-385-51610-4

The Author

novak1Novak10smMichael Novak (1933-2017) was a distinguished visiting professor in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America at his death. Novak was the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize and served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. He wrote numerous influential books on economics, philosophy, and theology. Novak’s masterpiece, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, influenced Pope John Paul II, and was republished underground in Poland in 1984, and in many other countries. Among his other books are: Writing From Left to Right, Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Washington's God, as well as The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,  Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter's Questions About God (with his daughter Jana Novak), and On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. Read a more complete bio of Michael Novak here. For more information, see

Copyright © 2008 Michael Novak
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