The story in the first reading is about defeat and abandonment. The Israelites were defeated not just once but twice by the Philistines in the reading today. They lost 40,000 soldiers in the first battle, and 30,000 foot soldiers in the second. At the second battle, they brought the ark of the covenant with them, hoping that with the presence of God, they would be victorious. However, it was disastrous, with Eli’s sons among the dead. They may have questioned and doubted God’s words that they were His favorites and that they would never be abandoned.
Many of us do feel like the Israelites. When the UP Maroons edged their way through this season’s UAAP, they lost every game. And they brought with them everything: prayers, holy water, and me — their priest. They were good men, like the Israelites. But despite our ‘arks’ we were defeated.
Many God-fearing people like you who come to mass daily and sincerely try to become good Christians also experienced abandonment and defeat. We tried praying but felt nothing. When friends abandon us or when our hope disappears after each of our dreams have been crushed one after the other; when someone close to us dies or a crisis in the family affects us deeply, we feel like the Israelites. When we fail exams despite our tedious studies, we turn to God but our words just seem empty and our hearts feels desert-like.
People whose names has been connected with holiness were not spared from these experiences: Moses in exile, Elijah in the cave, Mary at the foot of the cross, Jesus crying “Why have you abandoned me?” Even Mother Teresa of our time has not been spared. St. John of the Cross called it the ‘dark night of the soul’.
Why now? Maybe it is like our childhood. When we were children, we were pampered by our parents. They gave us everything. When we started our faith life, we were exhilarated by God’s presence and graces. When the UP Chapel was first built, we heard of the young faith-community experiencing dramatic God-interventions. But also like children, we have to grow up. Our parents would eventually withdraw their presence from us so that we could tackle our problems independently — the only way to become mature individuals.
And so now that we are older, we experience situations of defeat and abandonment even if the “ark of the covenant” is with us. We feel that God has withdrawn from our consciousness (since we believe that He is present everywhere). What do we get from this experience? First, we realize that many material things do not satisfy us: we are not moved by music or find joy in going to our favorite spa or a dream vacation. Nothing can impress and satisfy us. Second, when we feel that our faith is being threatened, we are either led to pray or to despair. When our faith is in the context of abandonment, we begin to question God’s existence, or the validity of our practices or God’s love. Thus, when we doubt and question, we are led towards more answers.
In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan — the Christ-figure — is wild and comes to visit them when we wants and likes to. Perhaps, this is what God wants us to know when He is ‘away’. We cannot control God: since we have faithfully prayed our novenas, he SHOULD grant our intentions. We just should let God be.