Death, dressed in black garb, hunches over a chess board contemplating his next move as peaceful ocean waves drift in and out. Antonious Block calmly watches knowing the stakes are his life.
This was an iconic scene from the movie The Seventh Seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman and released in 1957. The movie is about a medieval crusader, Antonius Block, returning from a journey to his native Sweden. In the opening scene Antonius is just waking up from a night’s rest on the shore. He goes to pray at sunrise, then stops short. As he collects his things, Death appears and tells him his time is up. Instead of accepting his fate Antonius tempts Fate to give him more time by playing a game of chess.
Their game continues throughout the movie. One of the most poignant scenes is a conversation between the knight and Death in a little Church just outside of town. In the previous scene we learn through the squire that the entire country has been devastated by a great plague.
The knight, looking up at a crucifix, realizes his despair. He gave his life in order to serve God by fighting the heathens in the Holy Land. But for all the effort no victory was won, and the guilt of needlessly killing thousands of people haunts him. In the Church, he spots someone he supposes to be a priest, but who is actually Death in disguise, and the knight walks over to confess,
Block: I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams.
Priest: Yet you do not want to die.
Block: Yes, I do.
[As Block looks away, we see now that the “priest” is actually Death.]
Priest/Death: What are you waiting for?
Priest/Death: You want a guarantee.
Block: Call it what you will.
[Block kneels as if praying to the figure of Jesus.]
Block: Is it so hard to conceive God with one’s senses? Why must He hide in a midst of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear Him out of my heart, but He remains a mocking reality which I cannot get rid of. Do you hear me?
Priest/Death: I hear you.
[Block turns to kneel before the priest behind the confessional screen.]
Block: I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge. I want God to put out His hand, show His face, speak to me.
Priest/Death: But He is silent.
Block: I cry to Him in the dark, but there seems to be no one there.
Priest/Death: Perhaps there is no one there.
Block: Then life is a senseless terror. No man can live with Death and know that everything is nothing.
In Antonius’ confession, the knight cries out in a way that many of us do. Where are you God? Why are you hidden? Antonius asks the haunting question “Is it so hard to conceive God with one’s senses? Why must He hide in [the] midst of vague promises and invisible miracles?”
Instead of offering a philosophical response, the Christian mystics offer another perspective. The mystics ask not if God is really there? They shift the focus of the question from the object to the subject. From the questioned (God) to the question-maker, namely, you. This entertains the possibility that maybe the problem isn’t necessarily with God, but with us in how we search for him.
Think about it for a moment. What do you think about when you think of God? What images, messages and pictures come to mind? What if you had a really screwed up perspective of God? Instead of a loving, gracious, just, and creative God, you thought of God as an absentee father, who enjoyed the suffering of mankind or at the very least was indifferent to it. But this kind of God does not exist. So it makes sense that when you go out in search of this nasty God, you wouldn’t find him, right? Its like trying to force a square peg through a circular hole. Or like two ships passing in the night. You go out in search of a mean, ruthless, capricious God, and totally miss the loving, all-powerful and justice loving one.
Psychologists call this Selective Attention. Attention involves two things. First, our brains are primed to look for the object of our attention. Second, our brains dismiss all extraneous information. There’s a famous example of this from researchers Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris testing self-awareness. In their experiment they ask participates to watch a video with several people in white and black clothing. They instruct the test subjects to count how many times a basketball is passed between the people wearing the white clothing. This is a bit demanding since everyone is moving around the frame and the people in black are passing basketballs too. Then a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks through the scene. After the video is over, researchers interview the test subjects on what they saw. The subjects reported the number of passes of the basketball, but when asked about the gorilla, they were clueless. They didn’t notice the gorilla at all. The researchers showed them the video again, but this time told them to look for the gorilla. Test subjects were in shock because there were no attempts to disguise the gorilla. They couldn’t believe that they missed it.
Why does something like this happen? Did the test subjects not see the gorilla? The subjects did in fact see the gorilla, but they didn’t notice the gorilla. Do you see the difference? Seeing and noticing are two different things. They saw the gorilla, but because they attention was primed to look only for the basketball passes between the people wearing white, they dismissed all extraneous information like the people wearing black clothing passing basketballs and the gorilla. So what does this mean for the rest of us or for the spiritual seeker? We see what we attend to.
When a person goes in search of God, but only attends to a particular picture of him which may not cohere to the God who is actually there, they may miss him entirely. For some, this causes doubt in the existence of God. The mystics say this is the wrong reaction to have. Not finding God shouldn’t cause the seeker to doubt the existence of God, but their concept of God. Once a person has made this realization, they are then open to a divine invitation from the God who is there.
So, the mystics are right in questioning who we conceive of when we conceive of God. A more contemporary mystic, one I personally would include in the canon of Christian mystics, was A.W. Tozer. He said “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” If that’s true, then our minds are very important. Specifically, how our minds conceive of God.
But what if we have the wrong conception of God? Then what? This is where suffering may actually serve us. An odd statement to make, right? Let me explain. Suffering challenges us personally and intellectually. It causes us to doubt everything we believe. If we believe something that is false and not spiritually nourishing, suffering will expose that. C.S. Lewis once said “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Pain forces us to attend to look for God where we normally wouldn’t. God very well could be the gorilla standing in the middle of our search. And we ignore him, but suffering redirects our attention to where he is.
God is constantly trying to get at us. He is constantly trying to get our attention so that we may enter into our life’s purpose. We were made for a loving, fulfilling and altogether meaningful relationship with Him. In other words, personal relationship with God is why we were created and it is what we are created for. It is our design and purpose. But we cannot enter into and live out that purpose when we blocked God out of our purview with false conceptions of Him. We have stuffed our spiritual ears and eyes so that we cannot see Him even when we stands before us. He is knocking on the door of our hearts. Therefore, God uses any means possible to get our attention, including suffering.
This is where we get a little philosophical. Critics of Christianity often bring up the theodicy. That is the problem of evil. In summary, for some the mutual existence of an all-powerful God and evil seems incompatible. But many Christian scholars, theologians and philosophers have pointed out that maybe this isn’t true. Maybe there are morally justifiable reasons for God to permit evil. I am no philosopher, but I believe the mystics provide us with one of those morally justifiable reasons. Suffering shakes us loose of the false conceptions of God that keep us away from Him. Suffering sheds the scales from our eyes so that we can see the true God. It allows us to attend to him; to redirect our attention to who he really is. Some might say, well isn’t suffering a high price to pay for relationship with us? Doesn’t that make God greedy?
Again, the mystics would disagree. The mystics view relationship with God as the ultimate good and the location of greatest spiritual satisfaction. Take for example the first question and answer in the Westminster Catechism, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Relationship with God is not a sadistic whim, it is a gift. It is a gift for our ultimate happiness, purpose and joy.
It also has practical import as well. Its true that people become what they worship. If people are worshiping a loving, generous, just, and forgiving God, they will become loving, generous, just, and forgiving people. Consequently, relationship with God isn’t just good for you, its good for the world. People existing in relationship with God are transformed. They become better people, which then has an impact on their homes, organizations, family members, and friends. There’s a ripple effect of expanding circles of transformed lives.
There is more to say on hiddennes and the Christian mystics. I will have to relegate those thoughts for future blogs. But for now, I leave you with this thought. God’s hiddenness paradoxically helps us in ways we cannot see. God’s hiddenness strips us of faith in ourselves. This painful letting go creates space for God to step with no competitors. Through the process we become humble and true seekers of the true God.
If you liked what you read or are interested in learning more about the Christian mystics, you can check out Dan’s new book, The Modern Mystic, on Amazon in paperback and Kindle here.