Is God absent or present? Is He near at hand, or remote and withdrawn? It’s a matter of how you look at it.
Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra Monastery Mount Athos
When the soul looks at reality solely through its pain and suffering, it does not see things clearly, and thus it thinks that Christ and His voluntary sufferings are something abstract, distant, and without real meaning. But when the soul alters its perspective, its inner sense and experience of things will begin to change, and so too the way it confronts and responds to its own sufferings, and then it will see that Christ is very close indeed. When we enter into the place of hope and trust, we see that God is near, and acknowledge Him as our Lord.
Will [the soul] accept growth, change, and consequently redemption? Redemption follows upon the experience and acceptance of death. The moment we accept death, true life can begin. Only by means of death can one “trample down death,” and so attain to resurrection. Thus, depending on how the [soul] confronts the problem of suffering, God will either be his savior or his executioner. Again, the secret to his freedom does not lie in the rejection of his sufferings, but in his joyful acceptance of them. He will be truly free only when he lets go of wanting to be free from his sufferings, for all freedom and all life depend on our being in right relation to God.
The moment we accept death, true life can begin.
When he accepts his death; when he allows himself to hear the sound of his footsteps descending into the grave, he will find that death no longer has a hold on him, for now he is with God. The darkness will vanish and he will see only light. By struggling to find the right relation to suffering, to our own death, we shall simultaneously find God… [The soul] must make the difficult decision to sacrifice himself voluntarily to God. If he accepts to become an instrument of God’s will, he will emerge triumphant; but otherwise he will fail. His suffering is beyond his control, it is not something he willed for himself, but all things begin and end with God, and nothing takes place apart from the divine will, and so he must see himself as an instrument wielded by God.
As we’ve said, in accepting or rejecting my suffering, I am accepting or rejecting God Himself. In the beginning, God and I are separate, in such a way that my self, my narrow self-concern, leaves no room for God. If “I” exist, God cannot exist, for there cannot be two Gods, and so it is either God or the self. When someone sees only his own suffering, God cannot answer him, for it is precisely the mistaken, negative attitude toward suffering that constitutes the separation between him and God.
But if “I” cease to exist, if my relation to my suffering changes, then I can be united to God. This union depends on the denial of myself, so that God can come into my life.
I must learn to accept suffering with joy, to find joy within my suffering, to realize that even in my moments of glory, I am nothing but “dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27); a “pelican in the wilderness” (Psalm 101:7 LXX), lost in a desert land, seeking shelter in a landscape of ruins. I must realize my sinfulness, my nakedness, my alienation from God; I must realize that I am “like a sparrow alone on a housetop” (Psalm 101:8 LXX), not because I have some psychological problem, but because I have been separated from God.
I need to experience both my exile and my union with God. I need to experience my inner darkness in order to know that God is my life and my light, that He is my salvation. I need to realize that I am in hell, in prison, in solitary confinement, alone on an island dying of leprosy, in order to enter the kingdom of heaven… both in this life and in the one to come.
My soul must cry out, just as the souls of all the saints have cried out, and then my soul will be saved, suffering together with Christ.
If I exert myself, and commit myself to the struggles of the spiritual life, then I shall have the right to ask for the understanding of the Spirit.
Either way, I’m going to suffer. But it’s up to me to decide whether I’m going to be a wounded deer panting for water and never finding any (Psalm 41:1, Proverbs 7:22), or a lamb sacrificed together with Christ, and calling out to Him.
In this cry, this calling out, there exists the hope that I will hear the sound of His footsteps, and that these will overtake my own and lead me to salvation. But even before I cry out, God will answer me and say,
“I am here.” (Isaiah 58:9)