Maybe we wouldn’t want to meet him face to face.

When we begin to pray, God may seem to be absent. Obviously I am not speaking of a real absence—God is never really absent—but of the sense of absence which we have. We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply. What ought we to think of this situation?

First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, … and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God. The fact that God can make himself present or can leave us with the sense of his absence is part of this live and real relationship. If we could mechanically draw him into an encounter, force him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet him, there would be no relationship and no encounter. A relationship must begin and develop in mutual freedom. The second very important thing is that a meeting face to face with God is always a moment of judgment for us. We cannot meet God in prayer … and not be either saved or condemned. I do not mean this in major terms of eternal damnation or eternal salvation already given and received, but it is always a critical moment, a crisis. “Crisis” comes from the Greek and means “judgment.” To meet God face to face in prayer is a critical moment in our lives, and thanks be to him that he does not always present himself to us when we wish to meet him, because we might not be able to endure such a meeting. Remember the many passages in Scripture in which we are told how bad it is to find oneself face to face with God, because God is power, God is truth, God is purity. Therefore, the first thought we ought to have when we do not tangibly perceive the divine presence, is a thought of gratitude. God is merciful; he does not come in an untimely way. He gives us a chance to judge ourselves, to understand, and not to come into his presence at a moment when it would mean condemnation.

In order to be able to pray, we must be within the situation which is defined as the kingdom of God. We must recognize that he is God, that he is King, that we must surrender to him. We must at least be concerned with his will, even if we are not yet capable of fulfilling it. So often what we would like to have through prayer, through the deep relationship with God which we long for, is simply another period of happiness; we are not prepared to sell all that we have in order to buy the pearl of great price. Then how should we get this pearl of great price? Is it not the same as in human relationships; when a man or a woman experiences love for another, other people no longer matter in the same way.

Isn’t that what could, what should, happen with regard to all our riches when we turn to God? Surely they should become pale and gray, just a general background against which the only figure that matters would appear in intense relief? We would like just one touch of heavenly blue in the general picture of our life, in which there are so many dark sides. God is prepared to be outside it, he is prepared to take it up completely as a cross, but he is not prepared to be simply part of our life.

So when we think of the absence of God, is it not worthwhile to ask ourselves whom we blame for it? We always blame God, we always accuse him … of being absent, of never being there when he is needed, never answering when he is addressed. At times … we say piously “God is testing my patience, my faith, my humility.” We find all sorts of ways of turning God’s judgment on us into a new way of praising ourselves. We are so patient that we can put up even with God!

What we must start with, if we wish to pray, is the certainty that we are sinners in need of salvation, that we are cut off from God and that we cannot live without him, and that all we can offer God is our desperate longing to be made such that God will … receive us in repentance, receive us with mercy and with love. And so from the outset prayer is really our humble ascent toward God, a moment when we turn Godwards, shy of coming near, knowing that if we meet him too soon, before his grace has had time to help us to be capable of meeting him, it will be judgment. And all we can do is to turn to him with all the reverence, all the veneration, the worshipful adoration, the fear of God of which we are capable, with all the attention and earnestness which we may possess, and ask him to do something with us that will make us capable of meeting him face to face, not for judgment, nor for condemnation, but for eternal life.

Metropolitan Bloom, a Russian Orthodox archbishop, is the author of several books, including God and Man and Courage to Pray. This excerpt is taken, with permission, from Beginning to Pray (Paulist Press, 1970).

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