But as for me, O Lord, I cry to you for help;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Lord, why have you rejected me?
why have you hidden your face from me? (Psalm 88:14-15)
In our English spiritual tradition one of the landmarks is a book from the late 1300s called The Cloud of Unknowing.
The anonymous author, most likely a country parson from the East Midlands, is counseling a younger monk with practical, pastoral advice about mystical prayer, especially dealing with the difficulty that arises when it seems that God has withdrawn — what John of the Cross some 300 years later called “the dark night of the soul.”
The author suggests that we should imagine, as it were, a “cloud of unknowing” hiding God from our senses. Our prayers should be as “piercing darts of love” aimed toward God through the cloud.
The hope of this pastoral approach to prayer is that eventually we will come to love God as he is, not for the consolations he provides. God’s seeming withdrawal, and our time spent under the cloud, can help us to mature in our love for God.
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Our Old Testament reading this morning is a poignant story of another wise priest, Eli, counseling the young man Samuel. Though “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Sam. 3:1), Eli helped Samuel to recognize that God had something to say to him. When Samuel heard the judgment of God against Eli’s sons, he “lay there until morning,” as if under a cloud.
Eli insists that Samuel tell him everything; he knows God is judging him and his sons, but he says “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” (1 Sam. 3:18). Though Eli will receive no consolation, he continues to love the Lord.
And Samuel? I can’t help but see the “piercing darts of love” foreshadowed when the story tells us that “as Samuel grew up, the Lord let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 3:19).