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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Word and the Sleep of Death in Christian Prayer.

Christian contemplation takes in the mystery of death and sees it transformed by the Word of the Father. It is not more powerful than the love of God. It's hellish currents cannot drown out desire that the Lord has for us to live. This is a true spiritual reality, a great drama that God takes seriously—because His love is more serious than death. St. John of the Cross observes that Christ suffered the annihilation in not only his body but also his spirit, arguing that this is why Christ calls out in the words of a psalm: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? To suffer the absence of the Father, says the mystical doctor, is the Lord's greatest suffering. It is a true spiritual death, and we could say, His pathway into the abyss of human misery. Yet in suffering this death, St. John of the Cross observes that Christ accomplished his greatest work: our salvation. So it is with us—when we enter by prayer into the mystery of Christ's death and allow our own existence to be shaped by His suffering for our sake, we also accomplish our greatest work. What is more, our friendship and union with Christ is perfected. On Holy Saturday, we realize the radical extent that Christ journeyed into death for our salvation includes His descent into Hell. For those who want to follow their Crucified God, this descent also informs their journey. Yet just how far do we go with this? The answer is the length that Christ went into the mystery of death—the depths to which He suffered his own separation from the Father is the pathway that we also must follow until we find those places where God seems absent to us too. What this means in practical terms is that the Word of the Father waits for us in those miseries we would rather avoid. Our prayer must not keep Him waiting but should bravely go where we are awaited by Him. Our hidden poverties, miseries, affections, voids, inadequacies, failures, weaknesses, frustrations and disappointments are not places that God avoids or pretends does not exist. To say that the Son of the Most High has descended in hell is to proclaim that He has gone down into these abysses and embraced them as our Savior and as our Friend, The Word made flesh descended into our miseries and afflictions no matter what they are and He awaits us in these painful places. If we will seek His presence even here, He who is the Truth Himself can teach us how to offer these most difficult parts of our personal existence—so that instead of such things damning us, the Good Shepherd can lead us out of them and onto higher ground. Whoever goes into these hidden poverties of our lives with hope in the Lord and seeks Him, the Son of Mary will raise up to new life. This is the mystery of Holy Saturday. Christian contemplation becomes a kind of sleep of death when we descend the abyss of our miseries in search of the Lord of Life. We do not do this to beat ourselves up or torment ourselves or accuse ourselves. We do this to find the Suffering Servant who has gone before us into these places and transformed them into springs of life. No sin is too great that it cannot be surrendered to His mercy. No failure is so definitive that the Son of the Father cannot show us how His love is all the more definitive of who we are. Christian prayer allows us to find God in our afflictions. Prayer that listens for the voice of Love Himself when all seems lost and there seems to be no way out, such prayer has already entered the sleep of death that the Living God embraced for love of us. Souls that have ventured with faith into "hell," that is all those memories and attitudes where God seems most absent in one's heart, these are the ones who are always astonished to find Christ in this same sleep with them, for them in unfathomable power and authority. They know the glory of Him awakening them to new life.

Out of the treasuries that these disciples discovered in the Lord, they can speak words of hope to those who also find their own lives threatened by the power of sin and death. Those who the Deliverer saves from the hellfire that threatens their own hearts, they know what true freedom is. If we persevere in our search for the Conqueror of Death even in the miseries of our lives, the Lord of Life comes to us with His peace and offers to lead us home.

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