This article first appeared at: stpaulcenter.com

Amidst the somber beauty of the many readings at Easter Vigil Mass, there’s a line from the prophet Isaiah which feels rather jarring: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great tenderness I will take you back” (Is 54:7, NABRE). For souls whose hearts have been pierced by deep suffering, this verse might feel disconcerting. Why would our loving Father ever abandon us, even for a brief moment? And does that mean He might be abandoning me right now?[1]

To answer these questions, it’s good to first take a step back and examine the context. In the Easter Vigil, it is Isaiah 54:5-14 that is read as the fourth of the seven Old Testament readings. To really get a sense of the context, however, it is helpful to look at Isaiah 54 as a whole.

Isaiah 54 begins with a remarkable promise. God is talking to His beloved—aka Israel—and He’s referencing the fact that she has repeatedly been unfaithful to Him in big ways and small. Because of this spiritual adultery on Israel’s part, God addresses her as “you barren one who never bore a child” (Is 54:1). He then adds in the same verse: “[B]reak forth in jubilant song . . . For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife than the children of her who has a husband.”

What an outrageous idea! The one who is barren will bear more children than those who are fertile? According to God, that’s exactly the kind of miracle He intends to work in His wayward people. Despite Israel’s self-inflicted spiritual barrenness, even so she need not despair, because that’s how grandiose the Divine Mercy is. God develops the theme further:

 

Do not fear, you shall not be put to shame;

do not be discouraged, you shall not be disgraced.

For the shame of your youth you shall forget,

the reproach of your widowhood no longer remember. (Is 54:4)

 

In ancient society, the financial security of a family depended on its offspring. Even more so than today, therefore, widowhood was viewed as frightening and heartbreaking in equal measure. For this reason, the Old Testament is full of references to God taking care of widows and orphans and directing His wrath at anybody who might try to take advantage of them (see Is 1:17).

What makes Israel’s widowhood especially jarring is the fact that it was freely chosen because of her infidelity to her divine husband. This is why Israel’s widowhood can be called a true “reproach,” i.e., a source of social stigma and shame. But even so, God reassures Israel that “your Maker is your husband” and “the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer” (Is 54:5-6). Thus when Israel is at her absolute lowest, when she realizes her many mistakes have left her “like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,” in that darkest of places the Lord reminds her that He is still faithful.

This brings us to the most challenging part of the chapter, which is verses 7-8:

 

For a brief moment I abandoned you,

but with great tenderness I will take you back.

8 In an outburst of wrath, for a moment

I hid my face from you;

But with enduring love I take pity on you,

says the LORD, your redeemer. (Is 54:7-8)

 

Let’s note first that the Hebrew term for “enduring love” in this section is hesed, a tremendously rich word describing the kind of merciful love which is completely unearned by the receiver. In his book The Dynamics of Grace, for example, the theologian Stephen Duffy denotes hesed as “overwhelming, astonishing graciousness that is oblivious of itself and solely for the other.”

Clearly, then, the tenderness of Yahweh is being highlighted in this passage. But still we are confronted with the challenging suggestion that God at some point abandoned Israel, even if only for a brief moment. How do we make sense of this? And how can we be sure God won’t abandon us in our own trials?

Here we shall suggest two basic ways of understanding divine abandonment, either of which might apply at different times in our lives. The first kind is what we experience as a result of our obstinacy in sin; on a literal reading of Scripture, this is the kind of abandonment which Isaiah has in mind when he recalls the history of wayward Israel.

Isaiah 54, we should remember, is written with the events of the Babylonian exile in mind. For centuries, God had been urging Israel to abandon her idolatrous and unfaithful ways, and to listen to His prophets. Once it became clear she would not listen, then a more severe mercy was needed. For a brief moment, Israel (more technically, the southern kingdom of Judah) was made to experience God’s abandonment in the form of the Babylonian armies arriving in Jerusalem, razing its Temple to the ground, and forcing its inhabitants into exile.

Although this form of abandonment may seem harsh, it stems from a place of love. Here some analogies might be helpful. We can think, for example, of a devoted wife who has endured her husband’s alcoholism for many years, but who is eventually forced to leave him for a brief time because that is the only tool she has left for making him realize the dire straits he is in. Or again, we might think of loving parents faced with an obstinately disobedient child. In time, it may become necessary for them to briefly “abandon” their child to the consequences of his actions, so as to allow him to learn the hard way the consequences of his wrongdoing.

No doubt this can be a painful experience not only for the child but also for the parents, just as the tough love of the alcoholic’s wife will surely cause her tremendous anguish. In the same way, we can be certain that it brings God no pleasure to allow His children to learn their lessons via “the trail of hard knocks.” Like any good parent, it pains God to see His children persist in their sins, and it pains Him when He has to discipline them (see Hos 11:8).

In my own upbringing, I remember times when I was a disobedient toddler at dinner, and my punishment was to sit on the “naughty step” in the foyer. In their wisdom, my parents chose not to spank or yell at me, but simply to remove me from the family’s presence for a few minutes.

Looking back, I suspect it was painful at times for my parents to hear the quiet sobs of myself or one of my siblings sitting on the naughty step. Yet they did it out of love, taking the same approach that God does: “I hid my face from you” (Is 54:8). As a child, I hated that mini experience of abandonment, but it served to bring home for me both the wrong I had done, as well as my desperate desire to see my parents’ faces again as quickly as possible.

Summing up this first kind of abandonment, we can say that when we persist obstinately in our sins, sometimes God abandons us to the consequences of our own actions. Yet He never does this out of pettiness or spite; it is only ever as a last resort, and it is always out of love. Indeed, the Scriptures universally attest that ours is a God who will take extreme measures for the sake of love. Furthermore, although that love may appear harsh at times, it is always tempered by the immensity of His tenderness and compassion.

So far we dealt with a more literal reading of Isaiah 54:7-8, examining the text in light of the historical context in which it was written. When we undertake a more spiritual reading of the passage, however, then we can also understand it in light of a second, quite different experience of abandonment which will sometimes occur in the Christian life.

This second form of abandonment is the abandonment experienced by those souls who are closest to Jesus. It is the abandonment of the dark night, when the wounds of Christ’s love make themselves known in the heart of those faithful souls who have consented to giving Him everything. In the book she was working on the day the Nazis showed up at the door of her convent, St. Edith Stein relates this dark night of abandonment to the abandonment which Jesus Himself experienced as He hung naked for six hours on the cross

No searching human spirit can penetrate the unfathomable mystery of the dying God-man’s abandonment by God. But Jesus can give to chosen souls some taste of this extreme bitterness. They are his most faithful friends from whom he exacts this final test of their love. (The Science of the Cross, p. 30)

Stein’s insights remind us that closeness to Jesus is no safeguard against feelings of abandonment. Oftentimes, in fact, it is in the most advanced stages of the spiritual life that the experience of spiritual desolation is felt most acutely.

Yet the faithful soul need not fear this process, for it is the very process by which she is being taught to let go of everything that is not Christ. Even God’s consolations may be removed for a time, in order that the heart may be purified in loving Him for who He is, and not just for His consolations. For this reason, Stein can speak of the saint’s vocation to “extreme abandonment, and precisely in this abandonment, union with the Crucified” (pp. 30-31).

Lest this all sound rather daunting, we should remember that the kinds of abandonment we experience in this life—whether it be the abandonment of sin or the abandonment of the dark night—will not last forever. In fact, the Hebrew expression which Isaiah 54:7 uses for “a brief moment” could be translated even more emphatically as “a fragment of time,” or “in the twinkling of an eye.” Here it may be helpful to recall, too, that Isaiah is deliberately quoting a famous verse from the Psalms:

 

For his anger lasts but a moment;

a lifetime, his good will.

At nightfall, weeping enters in,

but with the dawn, rejoicing. (Ps 30:5)

 

The night of abandonment is only ever a preparation for an everlasting dawn of joy. The point is driven home by God’s words later in Isaiah 54:

 

Though the mountains fall away

and the hills be shaken,

My love shall never fall away from you

nor my covenant of peace be shaken,

says the LORD, who has mercy on you. (Is 54:10)

 

As St. Thomas Aquinas observes in his commentary, it is as if God wishes to say: “it is easier for mountains and hills to be changed than for my words to be made void.”

Further Reading:

Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching) (John Knox Press, 1995)

Edith Stein, The Science of the Cross, trans. Josephine Koeppel, O.C.D., (ICS Publications, Washington D.C.: 2018)

[1] In writing this piece, I am indebted to Gary Anderson for his insights.

The Fulfillment of All Desire

~ Ralph Martin | Emmaus Road (Paperback)

Ralph Martin, drawing upon the teaching of seven acknowledged Spiritual Doctors of the Church, presents an in-depth study of the journey to God. This book provides encouragement and direction for the pilgrim who desires to know, love, and serve our Lord. Whether the reader is beginning the spiritual journey or has been traveling the road for many years, he will find a treasure of wisdom in The Fulfillment of All Desire. It is destined to be a modern classic on the spiritual life.

Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., founder of Friars of the Renewal and author of many books on the spiritual life, including Spiritual Passages and The Journey to God praised this book from Ralph Martin: “This is a book to keep at your place of prayer for years to come. Ralph Martin has given us the fruit of years of study of the spiritual life in the great Catholic tradition. It is a treasure chest of quotations of the greatest writers on the journey to God. Careful reading and rereading will be a source of powerful inspiration for all those on the spiritual journey.”

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