One day my friend, Tom, who works near where I do rushed into my office at the end of the day. With wide eyes and rushed breath, he exclaimed, "Beth, I think the Evil One is after me!"
He went on to explain that he found himself doing things, bad things, that he would never accept from others and had never thought he would even be tempted to do, for example, hitting on women in whom he had no real interest and in spite of the fact that he had a beautiful and loving wife whom he loved and admired. Yet, he was doing these things and could not seem to stop. He also talked about nightmares and feeling alone. To my response as to whether he had prayed for help, he said, "I have not been able to pray for weeks. The words just don't come, and I don't feel like praying, anyway. I guess prayer is simply now something in my past, not in my present or future."
He really was in a lot of trouble! So, although it was difficult for him, I would not let him leave my office until we had prayed together about this problem. Once we started, the words came to him just fine, and we spent nearly a half-hour in heartfelt prayer. When he left, I could see that he was relieved but at the same time still troubled, worried that what he called "the Evil One" was waiting outside my door to pounce on him.
I was a recent convert at the time and had no idea what I was getting into or what to do about it. After Tom left, I asked God to help me understand what was happening to Tom. "Please let me feel what he feels," I begged. "If possible, give me his struggle for I am stronger."
How naive that request was! How arrogant to think I could "handle" it! Immediately, that Presence, which I had begun to take for granted as it had been with me day and night since my conversion, disappeared. If what I had been sensing all around me for months on a 24/7 basis was the Presence of God, then what I was feeling now was the Absence of God. It was a cold, lonely, empty feeling. It was highly disconcerting, and it created incredible yearning. No matter how much I yearned, no matter how much I prayed, no matter how much I begged, the only thing that came to me was Absence. Black, dark, cold, impersonal Absence. Absence in the office. Absence in the hallway. Absence in the parking lot. Absence in the car. Absence at home. Absence!
That night, I fell into bed and immediately nodded off to sleep. Fortunately, I can always fall asleep; that is how I have treated my inability to take painkiller throughout my life: go to sleep in the dentist's chair during no-painkiller root canals, go to sleep during grin-and-bear it biopsies, go to sleep during childbirth. So, in the tormenting presence of the Absence, I fell asleep.
In the morning, I awoke to the Presence again. Yes!
"Where were you last night?" I demanded to know. (Sometimes I wonder why God puts up with me.)
"You asked to feel what Tom was feeling," came the response.
I admitted that I had overestimated my strength. "Please don't ever do that again," I begged. "Don't ever go away. I don't want to be without You." So far, that request has been honored.
A few days later, I happened across a copy of St. John of the Cross's The dark Night of the Soul and read every word eagerly, finding many parallels in this experience but not a complete fit. Nonetheless, I have to wonder if that is what was happening to my friend or if instead he was indeed in the clutches of something evil. I suppose I will never know. I just know two things:
(1) After 20 hours of prayer, together and separately, Tom emerged back into a life dedicated to God; and, most important,
(2) I want the Presence, not the Absence, every day of the rest of my life!