Sometimes we are the most helpful and life-giving at the very times when we are most helpless. We’ve all been there. We’re at a funeral and there’s nothing to say that will ease the heartache of someone who has lost a loved one. We feel awkward and helpless. We’d like to say or do something, but there’s nothing to be said or done, other than to be there, embrace the one nursing the grief, and share our helplessness. Passing is strange, but it is our very helplessness that’s most helpful and generative in that situation. Our passivity is more fruitful and generative than if we were doing something.

We see an example of this in Jesus. He gave both his life and his death for us — but in separate moments. He gave his life for us through his activity and his death for us through his passivity, that is, through what he absorbed in helplessness. Indeed, we can divide each of the Gospels into two clear parts.

Up until his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is the active one: he teaches, he heals, he performs miracles, he feeds people. Then, after he is arrested, he doesn’t do anything: he is handcuffed, led away, put on trial, scourged, and crucified. Yet, and this is the mystery, we believe that he gave us more during that time when he couldn’t do anything than during all those times he was active. We are saved more through his passivity and helplessness than through his powerful actions during his ministry. How does this work? How can helplessness and passivity be so generative?

Partly this is mystery, though partly we grasp some of it through experience. For example, a loving mother dying in hospice, in a coma, unable to speak, can sometimes in that condition change the hearts of her children more powerfully than she ever could during all the years when she did so much for them. What’s the logic here? By what metaphysics does this work?

Let me begin abstractly and circle this question before venturing to an answer. The atheistic thinkers of the Enlightenment (Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Marx, and others) offer a very powerful critique of religion and of religious experience. In their view, all religious experience is simply subjective projection, nothing more. 

For them, in our faith and religious practices, we are forever creating a god in our own image and likeness, to serve our self-interest (the very antithesis of what Christians believe). For Nietzsche, for instance, there is no divine revelation coming from outside us, no God in heaven revealing divine truth to us. Everything is us, projecting our needs and creating a god to serve those needs. All religion is self-serving, human projection.

How true is this? One of the most influential professors I’ve studied under, Jesuit Michael Buckley, says this in face of that criticism: “These thinkers are 90% correct. But they’re 10% wrong — and that 10% makes all the difference.”

Buckley made this comment while teaching what John of the Cross calls a dark night of the soul. What is a dark night of the soul? It’s an experience where we can no longer sense God imaginatively or feel God effectively, when the very sense of God’s existence dries up inside us and we are left in an agnostic darkness, helpless (in head, heart, and gut) to conjure up any sense of God.

However, and this is the point, precisely because we are helpless and unable to conjure up any imaginative concepts or affective feelings about God, God can now flow into us purely, without us being able to color or contaminate that experience. When all our efforts are useless, grace can finally take over and flow into us in purity. Indeed, that’s how all authentic revelation enters our world. When human helplessness renders us incapable of making God serve our self-interest, God can then flow into our lives without contamination.

Now, this is also true for human love. So much of our love for each other, no matter our sincerity, is colored by self-interest and is at some point self-serving. In some fashion, we inevitably form those we love into our own image and likeness. However, as is the case with Buckley’s critique of the atheistic thinkers of the Enlightenment, this isn’t always the case.

There are certain situations when we can’t in any way taint love and make it self-serving. What are those situations? Precisely those in which we find ourselves completely helpless, mute, stammering, unable to say or do anything that’s helpful. In these particular “dark nights of the soul,” when we are completely helpless to shape the experience, love and grace can flow in purely and powerfully.

In his classic work “The Divine Milieu, Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, challenges us to help others both through our activity and through our passivity. He’s right. We can be generative through what we actively do for others, and we can be particularly generative when we stand passively with them in helplessness.