When Absence is Present

a single candle is lit in the dark

Sometimes we understand a story not by what is present but what is absent. In his book, Ambition and Survival, Christian Wiman says, “It’s been said a poem makes absence itself into a perceivable presence.” He then states, “I respond most deeply to art that has, you might say, a hole in it, some stark vacancy that no perfection of form, or assertion of faith, or even density of experience can fill.”

As faithful Christians, what do we make of this absence? Abraham did not own a Bible or go to temple. He had no preacher, no priest, no doctrine, no Wednesday night suppers or church gymnasiums. Christ had yet to come. How did he hear God but in this unfiltered void, this hole allowing him an unfettered conversation with God?

Is religion becoming a cliché? If so, maybe it’s because of what is present and not what is absent. Maybe we can’t hear that absence speak because we’re too busy, too present with reflexive self-indulgences. I’m not suggesting we step away from faith or worship or even the messiness encased in every church we name hypocrisy. Retreat gains nothing. The best path, I think, is to push forward, into that dark absence, meeting God face to face stripped of our façade and engage our own stark conversation with Him. We don’t need church for that. We need honesty.

Absence can ignite our religious consternation or call us into austerity. C.S. Lewis wrote, “When a young man who has been going to church in a routine way honestly realizes he does not believe in Christianity and stops going – provided he does it for honesty’s sake and not just to annoy his parents – the spirit of Christ is probably nearer to him then than it ever was before.”  How better for God to know us but to render us uninfluenced – by anything?

Our firmest realization comes on those nights when light is best seen in darkness or in another sense, sobered within God’s reach. Truth can be discerned when all that is present is pushed aside and remaining is a life unadorned.

Time curtains us into the finite, but it has no bearing on eternity. Death, the final finisher and destroyer of time, opens us to the idea life may end before truth ever enlightens us. In its many forms – depression, grief, divorce, exhaustion – absence greets us when first we realize we are lost.  It forces us to look at our self when all things present distract us, and worse, placates us with superficiality and small-mindedness. When absence is present, to be mindful to it means to seek God.

The irony of staring into this void and crossing its divide is once we reach through it, life becomes so much more present with unconditionality and much less all the wrong pursuits.

“Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

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