We know that the familiar adage ends with the cheery adjective “fonder.” To feel the absence of someone we cherish does often deepen our love the longer we are apart. But absence may also make the heart grow numb or inert, grief-stricken or depressed, baffled or enraged. Absence can make the heart grow hopeless.
When I focus instead on the word grow, something shifts. The trajectory of our growth in God is through and beyond this kaleidoscope.
If the feeling of absence in our lives has anything to do with the purposes of God, growth will be its gift, but not in a way we can predict or even recognize. This has been the experience of many saints, whose patient endurance through the night of God’s felt absence has catalyzed their growth, not in fondness but in holiness. As in any relationship of true love, growth in Christ gives rise to many feelings. But it does not depend upon those feelings, and the presence of feelings we consider encouraging or consoling is not in itself a sign of growth, any more than their absence is a sign of stasis. Sometimes the opposite is true! Growth in God strengthens us both to treasure the joy of Christ’s felt presence, and to trust the slow, hidden growth called forth when we feel God is absent. This depth of trust is deeply challenging.
Thus far, I have used the terms “felt presence” and “felt absence.” This is because we believe God to be omnipresent. God is never not present and God is present to every created thing in an equal manner. That we feel this not to be always true is a mark of our limited capacity as creatures. Crucially, however, God uses that limited perspective and those exact feelings to our benefit, as we shall see.
God begins to effect the healing of this fragmented perspective by becoming one of us. The attraction of that Love-made-human coaxes forth an affective response. We fall in love! While the mystery of God-with-us in the person of Jesus is offensive to the reasoning mind, it is beautiful, desirable, even irresistible to the heart that embraces him in the manger, beholds him on the cross, or touches his risen body.
But our contemporary idolization of instantly legible positive feelings sometimes creates an unhelpful impression: that the Incarnation is solely about knowing God’s presence in a way that stimulates, supports, or soothes, rather than challenges expectations or catalyzes change. After all, didn’t God become flesh to comfort us in our afflictions and fill us with joy? Isn’t that why we need to worship together physically – to be the consoling embrace of Christ’s arms to one another, the members of his Body? Isn’t that why we need to commune with him in the Eucharist – to feel his presence filling our emptiness?
In one sense – unequivocally, yes. This is the purpose of God’s coming among us in Jesus, Word made Flesh. We need these good gifts. But in another sense, a sense I want to explore here, they present only a partial picture of Life abundant. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ also frames and makes accessible a new kind of divine “absence,” overflowing with hope and meaning. Like the force of a powerful magnet, this intangible hope in things unseen draws us in its tether. This absence is presence’s golden shadow.
Rowan Williams and Maggie Ross have noted that there are two powerful images of this divine absence in scripture. The first is found in the Temple at Jerusalem: the empty space above the Ark, framed by the outspread wings of the cherubim. The second is the empty tomb. The “absence” of Christ is a mysterious sign legible to the beloved disciple; the tomb’s emptiness declares “He is Risen.”
Another image that speaks in the same vein is Christ’s ascension. In Western medieval painting, the assembled apostles and the Virgin gaze upward at the barely visible feet of Jesus, while his body has disappeared into a cloud. While it is the hand of the Father stretching forth from heaven that communicates God’s presence, it is the feet of the Son as they vanish that signal his absence from the world in the way the disciples have known him. At the same time, this is the first glimpse of “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). He is leaving them in order to become present in a new way.
In all three of these scriptural images, God reveals something of what God is like. But none are straightforward communications of presence in the way our senses and feelings might expect. The Israelites refuse to represent their God in an earthly form like other nations. The risen and ascended Christ moves up, out, and beyond in his return to the Father. It is as if God says, “I have been present to you. Now, be with me where I AM” ( John 17:24). If we would find meaning instead of lack in the empty tomb or the open heavens, our affective posture must shift.
Beginning in the twelfth century, many monastic theologians turned toward a new understanding of the role of feelings in the life of faith. Feelings had been seen as valuable tools in the journey toward self-knowledge, a cornerstone of monastic conversion. Feelings were now prized afresh as keys that opened a living relationship with Jesus, whose joys, sorrows, desires, and disappointments were sure signs of how deeply he knew our humanity and longed for a return of our love. There was a keen sense that the Incarnation of Christ was intended to captivate our feelings, but in order to draw us beyond them – to lasting truths. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) writes:
I think this is the principal reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh and to converse with men as a man. He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually raising them to a spiritual love.
Jesus is able to hold our loving attention because he speaks the language of our senses and affections. This attraction inaugurates a journey; it is only a beginning. Jesus longs to be present to us also in his divinity, as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). When our affections are “raised” in this way, the tradition maintains, painful feelings of absence are to be expected. The resulting feeling of absence might even be what lures us on, past feelings’ beginning.
On the same theme, Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141) gives us a powerful series of images in a meditation on God’s self-communication in the Eucharist and in contemplative prayer:
It is truly the Beloved who visits you.
Yes, but he comes invisible, hidden, and incomprehensible.
He comes to touch you, not to be seen,
He makes you taste of him, not to pour himself out in you entirely.
He comes to draw your affection, not to satisfy your desire.
To bestow the first fruit of his love, not to communicate it in its fullness.
Behold in this the most certain pledge of your future marriage,
that you are destined to see him and to possess him entirely,
because he already gives himself to you to taste
with what sweetness you know.
Therefore in times of his absence you shall console yourself,
and during his visit you shall renew your courage.
For Hugh, the felt absence of God is beneficial for us in more than one way. The anticipation of God’s return whets and increases our desire, but it remains unsatisfied – intensifying its momentum. While the sense of God’s absence is painful, this pain has a role to play in our transformation. We cannot rest until God is ours entirely! Unsurprisingly, celibacy is a key experiential dynamic that informs Hugh’s theology. But Hugh speaks to all Christians in his promise of both “present pledge” and “future fulfillment.” There is an unfinished, open-ended quality to the work of God in us on this side of eternity. Our need of God – expressed in empty, outstretched hands – is shown to be our greatest gift to God. The Incarnation teaches us the value of this ebb and flow.
The experience of absences that stunt or paralyze is pervasive right now in the depths of the pandemic experience. We long for flesh-and-blood relationships, the vision of smiles now hidden behind masks, the reassurance of eye contact made in real time. In the midst of it all, we thank God for the technology that has made virtually mediated connection possible, and for the unexpected ways it has deepened our communion with fellow disciples.
Our most advanced digital devices also provoke in us a poignant array of feelings. The movement toward digital wellbeing depends upon a sober, moment-by-moment assessment of our relationship with these tools. As we survey the tides of feeling set in motion by our digital engagement, we can take our cue from those medieval theologians of the Incarnation and ask: How many of these feelings spark a deeper self-knowledge? Which ones keep us skimming the surface of life? How many of them open a living relationship with Jesus? Which ones “recapture our affections” for Christ’s liberating service … and which, perhaps, capture them for the world’s purposes? As followers of an incarnate God in a digital age the Spirit calls us to be adept stewards of our feelings, those sacred mediators of Christ’s transforming work. It also calls for our courage to look beyond all mediators but him, in the hope of a day “when sacraments shall cease.”