20 July 2016

Nothing Can Make up for the Absence of Someone Whom We Love

A couple of years ago or so I wrote about Jesus' cry of abandonment on the cross; I suggested that it was the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the mutual love of Father and Son  that maintained their bond of love while keeping open the space of terrible separation  experienced as abandonment and occasioning the suffering of both Father and Son which reached its climax on the cross and Jesus' "descent into hell". Both connection and separation are necessary parts of the love relationships constituting Trinitarian life marked by mission to our world and thus, by kenosis eventuating in the cross.

Similarly, in writing about eremitical life I noted that stricter separation from the world was an essential part of maintaining not only one's love for God but also for God's creation because without very real separation we might instead know only enmeshment in that world rather than a real capacity for love which reconciles and brings to wholeness. In everyday terms we know that the deficiencies and losses we experience throughout our lives are things we often try to avoid or fill in every conceivable way rather than to find creative  approaches to genuinely live (and heal) the pain: addictions, deprivations and excesses, denial and distractions, pathological withdrawal or superficial relationships of all kinds attest to the futile and epidemic character of these approaches to the deep and often unmet needs we each experience.

While we may expect our relationship with God to fill these needs and simply take away the pain of loss and grief we are more apt to find God with us IN the pain in a way which, out of a profound love for the whole of who we are and who we are called to become, silently accompanies and consoles without actually diminishing the suffering associated with the loss or unmet needs themselves. In this way God also assures real healing may be sought and achieved. It is a difficult paradox and difficult to state theologically.  Today, I found a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer written while he was a political prisoner of the Nazis and separated from everyone and everything he loved --- except God; it captures the insight or principle underlying these observations --- and says it so very well!

Nothing can make up for the absence
of someone whom we love,
and it would be wrong
to try to find a substitute;
we must simply hold out and see it through.
That sounds very hard at first,
but at the same time
it is a great consolation,
for the gap --- as long as it
remains unfilled ---
preserves the bond between us.
It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap;
God does not fill it
but on the contrary keeps it empty
and so helps us to keep alive
our former communion even
at the cost of pain.
from  Letters and Papers From Prison
 "Letter to Renate and Eberhard Bethge: Christmas Eve 1943"
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
As a hermit embracing "the silence of solitude" I know full well that this charism of eremitical life is characterized by both connection and separation. It is, as I have written here many times a communion with God which may be lonely --- though ordinarily not a malignant form of loneliness! --- and an aloneness with God which does not simply fill or even replace our needs for friendships and other life giving relationships. Sometimes the pain of separation is more acute and sometimes the consolation of connection eases that almost entirely.

Sometimes, however, the two stand together in an intense and paradoxical form of suffering that simply says, "I am made for fullness of love and eschatological union and am still only (but very really!) journeying towards that." This too is a consolation. Today I am grateful for the bonds of love which enrich my life so --- even when these bonds are experienced as painful absence and emptiness. I think this is a critical witness of eremitical life with its emphasis on "the silence of solitude" --- just as it is in monastic (or some forms of religious) life more generally. Thanks be to God.