Godtalk: Absence makes the heart grow fonder


Two hands one old one young reach out

We experience many painful goodbyes in life. There are  times when someone we love has to go away,  or we have to go away. There are  times when someone has to move on and irrevocably change a relationship. This can be painful.. 

But usually this isn't the end of the story. Most of the time,  after the ache of a painful goodbye has worn off, we may experience the opposite, a certain joy in sensing our loved one’s presence in a different way now.

When Jesus was preparing his disciples for his ascension, he told them; ‘It is better for you that I go away.  You won't understand this now. You will grieve,  but later this will turn to joy and you will understand why I have to do this because, unless I go away, I can't send you my spirit.’

These are the unspoken words that children say to their parents when they leave home to begin lives on their  own;   these are the unspoken words we say to our friends when we have to move on from a certain circle of friendship to get married;   these are the unspoken words spouses sometimes say to each other when they have to grow in ways that, at the end of the day, will make their marriage stronger, but which, on a given day, leave their partner with heartache; and these are the unspoken words we say to each other every time we have to say a goodbye.  ‘It is better for you that I go away, even if there is sorrow now.’ 

The paradoxical interplay of presence and absence in love is a great mystery. We 
need to be present with each other physically, but we also need to be gone from each other at times. We bring a blessing both when we visit someone and when we leave. Presence is partly predicated on absence and there is something of our spirit that we can only give by going away.

Absence is sometimes the only thing that can purify presence. When we are physically present, there are always tensions, irritations, disappointments, flaws in our bodies and  in our character that partially block full love and blessing. That's why we rarely appreciate our loved ones fully until they are taken away from us.

Absence can help wash clean. What the pain of absence does is stretch our hearts so that the essence, the beauty, the love  and the gift of the one who is absent can flow to us without being  coloured  by the tensions, disappointments and flaws of everyday life.  Furthermore. the other's absence can work to stretch our hearts so that we can receive him or her in a way that more fully accepts and respects who he or she really is.

The mystery of saying goodbye is like the mystery of the Ascension. The Ascension is about going away so that our loved ones can fully receive our spirit.  It's about the mystery of saying goodbye, when goodbye isn't really farewell at all  -  just love’s way of taking on a different modality so that it can be present in a deeper way less limited by the disappointments which. this side of eternity make our intimacy a continual work-in-progress.

Peter Knott SJ