Because humans are hard-wired for presence we will always be vulnerable to absence. Even Jesus knew this vulnerability. Nowhere was this more clearly expressed than in his cry of anguish from the cross when he sensed God having forsaken him. Jesus, like us, had to learn that the apparent absence of God is, in fact, but a face of the real presence of God. If the stable knowing of the presence of the one he called Father that so characterized the rest of his life could be threatened at such a point as this, who are we to expect that we will ever be immune from such vulnerability.
We humans long to be in the presence of those who hold us in love. We also long for the presence of those we love. Many of us also know a longing to experience the presence offered by special places – sacred spaces that ground us, align us, and restore our sense of wellbeing. Mystics long for nothing more than an experiential knowing of the presence of God – and many ordinary people claim occasional moments of such knowing and count them among life’s most precious gifts. Many of us know the immense value of belonging within a community. But community is itself presence, not merely an institution or a collection of individuals. In one form or another, we all long for presence because without the presence of others we have no way of knowing our own presence or our own being.
Underlying any experience of absence lurks the existential anxiety associated with the separateness of the self from its Source. Describing not only his own sense of separation but also the fundamental root of all human anxiety, the thirteenth century Sufi mystical poet, Rumi, invites us to listen to the reed and the tale of separation it tells:
Ever since they cut me from the reed bed
my wail has caused men and women to weep …
Whoever has been parted from its source
longs to return to that state of union.
Is it any wonder that we rush to fill experiences of absence with presence of some form or another? Quickly we grasp at available forms of pseudo-presence. Because of their power to mask the experience of absence, these usually take the form of addictions. But while pseudo-intimacy through addictions may distance us from our sense of absence, they eliminate the chance to develop a healthy way of responding to the underlying existential vulnerability and lessen the chances of transformational engagement with possibilities of presence.
Just as death must be embraced as part of the cycle of life if we are to truly live, so too the reality of absence must be embraced if we are to experience a stable knowing of presence. Presence cannot be received by defensive grasping that seeks to avoid absence but only as a gift that comes from openness and trust.
Without some knowing of the Ground of Being that holds every experience of absence it is almost impossible to fully live in the now. Absence is de-fanged with the knowing of the Presence. But Presence will always remain an elusive mystery – beyond our control and beyond our exhaustive knowing.
Adapted from my forthcoming book Presence and Encounter
(Brazos Press – September, 2014) ©Dr. David G. Benner
photo by Jack Low/Tumblr