Presence in Absence

Cell phones, texts, Tweets, emails, uploaded photos and videos, Skype, Facebook pages, and blogs . Communication technology doesn’t only permeate modern life, its melds with our humanity itself. A young person today might not emerge from the womb with a smart phone, but there aren’t many days between diapers and digital. We live now on the web the way our evolutionary forebears once swam in the water.

Yet as modern technology extends our humanity, it also truncates it. Our ability to communicate has surged, but less and less of our humanity seems to pass through the sieve. It’s not simply that the content of what we communicate has diminished, though that’s true enough. (No one saves the electronic the way our grandparents treasured a photo or a letter.) It’s that technology will never supplant the human body as that supple spot wherein our spirits commune. Some human whole, greater than any of its parts, forever eludes the technological.


Prescient as genius is, Marcel Proust offers a wonderful example of this in The Guermantes Way. A young man receives a telephone call from his beloved, and somewhat suffocating, Grandmother. "The telephone was not yet at that date as commonly in use as it is today." Indeed, he must go to the postoffice and await her call. Notice, in this small passage, how the young man manages to perceive what is missing in their conversation, and then, most paradoxically, to espy a spirit that emerges in its absence.

[I] spoke, and after a few seconds of silence, suddenly I heard that voice which I mistakenly thought I knew so well; for always until then, every time that my grandmother had talked to me, I had been accustomed to follow what she said on the open score of her face, in which the eyes figured so largely; but her voice itself I was hearing this afternoon for the first time. And because that voice appeared to me to have altered in its proportions from the moment that it was a whole, and reached me thus alone and without the accompaniment of her face and features, I discovered for the first time how sweet that voice was; perhaps indeed it had never been so sweet as it was now, for my grandmother, thinking of me as being far away and unhappy, felt that she might abandon herself to an outpouring of tenderness which, in accordance with her principles of upbringing, she usually restrained and kept hidden. It was sweet, but also how sad it was, first of all on account of its very sweetness, a sweetness drained almost — more than any but a few human voices can ever have been — of every element of hardness, of resistance to others, of selfishness! Fragile by reason of its delicacy, it seemed constantly on the verge of breaking, of expiring in a pure flow of tears; then, too, having it alone with me, seen without the mask of her face, I noticed in it for the first time the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of a lifetime (175-76).

First, the young protagonist learns how hard it is to read a voice without an accompanying face, its turns and its features. But then, his grandmother’s voice having been distilled from its corporeal accompaniment, for the first time he hears the sound of her voice, its age, its tenderness, its wounds, garnered in life. He sees what is missing, and then, most paradoxically, espies a spirit that emerges in its absence.

In his farewell address of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus foretells his own absence:

Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
You heard me tell you,"I am going away and I will come back to you.
If you loved me,
you would rejoice that I am going to the Father;
for the Father is greater than I
(Jn 14: 27-28).

But he also predicts a presence that will emerge in that absence.

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you 
(Jn 14: 26).

As one presence retreats, another comes to prominence. In losing the corporeal Jesus in their midst, passing with him through death, resurrection, and ascension, his disciples will see what it missing, and then, most paradoxically, espy a Spirit that emerges in its absence. Even the resurrected Jesus must withdraw, so that his disciples will realize that two spirits emerged from the tomb, one attached to a much loved visage and voice, and another, which began to dwell within their own members, infusing their lives with a purpose that only personal love can offer. Losing Jesus in front of them, they found the Spirit within.

How often do skeptics, and even some believers, wish that God were blatantly present in human life. But a fully human life couldn’t be lived with that sort of God. There would no room for faith or the virtues. The reality of God would be established; the freedom that is the human would vanish.

Proust’s protagonists asks, of his telephone call from his grandmother, "Was it, however, solely the voice that, because it was alone, gave me the impression which tore my heart? Not at all; it was rather that this isolation of the voice was like a symbol, an evocation, a direct consequence of another isolation, that of my grandmother, for the first time separated from me" (176). He feels a terrible absence, out of which emerges a tender presence. Speaking of the Holy Spirit, we do the very same.

Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29 Revelation 21: 10-14, 22-23 John 14: 23-29

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