Sunday, 1 November 2009

The divine absence.

It will seem odd for me to post a link to a You Tube video, particularly to a Country and Western one. But hey, it is the Man in Black himself - Johnny Cash. It's the opening song to his last album, written and recorded when he knew he was dying. I loved Johnny's music since I was a kid-Mum and Dad used to haul us off every Sunday to hotel in Kinghorn for a bar lunch and live C&W music (which meant that I knew the lyrics to "Stand by your Man" off by heart by the time I was 13!!) and as a birthday treat one year, Mum and I went to hear Johnny Cash live in the Edinburgh Playhouse. He has a raw emotion in his singing that is unique in such a powerfully and uncompromising masculine way that it fair moves you. And this song expressed prayer for me today in way that nothing else could. Somebody who's tried to make it under his own steam but realises he can't and turns to God (whoever the hell he is) for help.

I blame the sermon this morning: the message was "You are not alone". When the preacher opined that sometimes we only recognise what love is by its absence in our lives, I went to myself: "S**t. That's put into words what I've felt for years". Which sent me off on a panicky muse, half listening to the sermon and half running after my own thoughts and feelings. I'm aware of the abscence of love or feeling loved often, yet I spent 16 years preaching about God being love, Love Incarnate and personified and made real and solid and concrete in human flesh and loving us. Suddenly I realised that that was what I believed and hoped for and trusted in, but didn't actually KNOW for myself. I suddenly wasn't sure if I'd been telling the truth for years: "Of course I believe in the God of Love and the Love of God." But always, always wondering if it was really true. I had faith, I had hope, but not certainty: was that what was wrong?

I actually went through most of the rest of the service in a real quandry: "Can I say the Creed? I believe..? Do I really believe God is here with me and for me in the Eucharist? I want to, I need to, but is it true? Can I take the sacrament?" Well I did, because I can spot a spiritual panic attack when I see one, because I see the Sacrament as efficacious medicine for the soul in times of trouble independent of my subjective feelings and, I might be in a quandry of doubt, but there is nothing sacriligious in coming to God and saying: "I'm not sure I can see or feel your presence in my life just now but I'm here and I'm holding out my hand. Heal me and feed me. Please." And I didn't feel anything much at all.

Afterwards, I chatted to my neighbour (a priest who left parish ministry several years ago). Apropos of nothing, he remarked that it was X years since he'd said Mass. He'd preached, married and buried but not that. I paused and said: "Do you miss it?" "I never let myself think about that." was the reply. Then I said: "I haven't celebrated for 7 1/2 months, but I'm covering for someone on Wednesday. I'm not sure I'll be able to. What if I only know the absence when I stand there?" We looked at each other, sharing in a moment of communion. We were both suddenly in a place where our sense of God and certainty about God was fuzzy, but where we weren't alone. As I walked back, I realised that I had been unable to see or sense or feel the presence but that God had put me next to someone in a very similar boat and opened us up enough to share a bit of that feeling. If that wasn't a sign of God actually being with us, even when we could only sense the absence, then what on earth was. "See, John, I AM with you always. Even until the end of time. Trust me" The preacher was right. We are not alone.

1 comment:

  1. One of my fave poems:

    “The Absence” by R. S. Thomas

    It is this great absence
    that is like a presence, that compels
    me to address it without hope
    of a reply. It is a room I enter

    from which someone has just
    gone, the vestibule for the arrival
    of one who has not yet come.
    I modernise the anachronism

    of my language, but he is no more here
    than before. Genes and molecules
    have no more power to call
    him up than the incense of the Hebrews

    at their altars. My equations fail
    as my words do. What resources have I
    other than the emptiness without him of my whole
    being, a vacuum he may not abhor?