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The Presence of Absence

February 18, 2013

This is the work thru for a set of Homilies I will give at Trinity Church on the Green on the morning of March 3rd. Come and see how much my thoughts change between then and now!

For Christians this is the season of Lent.  The season is marked by considered abstinence.  For most this means something as trivial as eschewing chocolate or, more seriously for me, rejecting alcohol.

The idea is that by denying ourselves things we enjoy we can better appreciate the things that we’ve been given.  Absence reveals presence.

There are larger meanings to absence in our lives.  As an architect I can tell you that when buildings are removed its often akin to what an amputee feels when his leg is no longer a part of his body – for me the New Haven Coliseum, the tail of the old Pirelli building at the IKEA store site and the neighborhood the Oak Street connector wiped clean in the 1960s are all, at some level, still present for me in their absence.  I wrote about this New Haven register several years ago:  The Fuzzy Math of New Haven’s Architectural Subtraction

However the calculated elimination of the beloved treat, or the much debated and considered removal of structures in our midst are decisions we have the power to make.  For most people absence is most dearly felt when it’s imposed on us – when someone dies, when a marriage ends, a job is lost, or a child leaves home are conditions that life imposes upon us.

That lack of control is at the essence of what makes people search for faith amid uncertainty.

Life often overwhelms circumspection with opportunities to take control – when we are in school grades, romance and social realities are overwhelming.  In the time after schooling finding a mate, having a nice place to live, or making enough money or improving your resume can obliterate any spiritual growth.  In the child-rearing years keeping those genetic spirit-suckers disease-free, bad-decision-free, and fully optioned in performance opportunities leaves precious little impetus for seeking greater understanding.  When life is full, we tend to “go with the flow.”

When the flow stops, and we are adrift, or are forcibly stopped by circumstance we have to deal with what we really value.  I have found the presence of absence in my life to be the biggest springboard for insight.

The truth is absence focuses the mind and heart.  Whether it’s Jesus absenting himself in the desert for 40 days or in my own little Mad Men upbringing, realizing that when left alone I was, in fact, alone: Leavings

Later in college that sense of insight via absence came after four consecutive days without sleep cranking in an apartment filled with other students helping me create the presentation necessary to get through my Final Thesis Jury.  The night before the presentation a 2AM power failure prevented work from proceeding until dawn, but more importantly allowed me to see Grace in the darkness.  BTW, I passed, and include the drawings that were created:

DuoThesis DuoThesis2

Since marriage and children are overwhelming presences, the absences that have enriched my perspective are quite small in consequence and situation.

I realized about 30 years ago the only time that I felt able be open to a clear sense of myself was when I am so spent, so physically exhausted that I know I can do no more in the world of effort and focus – so the flow of insight and reflection can gurgle up as I am horizontal gazing into my closed eyelids.

Similarly being trapped in an automobile going somewhere creates the absence of stimuli (despite the illegal texting I confess to) and forces me to have a better sense of where my heart is, despite the moving location.

This is not about “Lizard Brain” rote activities (like shoveling snow), or my daily self-flagellatory  workout – those activities are, well, activities that have outcomes.  Performance kills perspective.  If the rules mean you can “win” or “lose” then perspective is not required to judge the value of what you are doing.

It is the absence of “doing” that allows for the presence of my life’s value to be heard.  But imposed “retreats”, “meditation” or scheduled services are, sadly, for me just another set of performance venues- where I can do “a good job”.

The liberation of absence stands in rejection of the typical architect mantra that the environment we create for ourselves fosters insight and inspiration.  I have designed  worship spaces

– Lutheran Church of Madison and Incarnation Camp Chapel Ivoryton – and I did my best to make spaces and places where the spirit can flow,  but, for myself, a vacuum from stimuli gives me the space to see where God is.

Trinity Church on the Green is a marvelously innocent attempt at Gothic architecture in a sublimely historic stone box, and the overwhelming music heard within it grabs the heart, and the words spoken in its liturgy have the gravitas of 500 years of perfecting messages of inspiration and wisdom.

But, for me, Trinity is not what connects me to a deeper reality than just reveling in those aesthetic vehicles.  Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt, but “Icons” are, to me, still things – of history, of beauty or even compelling human meaning, – but they are not the gates for spiritual connection I know others experience.

At the end of the day, it is the looming absence of life as we know it that calls the “why” questions.  My ultimate lack of control is a stark, silent, unabating reality that I cannot be distracted from, even when the noise of work, family, and life in the middle-aged social whirlwind is at its most present.

Whether you seek meaning beyond the here and now or not, you cannot escape being alone, being in silence,  being prevented from activity by circumstance.  At some point the world pauses and asks you the question – “Why?”  Reason and resume do not come close to answering the imponderables.  In the presence of absence you are left with the singularity of our universal duality – humans who are, as a species, infinitely capable but spiritually incoherent.

Absence is space.  Whether we like it or not, we experience glancing blows with absence every day.  The Big Absence looms, and without space away from our trivial distractions, we only have fear and anger to answer the “Why?” we cannot escape.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. jon saltzberg permalink
    February 18, 2013 6:13 pm

    writing is incredible; I read somewhere that we can’t control our lives, we can only manage it; also, and I may have said this before to you, if you use food compulsively, as a relief from stress or whatever, you may have compulsive eating issues, and an appropriate venue for that is Overeaters Anonymous. I hope your homilies go well; I wish I could be there to see it. God bless you and yours.

  2. Nancy Hanna permalink
    February 19, 2013 1:06 pm

    Excellent. “…We experience glancing blows with absence every day.” Rings true to me. Our mutual friend, The Rev. Paul Zahl has written that The Holy Spirit is the “presence of the risen Jesus in his absence.” As good a description as I have ever heard. Be thou anointed on March 3, dear friend. We will be in Whistler, BC. Sorry to miss you….

  3. janet helgeson permalink
    February 20, 2013 10:27 am

    Duo, this is splendid: thoughtful and lovely, sparking contemplation and memory– the line from Desiderata, “Remember what peace there may be in silence…’ and Merwin’s poem:


    Your absence has gone through me
    Like thread through a needle.
    Everything I do is stitched with its color.


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