The mystery of saying goodbye
When I was 23 years old both my parents died in the space of just three months. They were young, I was young and our family was young – too young, we felt, to let them go. But they died despite that and their leaving left a gaping hole in our lives.
But after a time that void began to fill in and our sadness began to dissipate. It didn’t happen quickly. It took a couple of years, but eventually things changed. What was once a cold absence now became a warm presence. Our mother and father came back to us in a new way. We began to feel their presence as a warm nurturing spirit, as a permanent sustaining love. They were now present to us in a deeper way, a way devoid of tension.
When they were still alive, we loved each other, but, as with all families, that love was fraught with some tension. Love and concern can never be given and received without some shadow, some resistance, some irritations, without negative feelings too entering. It’s like that in all families and it’s like that even inside of our most intimate relationships.
Face to face, in this life, there is no such thing as intimacy without a shadow. No matter how much we love someone, we will still always experience some feelings of resistance, of disappointment, of irritation, of boredom, of not being understood, of not being properly valued, of needing a private space at times, of being wounded too in this relationship.
But after our parents died and our grief over their leaving dissipated, their love for us and their presence began to flow into our lives in a way beyond those tensions. We now felt their love without a shadow. In their going away, in their deaths, they were able to give us something that they couldn’t give us as fully when they were with us, namely, presence and love without a shadow.
Why? What happened? Was this simply a question of time healing the wound of death? A question of death making us forget about former tensions and disappointments with each other?
Partly, but there is something deeper involved. Intimacy is a curious thing, deep and paradoxical. Inside intimacy presence and absence play on each other in such a way that, on a given day and in a given season of a relationship, it is hard to tell which provides the deeper connection. Sometimes when we are physically present to each other we cannot give each other what we need to and we must go away, at least for a time, in order for that to happen.
Sometimes only our absence can deepen and cleanse our presence. Sometimes it is better that we go away, for a day or for a season. That is part of the mystery, the theology, and the psychology of the Ascension. At one level, this is a mystery, yet we have a sense of how it works.
As a parent you experience this when your children grow up and move away. First there is the pain of letting them go, but eventually there is the joy of having those same children come back and stand before you in a new way, as adults who can befriend you and be with you in a way that they couldn’t as children. But, this doesn’t happen unless your children first go away. Good parents know that by hanging on too tightly, by not giving their children the space within which to be absent, they not only stunt their growth, but they deprive themselves of eventually having a wonderful adult come back to them with something deeper to give than the dependent love of a child. That’s true in every relationship.
Jesus tries, painstakingly and repeatedly, to teach this to his disciples before his Ascension. He tells them, again and again: “It is better for you that I go away. If I do not go away I cannot send you the spirit. You will grieve now, but later you will rejoice.” It took me years to understand, even partially, what Jesus meant by those words and I’m still struggling, perhaps more in my heart than in my head, to accept that at times we have go away in order for our spirits to bloom more fully and be capable of being received by those we love most, beyond the tensions and irritations that forever cloud relationships.
When children leave home for the first time to begin lives on their own, in one fashion or another, they are saying to their parents what Jesus said to his disciples before his Ascension: “It is better for you that I go away. If I do not go away I cannot come back to you in a deeper way!” We speak those words too every time we walk out of a door, for a long time or even for just a day, and have to say the word: “Goodbye!”