When Paul had finished speaking he knelt down and prayed with them all. They were all weeping loudly as they threw their arms around him and kissed him, for they were deeply distressed that he had said that they would never see his face again. Then they escorted him to the ship.Acts 20: 36-38
“Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one. When I was with them I protected them in your name that you gave me, and I guarded them, and none of them was lost except the son of destruction, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled.”John 17: 11-12
In today’s readings we are brought into a moment of life that we have all experienced: the departure from loved ones. We all know this experience from both sides: that of Paul and Jesus who are the ones leaving those they love and moving on in one way or another, and that of the presbyters of Ephesus or the disciples, who are those left behind to carry on without the physical presence of the one they love.
Personally, I don’t do well with “goodbyes.” Somehow, every separation from one I love unearths deep levels of grief in me. Sometimes it can seem as if presence is but a moment of relief from the fact, as Muriel Rukeyser writes, that “the world is full of loss.” There is a longing in human care and love that seems infinite, and so impossible to satisfy. Of course, it is also true that while living out presence to others we also have the experience of wishing for the presence to end.
So, often in reading the farewell discourse of Jesus in John and stories like Paul’s final departure from Ephesus, my mind has focused on the content of their messages, which I’m sure is largely the point. Yet, it is my experience of the past weekend that left me today so receptive to the context of those words: the taking leave and the letting go.
Over this past weekend I was present with my close friends for the graduation from high school of their son, my godson. Their welcoming of me into their lives and their home always creates for me a profound sense of being “at home” with them. Because they are so willing to share with me what they are going through, I was very much drawn into all the very complex and powerful feelings and thoughts that constituted this experience for them.
Not myself knowing the experience of being a parent, I was learning through their openness with each other and me of the deep joy and pain that is part of caring so much. My expectation and initial desire was my hope that as parents they would be able to feel the just pride and sense of accomplishment in having so well brought up their child. Yet, I quickly saw in them the truth of what Jesus describes to the disciples in John 16: 20: “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” For us, to live close to life and life will always bring with it the essential admixture of joy and grief. This is why joy as a spiritual disposition is not merely the opposite of happiness. It is something that is also potentially a component of grief, and vice versa.
Every parent comes to know the complex experience that is human care and love. At every moment it involves both holding and letting go. As the parents of the graduates shared stories of the years of raising their children, they spoke humorously of all those experiences of living with one who depended on them and wanted them to take care while, at at the same time, resisting their care (often enough even petulantly and angrily). Every significant human relationship contains within it this very tension: we want to be with, to be close, and at times to be held by the other, but we also want our autonomy. We need both closeness and respectful distance. At times in life, in life with our children and with the ones we love, we need to be with, to be cared for and to care proximately and physically. At other times, we need distance and solitude to know our own lives as unique and separate, to experience our own distinctive relationship to self and God.
As Rainer Maria Rilke famously wrote:
To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.
Because we all carry our distinctively “wounded eros,” the love that we so crave is also a source of great pain. As I spoke with my friends, it was clear that this moment of celebration was also a moment of great sadness. Life would now be different, as their son began his moving away from them. Parents experience most powerfully the truth that no other person is ours alone. To raise a child well requires giving all that we have to them and for them, so that they can one day leave us. As my friends were realizing, they have no idea whether or not over time their son will remain “close” to them (physically and emotionally), or whether he will be distant and only occasionally be present to them. One of my friends said to me that he “felt” convinced that his son would eventually live at a great distance from them and that they would only see him rarely. I suspect this “feeling” comes from the anticipation that our hearts always feel upon separation of our eventual loss of each other.
For Paul and the presbyters of Ephesus, this was their final goodbye. Jesus, on the other hand, speaks to the disciples, who must be feeling as if this is the final farewell, that their sadness will turn into the joy of a different form of presence. Much of the sadness and even grief we feel in departures is, no doubt, because every separation for us is a reminder of that final goodbye. I know that as I have grown older, the insistence of the impending final farewell asserts itself every more strongly. I “try,” not always successfully, to part from those I love in such a way that it will be a memory of my love for and gratitude to them if we never meet again.
So, I hoped that my presence in my “adopted” family might serve them, as they were so powerfully forming me. As their form of life in marriage became a place of love and intimacy in which their son could grow into his own life and path, so mine could be a reminder of the joy we can come to know in our “celibate component.” Adrian van Kaam says that there is a celibate component of every human life. It is the place where we are uniquely and inviolably God’s alone. The journey there, as the journey to human intimacy, is a difficult and even treacherous one. It is both painful and joyful. Our differing forms of life witness in a special way to an aspect of love. These loves and ways are not exclusive. We all must learn them both. The ambiguity of human love in its desire for both intimacy and distinctiveness, in its need both to be held in love and to left alone to find one’s own way, is the same in all of us. Our different paths to this same end may look very different, yet they are, as Henry Nouwen would say, but “living reminders” of differing aspects of the same truth.
I think departures are, at least in part, so difficult for me because my greatest fear in life was that I would be, finally, left alone. So, it is one of life’s strange paradoxes that I wind up following the path of celibacy. Yet, I’ve come to learn that our desires and our fears are all the same, regardless of the path we choose, or that choses us. For, as the philosopher Louis Lavelle writes, we are both separated and united. To live in faith is to fear and to avoid neither. It is painful, as parents for example, to commit our whole life and to give all we have out of love, and then to be separated from the one we love. Yet this is the pain, in one form or another, that forms us in love. To say goodbye in faith is not to be certain we shall meet again. It is rather to be certain that, somehow, whatever occurs “all will be well.”
The world is full of loss; bring, wind, my love,
my home is where we make our meeting-place,
and love whatever I shall touch and read
within that face.
Lift, wind, my exile from my eyes;
peace to look, life to listen and confess,
freedom to find to find to find