Conversatio Divina

Part 5 of 6

The Inescapable Network of Mutuality and Presence in Absence

Ruth Haley Barton

As Christians navigate the most significant crisis many of us have ever seen, we must not forget to ask, “God, what are you doing in all of this and how can I join you in it?”

One of the truths that keeps pressing in on us in so many different ways is the one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr expressed in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” he says.

I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham…We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever effects one directly affects us all indirectly.Martin Luther King, Jr, “Letter From the Birmingham City Jail,” in James S. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 290.

Of course, I have left out the all-important statement that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” not because I am trying to ignore it or set it aside, but because it is the experience of our interrelatedness in all matters that underlies King’s call to work for justice. Perhaps it is partly due to a greater appreciation of our interrelatedness in all matters that long-standing racial injustices are currently being called out with widespread and renewed urgency. COVID-19 has demonstrated the reality of our interconnectedness and how we are navigating that reality is a life and death issue, impacting every aspect of our existence together on this planet. It is “the inescapable network of mutuality” that has our attention. It is this being tied together in a single garment of destiny that we can no longer deny. The systemic nature of things—the fact that whatever affects one directly does indeed affect us all indirectly—is now obvious and beyond comprehension all at the same time. Has there ever been a moment when we have experienced so profoundly the truth of what King was saying? I think not.

So how do we steward this moment? I have been wondering if one of the works of God being revealed in this situation is that it will change forever how we understand and experience ourselves within the human community. If we work it right, this experience of knowing that each and every decision we make or do not make about social distancing, hoarding toilet paper, overbuying groceries, following federal and state mandates about sheltering in place, staying away from friends and loved ones even when we want to be close…will change us. We will never again be able to think of ourselves as being separate from one another, even across the lines that usually divide us.

And yet, how do we remain present with one another at a distance? One of the strangest moments in the disciples’ life with Jesus might have been that conversation where he is trying to talk to them about his impending death and then says, “It is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7). At that moment, I am sure they could not have imagined how that could possibly be true. To them, the physical presence of Jesus right there with them had been their greatest good, but they would soon learn differently.

For us as Christians, one of the most confounding things about this pandemic is the need to practice social distancing and, at times, almost complete withdrawal into our own homes. And yet, to refrain from gathering and passing the peace and ministering with the sign of the cross goes against everything we know and practice. The cancellation of group gatherings where we can be physically, emotionally, and spiritually present with one another along with being prohibited from participating in our normal in-person connections with family and friends is excruciatingly difficult, in part because it feels unloving.

And that is why this statement from Jesus is oddly helpful and encouraging. It points out that there are moments when it is loving to “go away”—and clearly this is one of them. In our current situation, to stay away is as an expression of love and care for others as much (if not more) as it is protection for ourselves; seeing this “staying away” as a loving gesture helps somehow. As Henri Nouwen comments, “In Jesus’ absence a new and more intimate presence became possible, a presence which nurtured and sustained and created the desire to see him again.”Henri Nouwen, The Living Reminder (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1977), 42. My guess is that once we make it through this crisis, we will never take for granted again the ability to gather, the privilege of being together body and soul. Our desire to be together again will be strong and sweet and will nurture something new among us.

We know what happened to the disciples after Jesus went away: his Spirit came to them in a most dramatic way as the tongues of fire resting upon their heads in the Upper Room. Against the backdrop of Jesus’ physical absence, they experienced a new reality—the reality of presence in absence.

So, I wonder if this, too, is something God wants to be teaching us—what it means to be present even when we are absent. Even as we seek ways of staying connected with those whom God has given us and continue to do ministry in creative and caring ways, we can also trust that absence can foster a different kind of intimacy and presence. By prayerfully holding those we love in God’s presence even when we cannot be physically present, we, too, might experience something of what Rose Mary Dougherty describes:

In spiritual community, there is a bonding that goes beyond human expectations…At times the strength of spiritual community lies in the love of people who refrain from getting caught in the trap of trying to fix everything for us, who pray for us and allow us the pain of our wilderness and our wants, so that we might become more deeply grounded in God.Rose Mary Dougherty, Group Spiritual Direction (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 13–14.

As leaders, could we enter more deeply into this reality—that sometimes it is good that we go away, so our people can become more deeply grounded in God rather than being so dependent upon us? In this season, when the balance of presence and absence is, of necessity, going to be weighted a little more toward absence, can we trust that absence, too, can bring its own gifts?

So, I have been wondering whether God is calling us to approach this time of social distancing and sheltering in place not merely as something to tough out and get through but to see it as an invitation to intimacy with God—a time of quieting ourselves and seeking to hear what God has to say to us now that our normal distractions and activities are being stripped away. Again, our interconnectedness is at play here too. We draw near to God while absent from others in awareness that our choices matter for one another both now and when we are able to meet in person again. We need to keep asking the right question: What are the works of God being revealed in this time and place, and how can we join God in it? O Lord, teach us what we do not see.


Ruth Haley Barton is founding president of Transforming Center