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Tragedy: a time of God’s absence or presence?

Father Lou DelFra | Wednesday, February 20, 2008

There are times that a Christian community gathers – as the Notre Dame community gathered Tuesday night in the Basilica for the Memorial Mass for our recently deceased classmates Timothy Aher and Connor McGrath – when I become aware of the silence. It creeps in between the hymns and prayers, seeps through the cracks of our words of condolence. When everyone stops their faithful assurances of God’s presence and closeness and protectiveness, there is always just silence. And out of the silence, a near inevitable question: God, are you really here?

There are times in life when I do not stop to ask that question. I have no need to. My niece was born, and my brother and his wife invited me into the delivery room for her birth. No questions about God’s presence there – a little queasiness on my part, but it was assuredly non-theological in nature. A young man who has been wrestling with a vocational decision about the priesthood says to me, “I feel like I’ve been given the grace to give it a shot.” OK, God is here, has drawn close. One of the seniors down the hall rushes down to my room with an acceptance letter from his long-shot first-choice graduate school. No more natural time to say a prayer of thanksgiving. A married man asks for a meeting, and for the first time in his life, is able to talk about his growing addiction to pornography. Clearly, the Holy Spirit is at work.

There are, hopefully, many moments like these when God’s real presence comes breaking through. It comes with such force of joy or healing that there is little room left for doubt. Scripturally, I think of the time Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a mountain and is transfigured before them. His clothes begin to glow with intense and divine light. Great figures of the Hebrew tradition appear next to him. A voice peals from the sky, “This is my beloved Son.” Yes, give me that, Lord, and I will be your true believer! Or, as Peter said as the Transfiguration faded, “This is awesome, Lord, let me put up a few tents, and we’ll just kick our feet up and soak this in a bit!” (Loosely translated.) Sometimes, God draws quite close indeed. God’s Presence is unmistakable.

And then, there are times like Tuesday night. God was surely there. In the liturgy, in the Eucharist, in the community. But, for me, it becomes much more a matter of faith, less of certainty. I find the hard evidence sometimes wanting. Behind all the ceremony, words, and people, this terrible silence lingers. Is it a void, that threatens to suck us in, like a vacuum in space, if we allow ourselves to let up on the talking and singing?

In the silence, yes, perhaps doubt creeps in, the possibility of the absence of God, the possibility that in the end, we sit alone with our tragedies and just have to make the best of them. Yet I also believe, the void is not entirely empty. From deep within, a something whispers in the void. It is hardly a quick-fix, or an all-problem-solving embrace. One catches the barest hint of it in a familiar story from the Gospels.

The scene is the seeming antithesis to the Transfiguration, that moment of pure and certain joy at the presence of God. Again, Jesus ascends a mount, again taking aside just Peter, James, and John. It is the Mount of Olives, immediately after the Last Supper. Judas had left the table to set Jesus’ arrest in motion. An unspeakable tragedy awaits. And Jesus, knowing this, and perhaps remembering the intimate closeness of his Father at the Mount of the Transfiguration, attempts to recreate the experience, ascending the hill alone with the same three disciples. He needs to feel that intimate presence again, for the meaning of his life and ministry is about to be questioned, then ended. The void beckons.

As the ceremony of his Passover meal with the disciples ends, as the talking and the hymn-singing recede, Jesus hears the silence. It calls for him. And he ascends the Mount of Olives to meet it. He begins to pray, alone, but desperate for God’s Presence to break the silence.

What can we say happens next? He leaves us no step-by-step instruction of how to find God in this silence. In fact, he seems to feel the Absence in the silence at a most intense depth. He weeps and sweats. He pleads for relief. But nothing glows white. No heroic figures appear. Perhaps most painfully, no voice of his Father is heard. And Peter, so willing to abide in the place of the transfigured Jesus, is found asleep. Peter senses no possibility of God’s Presence here.

“And then Jesus said to them, ‘Behold, the hour is at hand. Get up, let us go. Behold, my betrayer is at hand.”

Experientially, the sequence does not seem to make sense. Enter the silence. Experience the absence of God. Feel the screw turn. Experience the silence and absence at an even greater depth. Leave tenaciously resolved to place your life in the hands of God. “Get up. Let us go.” Stride boldly out of the silence into the mêlée of life with a renewed sense that God is not absent, but everywhere.

I suppose if we needed to know what happened on the Mount of Olives, we would have been told, in as much detail as we are told of what happened on the Mount of the Transfiguration. But perhaps the Mount of Olives, the tragedies of life, cannot simply be “filled in” with words and certain signs of God’s Presence. Perhaps the silence is real. Surely tragedy is. Perhaps all we have is the example of One who walked into it all …and discovered God’s Presence.

Perhaps this is what we celebrated Tuesday night.

Father Lou DelFra is the director of Bible studies in the Office of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.