Spirituality for Today – November 2011 – Volume 16, Issue 4

The Presence In Absence

By Rev. Raymond Petrucci

Eight days had passed since the "absence" was first noticed. A record number of people waited to file past the blank wall where there had been something, but now there was nothing. How odd that an emptiness drew more visitors than the purloined presence ever did. The absence was the talk of all France, indeed all Europe, in that late summer of 1911. The absent occupant of that hallowed space in the Louvre was none other than the Mona Lisa. Throughout the centuries, that lady with the tantalizing smile had had to weather some rough treatment. In this case, the lovely youth would rest in the closet of its thief for two years. The painting has been stolen twice. Protective glass has saved it numerous times from being vandalized. Yet, the lines of people waiting to pay respect to the gone, centuries-old masterpiece by visiting the place where it once was, found that the vacated space had been imbued with a special meaning. Like a residue, something powerful remained. Perhaps, it encompassed a hope that someday the portrait would return home.

A tight photo of the Mona Lisa

The hero of Little Round Top, General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, spoke of such power at the dedication of the monument honoring the heroic stand of the 20th Maine upon that hill during the battle of Gettysburg:

In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass, bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream. And lo! The shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.

One wonders if an empty tomb, two millennia ago, struck the souls of visitors to it in the same way. There resided not a memory of the crucified Christ, but the ongoing fulfillment of a promise and a lofty mission to reach a waiting world with a message of salvation. A truth too wonderful to conceive left its enduring mark there. From the emptiness of that burial place, there radiated a faith and a hope that would touch the graves of every believer.

Absences can speak not of loss, but of presence. Of course, the sublimity of the Easter Event leaves all the other absences immeasurably subordinate. Nevertheless, all of these presences are ones that reveal the magnificence of the creation and the creator. The location is bestowed with an honor unimaginable by the character of the place itself. Like the intriguing smile on the face of DaVinci's painting, there lives a mystery in the places where great deeds of long-absent actors occurred.

Upon the surface of the earth, often unmarked and unheralded, the legacies of multitudes have built the sturdy structure that is the Church. Illustrations of the contributions of these countless men and women are found in the inspirational stories of the saints, the memoirs of the journeys of faith of the champions of the Church. They are remembered – all remembered – at this time of year when nature itself stands in the absence of its greenery. Through prayerful agency, the historical absence of the saints evolves into a gloriously eternal presence. The Newtonian humility of "standing on the shoulders of giants" finds apt expression in the gratitude the faithful pay today to the faithful of yesterday. Heroic tales of faith live not only in the noted holy ones of the past, but also in the inheritance received through our own loved ones, our own models of faith.

The "presence in absence" is a living grace, an influence and an encouragement that makes us strive for holiness. Technology has placed us in a world of growing connectivity. We need to identify those "connective tissues" of both now and then that teach and lead us forward, that aid in forming the presence we shall leave as a legacy when we become absent. As each person of that time long past who viewed and pondered the vacant spot where the Mona Lisa hung, they recognized that a spiritual presence remained. Essential, then, is the requirement of a people of faith to cling to- and grow from the wisdom left to them by those saintly folk whose being once filled the earth and whose absence now reveals a loving presence.