T.S. Eliot once said that home is where we start from. These words describe my feelings as summer draws to its close. For me, it’s been a summer away from home: trips, workshops abroad, lectures and teaching in various places, a summer of meeting new people and of saying goodbye to them. Saying farewell doesn’t get easier with time. There’s a death in every goodbye, one painful enough to make us wonder whether the initial shared time was worth it.
This summer, I taught in three different countries and shared deeply within the lives of very different groups of persons. At the end of each of these times there were goodbyes. That was always a sad time, a deeply restless time, a time when death hangs in the air. There were grateful smiles and au revoirs, but all of us knew that most of us would never see each other again and that, certainly, this particular group of persons would never be together like this again.
What does one do with that? Pretend it’s not hard? Put on the stoic’s face? Callous oneself so as not to bleed? Offer it up to God? Whatever else needs to be done, certainly the experience needs to be picked up and examined. The metaphysics of a farewell. What’s in a goodbye? What kind of symbols give vision and consolation at moments of parting?
There is a story told about a Jewish farmer who, through carelessness, did not get home before sunset one Sabbath and was forced to spend the day in the field, waiting for sunset the next day before returning home. Upon his return home he was met by a rather angry rabbi who scolded him for his carelessness. Finally, the rabbi asked him: “What did you do out there all day in the field? Did you at least pray?” The farmer answered: “Rabbi, I am not a clever man. I don’t know how to pray properly. What I did was to simply recite the alphabet all day and let God form the words.”
That parable sheds light upon many things. Here I use it to help understand what happens when a group, any group, meets and shares life and then must say goodbye. When we meet and share life, we come, each of us, as one piece of an infinite alphabet of personalities. Like a letter in the alphabet we each have our unique shape, our own background, and our own special set of dreams and heartaches. We bring uniqueness, but, together, we form a word, a community, a family, a melody, a something which is bigger and more significant than ourselves. But always, since home is where we start from, it is only for awhile. This side of eternity, no group lasts, every community, every marriage, every family, every gathering, every preciously shared moment, has an ending. The word breaks apart. There is always a death in that breaking; ideally, a paschal death, a death in which one loses the smaller circle, the smaller synthesis, the smaller life, to come, eventually, to something bigger, to a wider consummation. Christ taught us that in his death.
We begin leaving home when we are expelled from the womb and life is a series of farewells after that. We spend our lifetimes trying to create homes and communities, but eventually, always, these break apart. To live with that, without giving in to an unhealthy stoicism, nostalgia, or despairing depression, it is important that we understand both the dynamics of death and of Christian community. The death we experience in saying goodbye is not terminal, but paschal. We break up a word to become parts of a bigger one. Smaller circles give way to larger ones. Christian community and true intimacy are not lost. True community, like true friendship, is a shared spirit. It need not be lost when physical death, distance, and commitments break us apart.
Community is not, first of all, nor necessarily at all, a shared roof, a shared city, a shared task, or even an explicitly shared friendship. It’s a shared spirit, a shared way of life. Before Pentecost, the disciples were physically together under one roof, clinging to each other, but they were not in real community. After receiving the spirit, they were never together again under one roof or in one city, but they now were in community. Community, family, intimacy, these are constituted first of all by living in the same spirit, Christ’s spirit…charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, mildness, faith, and chastity. When we live within these, we are in deep intimacy with all others who are also living within them, irrespective of the separation that distance and time can cause.
Life has its seasons. There is a time to be together, of intimacy, of shared time and celebration, when God makes us into a word. However, there is also, always, a time when the demands of life, duty, and the Holy Spirit call us to move along. Then is the time for farewell, for pained embraces, for tears, and for the bitter restlessness that accompanies that. But, it’s not like we’d never met. What’s been shared, the word we made, breaks up only to become part of something larger…and we regain each other in that.
When we’ve shared a common spirit and keep that spirit, it no longer matters if we are thousands of miles apart, we remain part of each other, in deep intimacy, silently nurturing each other as we help bring about the final consummation within the body of Christ.