Someone needs to write a book with one of these titles: The Metaphysics of a Goodbye, The Anatomy of a Farewell, The Pain of Moving On, or, better still, A Spirituality of the Ascension. Why such a book?
Because we experience many painful goodbyes in life. There are so many times when someone we love has to go away, or we have to go away. There are many times when, for whatever reason, someone has to move on and irrevocably change a relationship. Almost always this is painful, sometimes so painful that it leaves us feeling restless and empty, as if all the colour, energy, and joy have gone out of our lives.
But, as we know, usually this isn’t the end of the story. Most of the time, after the restless, dark heartache of a painful goodbye has worn off, we experience the opposite, a deep joy in sensing now our loved one’s presence in different way.
Parents, for example, experience this when their children grow up and leave home to start lives of their own. At first, when a child leaves home to go to college, to get married, or to take a job elsewhere, we are often left with a restless heartache that leaves us feeling empty. But, after a while, especially when our child, in the full bloom of adulthood, comes back to visit us our heartache can just as quickly disappear because our loved one, now no longer a child, can offer us a richer love and presence than he or she could when they were little. The pain of losing someone turns into the joy of finding something deeper in the one whom we thought we had lost.
When Jesus was preparing his disciples for his ascension, he told them: “It is better for you that I go away! You won’t understand this now. You will grieve and have heavy hearts, but, later, this will turn to joy and you will understand why I have to do this because, unless I go away, I can’t send you my spirit.”
These are the unspoken words that children say to their parents when they leave home to begin lives on their own; these are the unspoken words we say to our friends when we have to move on from a certain circle of friendship to get married; these are the unspoken words spouses sometimes say to each other when they have to grow in ways that, at the end of the day, will make their marriage stronger, but which, on a given day, leave their partner with a heartache; and these are the unspoken words we say to each other every time we have to say a goodbye, even if it’s just to go off to work for the day: “It is better for you that I go away, even if there is sorrow now!”
The paradoxical interplay of presence and absence in love is a great mystery. We need to be present to each other physically, but we also need to be gone from each other at times. We bring a blessing both when we visit someone and when leave after the visit is over. Presence is partly predicated on absence and there is something of our spirit that we can only give by going away. Why is this so?
Because absence is sometimes the only thing that can purify presence. When we are physically present, there are always certain tensions, irritations, disappointments, flaws in our bodies, and faults in our character that partially block full love and blessing. That’s why we rarely appreciate our loved ones fully, until they are taken away from us.
Absence can help wash clean. What the pain of absence does is stretch our hearts so that the essence, the beauty, the love, and the gift of the one who is absent can flow to us without being coloured by the tensions, disappointments, and the flaws of everyday life. As well, the other’s absence can work to stretch our hearts so that we can receive him or her in a way that more fully accepts and respects who he or she really is. That’s why our children have to go away (and we have to feel that bitter heartache) before we can accept that they are no longer children, but adults like ourselves, with lives of their own.
The mystery of saying goodbye is really the mystery of the Ascension, the most under-understood mystery both inside and outside of religion. The Ascension is about going away so that our loved ones can fully receive our spirit. It’s about the mystery of saying goodbye, when goodbye isn’t really goodbye at all, but only love’s way of taking on a different modality so that it can be present in a way that’s deeper, purer, more permanent, less-clinging, and less-limited by the tensions, disappointments, inadequacies, wounds, and betrayals that, this side of eternity, forever make our intimacy a work in progress.