For example, when Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples he tries to explain to them some of the deep paradoxes inside the mystery of presence and absence.
He tells them that it is better for them that he goes away because, unless he does, he will be unable to send them his spirit. He assures them too that the heaviness and grief they will feel at his leaving is really the pain of giving birth and that this heartache will eventually turn warm and nurturing and bring them a joy that no one can ever take from them.
That is the language of Ascension and Pentecost, not just as it pertains to Jesus leaving this earth and sending his spirit, but it is also as it pertains to the mystery of giving and receiving spirit in all our goodbyes.
Among other things, it points to that perplexing experience we have where we can only fully understand and appreciate others after they go away, just as others can only fully understand us and let themselves be fully blessed by us after we go away. Like Jesus, we can only really send our spirits after we go away.
We experience this everywhere in life: A grown child has to leave home before her parents can fully understand and appreciate her for who she really is. There comes a day in a young person’s life when she stands before her parents and, in whatever way, says the words: “It is better for you that I go away! Unless I go you will never really know who I am. You will have some heartache now, but that pain will eventually become warm because I will come back to you in a deeper way.” Parents say the same thing to their children when they are dying.
We only really grasp the essence of another after he or she has gone away. When someone leaves us physically, we are given the chance to receive his or her presence in a deeper way.
And the pain and heartache we feel in the farewell are birth-pangs, the stretching that comes with giving new birth. When someone we love has to leave us (to go on a trip, to begin a new life, or to depart from us through death) initially that will feel painful, sometimes excruciatingly so. But when that leaving is necessitated by duty or by life itself then, no matter how hard it is, even if it is death itself that takes away our loved one, eventually he or she will come back to us in a deeper way, in a presence that is warm, nurturing, and immune to the fragility of normal relationships.
Many of us, I suspect, have experienced this in the death of someone whom we loved deeply. For me, this happened at the death of my parents. My mother and father died three months apart, when I was twenty-three years old. They were young, too young to die in my view, but death took them anyway, against my will and against theirs. Initially, their death was experienced as very painful, as bitter. My siblings and I wanted their presence in the same way as we had always had it, physical, tangible, bodily, real.
Eventually the pain of their leaving left us and we sensed that our parents were still with us, with all that was best in them, our mum and dad still, except that now their presence was deeper and less fragile than it had been when they were physically with us. They were with us now, real and nurturing, in a way that nobody and nothing can ever take away.
Our presence to each other physically, in touch, sight, and speech is no doubt the deepest wonder of in all of life, sometimes the only thing we can appreciate as real. But wonderful as that is, it is always limited and fragile. It depends upon being physically connected in some way and it is fragile in that separation (physical or emotional) can easily take someone away from us. With everyone we love and who loves us (parents, spouse, children, friends, acquaintances, colleagues), we are always just one trip, misunderstanding, accident, or heart attack away from losing their physical presence.
This was the exact heartache and fear that the disciples felt as Jesus was saying goodbye to them and that is the heartache and fear we all feel in our relationships. We can easily lose each other.
But there is a presence that cannot be taken away, that does not suffer from this fragility, that is, the spirit that comes back to us whenever, because of the some inner dictates of love and life, our loved ones have to leave us or we have to leave our loved ones. A spirit returns and it is deep and permanent and leaves a warm, joyous, and real presence that nobody can ever take from us.