Sometimes I sit down to write with an idea and I know that I am either getting ready to write something good, or something really bad. That is how I feel about this particularly topic. I have good feelings about it because I am writing about something that is close to my heart and which I think about frequently. I have forboding, because such things are notoriously hard to capture.
Some years ago when I was writing academically on the doctrine of the holy icons, I came across a distinction made by St. Theodore the Studite in which he spoke of “hypostatic representation.” In short, he made a distinction between representing the “essence” of something and the “hypostasis” of something – between the “isness” of someone or thing and its “personhood.” In short, he said that icons were representations of the hypostasis (the person) and not the essence. There are many theological implications to be drawn from his writings, but I will not do that here (I largely wrote a thesis on the topic).
Instead, I want to contemplate for a moment an idea that I first encountered in Met. John Zizioulas’ writings, in which he recognized a “presence in absence,” that is not unrelated to St. Theodore’s thought. Suppose you are in a restaurant waiting for someone whom you care a great deal about. There may be any number of people who come and go while you wait, but you pay them no attention. In fact, you are so aware of the absence of the one who has not yet come, that the presence of others is no presence at all. Met. John has much to say about this, and if you are totally devoid of reading material and have several months, I suggest you read his book Being as Communion.
But as years slip by, and the “nest” in which I live changes with age, much of my life is filled with the “absence” of others. I have two married daughters who live away, and many times their absence is “hypostatically real” for me. It is as though I could touch them and converse. These days, everyone works or is in college or school (our youngest is a sophomore in high school). Thus, most of the time, what I know is known in absence.
The same is also true in the parish. Most of the time, everyone is somewhere else. They are at work, at home, wherever. And so I stand at the altar each day to pray for them and they become present, like so many icons round about the altar, as I remember them before God.
Finally, as someone who has buried well over 350 people in his ministry, there is this other hypostatic cloud of witnesses. Never at one time, it seems, but often, and poignant.
To speak of someone being hypostatically present, is also to speak of them being “personally” present (but in a way that is meant in the Church’s technical sense of “person” and not in popular parlance).
I am slowly learning that these are moments for thanksgiving and prayer and not moments for grief or longing. Though I miss those who are absent from my immediate awareness, I rejoice that I remember them, and that they are present to me. As children grow older, parents have present to them their children at a variety of ages. I remember them all in their growing up and can hear them now. This is not a loss, but a great gain.
I think, too, that God’s eternal remembrance of us, is a remembrance of the fullness of our person which is more, somehow, than who I am at this moment. It is me through time and in my fullness. It is one of the reasons that I have never been happy with the “as a tree falls so it lies” theology taught by some out there with regard to our death and judgment.
Some say that the whole of our eternity depends on the final state of our soul. Hamlet famously refrains from killing his stepfather when he comes across him in prayer, lest he thus dispatch him to heaven. The idea’s been around for a while. But we are so much more than this moment. This moment is not even the sum total of all other moments in your life. None of us seem to live with such fullness.
But God remembers such fullness and intends that for us. I hold that in my heart for my children, and I cannot separate them from the fullness of who they are and who they have been. Thus I hold their triumphs (even when they are small) in great esteem if I see that triumph in the context of their true personhood.) Surely God does this and more.
May God bless all who touch my day, from the past, the present and the future. Those present, and those absent (who are not truly absent).
May we come to know each other in a way that knows no absence.