Luke 17 5:10, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Perhaps as we begin a new academic year after our summer holidays, we do well to spend some time reflecting on all the experiences we have had during our break. You might have had the grace of rest, the pleasure of being in the midst of nature, the joy of being in the company of friends and family.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, they say. If you had the opportunity to meet up with friends and family you have not met for some time, you might have felt deeply grateful for those moments. I had the pleasure of reconnecting with family and friends whom I had not met for some time. Although I did not get the opportunity to go back home, I felt like home came to meet me in Europe. Since I had not seen them for some time, I had noticed how much they had grown up, or aged. How happy they were with new beginnings, and their struggles with endings. Truly, their absence over the past year and the grace of meeting them even briefly elicited all the love that had been lying in store in my heart for some time.
At the same time, I think that absence can make the heart grow colder. If we do not strive to keep in touch — to be a friend, or a brother, sister, son or daughter — there is the danger that we might become merely a memory. Our relationships will not deepen, but rather will gradually diminish in time.
Just as we must grow in emotional intelligence in dealing with absence in our relationships with one another, so too must we grow in spiritual intelligence when dealing with the experience of an absent God. I believe that this is precisely what our readings invite us to reflect on today.
Consider our first reading today which begins with the lament of the prophet Habakkuk. He sees the kingdom of Babylon rising in the south and threatening the sovereignty of his own people in Judah. In the shadow of impending annihilation, Habakkuk turns to a prayer of lament, a complaint to the God who seems to allow the evil that will come to pass. How long, O Lord, am I to cry for help while you will not listen. It takes a whole chapter (of lament) before God answers him. Yet, we are not told of the time span between lament and answer. We are told only that Habakkuk takes his stand on a tower and waits for what God will say to him (Hab 2:1).
My friends, I think what Habakkuk is trying to teach us about learning to cope with an absent God is firstly to be honest about how we feel, about how we are. We need to tell God and one another of how deeply we need God. How everything seems wrong and out of place in our lives and in our world when God seems so distant. We need to confront the painful and humbling experience of our world falling apart in the absence of God. And we need to stop sugar coating our prayers with saccharine sweet platitudes.
After lament, we must teach our hearts to wait for God. We are in no place to make demands that God appear and calm our fears and heal our hearts. God is free to come when God wants. After all as Jesus says in our Gospel reading today, we are servants who serve, not masters at the table. We are not to expect immediate service for ourselves from God, but we are expected to render persevering praise and reverence through our service. We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.
Thus, secondly, if we want to grow in spiritual intelligence, we must learn to continue serving the Lord in word and deed even in the time when God seems absent. If we do so, we will learn the very necessary truth of learning to look beyond our own pain, our own lament. Prayer is a relationship. Therefore, prayer is not just about us. Actually, prayer is much more about God and what God does for us. It is so much less about my pain, my sin or even my joy, my peace. It is much more about God’s mercy, peace, and joy. Learning to serve shifts our gaze from our limited capacities to the infinite horizon of God’s love.
I think Paul provides for us a perfect image of how our perspectives can change through the experience of an absent God. In our second reading today, we hear of Paul who is waiting for his execution (2 Tim 4:6). We cannot even begin to understand Paul’s dark night of suffering. Yet, he tells us: fan into a flame the gift that God gave you. If we are to really become spiritually intelligent, thirdly, we must learn to set our hearts on fire with love. In that flame we can be purified of all that makes God seem absent. After all, if we learn that we love God and that God loves us far more than our love, how can we ever believe that God is absent?
My friends, we live in a world that equates the experience of an absent God with a non-existent one. As our reading instructs us today, this is not the case. Our experience of the absence of God is actually pedagogical. Absence indeed makes our hearts grow fonder, transforming our language from lamentation to praise, changing us from servants to lovers.
How will you let the experience of the absence of God make your heart grow fonder or colder?