“It is often in our absence that the Spirit of God manifests itself. . . . . It was only in Jesus’ absence that his friends discovered the full meaning of his presence. . . . When we claim for ourselves that we come to our friends in the Name of Jesus – that through us Jesus becomes present to them – we can trust that our leaving will also bring them the Spirit of Jesus. Thus, not only our presence but also our absence becomes a gift to others” (Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey.)
Nouwen brings us an interesting conundrum here: when we come into the presence of others as Christ-followers, we bring Jesus to them. And when we leave their presence we leave the Spirit of Jesus with them. If we are fully claim and experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, both our presence and our absence are gifts to others.
In this quote Nouwen was speaking of need for hospitality; our presence must be wel- coming to others. But I love the idea that, when we leave, our hospitality continues in our absence. Nouwen says that we not only bring the blessing of the Spirit with us when we enter a room or walk in the streets or worship together or have coffee, we also leave that blessing as we depart. We can be bearers of the Spirit and we also can leave the power of the Spirit in our wake. Just as the scent of perfume lingers when we leave a room, so does the fragrance of the Holy Spirit. If we breathe in the Spirit everyday, everyone will be blessed by our presence and our absence every day.
If I am connected to the Holy Spirit, if I maintain ongoing “conscious contact” with the God (as the 12th Step puts it), I will carry the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5: 22-26) within me; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control will follow me into the room. I can walk into an ugly battle of words and change the atmosphere. I can be with someone who is depressed and bring hope – with or without my words. I can be on one side of a difficult or confrontational phone call, and the call can end peacefully in agreement. I can be present during a gossip session and end the meanness. And in each situation, the influence of the Spirit will remain in the room even when I leave.
As I mused about how Nouwen’s observation can happen in real life, I was reminded of a recent visit from a former coworker and valued friend. She drove for 9o minutes to get to me, we sat for four hours in conversation – and then she drove 90 minutes home. We spent time catching up on kids, retirement activities, travels. But we also ventured deeply into each other lives. Driving home from that experience, I was already revisiting the conver- sation, as I did as when I went to bed, as I did during the next day, and as I did when my friend e-mailed me results of her search for information on a project dear to my heart. I learned that Spirit’s influence in our leavings occurs as we are humbled by the gift of someone’s time and caring. We can feel the Spirit in someone’s absence as we reflect on their stories and their responses to our stories. We can see the Spirit in someone’s absence as their continued influence continues to warm our hearts.
Nouwen’s words remind me that having the mind of Christ is a huge blessing and a huge responsibility.My presence and my absence can change my world. However, I must remain in the presence of the Spirit so that I can peel off my self-will and operate instead in the power of the Spirit.