Absence and presence

It is in this darkness,attachment-461086018

when there is nothing left in us

that can please or comfort our own minds,

when we seem useless and worthy of all contempt,

when we seem to have failed,

when we seem to be destroyed and devoured…

It is then

that the deep secret selfishness that is too close

for us to identify is stripped away from our souls.

It is in this darkness that we find liberty.

It is in this abandonment that we are made strong.

This is the night which empties us and makes us pure.

–Thomas Merton

When I was a teenager, Lent was a competitive sport. I wanted not so much to walk the way of the cross as to strut the way of the cross. I wanted to achieve. I wanted people to say: “He is like Jesus. He is a tough [expletive deleted].”

As a freshman in high school, I decided giving up chocolate was passe. Instead, I ate nothing between meals, and this despite the fact that breakfast and lunch combined already constituted no more than a Carnation Instant Breakfast and six mozzarella sticks. As a bottomless pit in the middle of a violent growth spurt, I went from being chubby to looking like a rail in six weeks.

I got headaches. I liked headaches. They made me holy. Headaches were Jesus-ish. I imagined each one as a liturgically-appropriate purple ribbon bearing the words “Honorable Mention.” I decided to do it again next year.

And so it happened. But sophomore year, the headaches were skull-splitting. My head pounded with spiritual pride, and probably hypoglycemia, as I translated Latin homework at my kitchen table. My mother told me I was making myself sick and should stop right now. Perhaps a week later, as if on cue, I went down with chicken pox.

I doubt there was any inherent connection between starving myself and the galaxy of blisters that kept me home for a week, where I forlornly washed with oatmeal-based cleansers and endured endless reruns of Eight is Enough and Highway to Heaven. If you haven’t had the virus yet and haven’t been vaccinated, the roulette simply turns against you.

But through this minor disaster (and disasters are the way I evolve, for better or worse), I learned that showing off for God, and using God to show off, wins no medals. It destroys you from the inside. If there is indeed a system of natural law, a set of moral propositions built into reality that you must discover and obey because they are to be discovered and obeyed, then this is one of those propositions. I had more to learn, but here it began.

As a college freshman, I found a better vision. A Jesuit explained that during Lent we intentionally create absence, because absence enables new space for presence. We choose to keep a particular window open so we can see more clearly how we relate to God, self and others.

This year, I haven’t decided what I’m “doing” for Lent, even though Lent is a week old. Even so, I’ve pondered how absence and presence interact with something I always consider giving up, but never do: the internet.

I’m a writer. I work on WordPress. I scroll through news, religion and culture sites to stay up on everything. I use social media to promote my stuff and to ensure I can be more or less easily found. All my opportunities to get published, and to get published again, have arrived via the web. I can claim to need to be online for a significant part of every day.

But perhaps I also fear what would float to the top if I gave it up. Does reading article after article inform me? Or does it keep me conveniently aloof from the real people and worlds described in those articles, while providing the illusion of wisdom?

Do I need “likes” and “favorites,” comments and shares and retweets, to affirm a sense of personal value that I otherwise doubt? When I peruse selfies and baby pics and engagement-ring photos, am I still bound to the photographers in real life? Or do some of these “friends” for all intents and purposes no longer exist? I can turn it around: for whom do I really exist?

Do I substitute digital self-promotion for trusting God with my vocation? Do I find more hours per day of actual solitude frightening, because I know it speaks to me on terms other than my own? If I fled from cyber world to a “deserted place,” who would I–and God–turn out to be?

Lenten absence makes hard truths present. But these truths save us. In darkness, we see light. Dying, we live.

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About Justin Sengstock
Justin Sengstock is a contributor to the books "Hungering and Thirsting for Justice" and "An Irrepressible Hope," both published by ACTA in 2012. His writing has appeared online at Young Adult Catholics, Catholic Majority, Chicago Catholic News, and the original blog of the Chicago Underground Library (now Read/Write Library). Justin earned a B.A. in theology from Loyola University Chicago.

4 Responses to Absence and presence

  1. Ha — I once played Lent like a competetive sport, too. Never as hard-core as you, though! My limit was fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which gave me migraines for years until I decided to claim a medical exemption! I’m glad you’re eating again now. :)

    I gave up the Internet for lent back in 1998 or therabouts. Although it was a challenge then, I can only imagine how much time I’d gain back if I gave it up now. What I remember most about it isn’t that it was difficult, though — the most difficult part was the protests from people who were used to seeing me online. After that, I felt incredibly relieved, grateful for the “excuse” to cut all that noise out of my life, at least for a time. Your post has me thinking perhaps I should try it again.

    Good luck as you decide and discern what you’re feeling called to this Lenten season.

    • Thanks…I’m glad to be eating, too. I was so drop-dead earnest in the old days. This kind of adolescence did actually serve a purpose: first you learn the rule book of Catholicism like a grammarian, then later you break the rules like a master. (Phrasing not original to me.) But it was also an individual process I happened to grow through, not a pattern I would ever, ever recommend to anyone.

      Giving up the ‘Net will be impossible, at least this year, but I have throttled back my Facebook presence somewhat, and I’m not trying so hard to keep up with all the Twitter that happened since the last time I logged in. Otherwise I’m praying more, which is something I seriously needed to do.

  2. Pingback: Friday Round-Up: 3/21/14 | Catholic Majority

  3. Pingback: The Word in Peace, Third Sunday of Lent: For what do I thirst? | Young Adult Catholics

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