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Bonhoeffer on Absence

May 15th, 2020 | 2 min read

By Matthew Shedden

Well, that escalated quickly! As soon as my last post published about how all our concerns are being governed by politics the virus came and took over that spot. The core of the post remains true, but things shifted fast.

One of the things I have noticed during this time is how quickly many congregations responded before any sense of loss or absence had time to set in. While our little church met slightly longer than most, we tried to take a slow approach to building systems that hopefully do not need to last forever. But as I have been preaching with Bonhoeffer at the moment a friend shared this passage from Letters and Papers from Prison with me.

Here, Bonhoeffer is writing from prison to his best friend and fiancée about the sense of absence they are feeling and how it might be endured. Instead of preparing zoom calls and trying to force a sense of connection, Bonhoeffer urges them to remain connected in emptiness. It’s in emptiness that an “authentic communion” is preserved.

What Bonhoeffer can remind us all of in the present is how the rush to fill the absence, both interpersonally and the church, can separate from how this longing to be together can be transformed from torment to a “peaceful joy”.

First, there is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so; one must simply preserve and endure it. At first that sounds very hard but at the same time it is a great comfort, for one remains connected to the other person through the emptiness; to the extent it truly remains unfilled. It is wrong to say that God fill the emptiness; God in no way fills it but rather keeps it empty and thus helps us preserve–even if in pain–our authentic communion.

Further, the more beautiful and full the memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into peaceful joy. One bears what was beautiful in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within. One must guard against wallowing in these memories giving one self entirely over to them, just as one does not gaze endlessly at a precious gift but only at particular times, and otherwise possesses it only as a hidden treasure of which one is certain. Then a lasting joy and strength radiate from the past. Further, times of separation are not lost and fruitless for common life, or at least not necessarily, but rather in them a quite remarkably strong communion–despite all problems–can develop.

Moreover, I have experienced especially here that we can always cope with facts; it is only what we anticipate that is magnified by and anxiety beyond all measure. From the fist awakening until our return to sleep, we must commend and entrust the other person to God wholly and without reserve, and let our worries become prayer for the other person. “With anxieties and with worry…God lets nothing be taken from himself.”

Matthew Shedden

Matthew Shedden is pastor at Defiance Church in a small mountain town in Colorado. There he tries to reclaim the trivial by spending with his family, fly fishing the Roaring Fork, skiing, and cooking.