One of the joys of walking in the countryside is being able to see where animals have been. I love to see the passages that have been made-the grass hollowed out by some unseen creature- a fox probably- that has made this path their own. The scratchings where rabbits have been and their burrows, the tiny holes left by voles and the much bigger mounds left by moles. The sight of an empty nest perched high in a tree or the footprints of deer in the fresh mud. Occasionally I will actually catch sight of one of these creatures but, even if I do not, their tracks and signs tell me that they have been present.
This sense of presence in absence often helps me when I am struggling to connect with God in prayer. When I feel as though maybe my prayers are just words that go nowhere or have no meaning or effect. Times when it is difficult to find and know the presence of God. I know that I am not alone in struggling with prayer, indeed anyone who has ever tried to pray regularly will know exactly what I am talking about! Yet, even in the absence of any sense of God’s presence, any feeling that he is hearing or even interested in my stumbling words there can be an echo, a shadow almost, just like a footprint or a tunnel in the grass that speaks of a presence that was there. One of the poets who best captures this for me is RS Thomas.
“It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter
from which someone has just gone…” ( RS Thomas The Absence)
I am sure that many of us have had that experience of entering a room that is now empty but in which we sense people have just recently been. A trace of warmth, of perfume, of the air disturbed-subtle but real, presence in absence. It is ironically this very sense of absence that can draw us nearer to the mystery of God. We cannot comprehend God, except as St Paul reminds us, as in a mirror dimly. Such struggles in prayer remind me that God cannot be categorised, labelled, tamed or in any way managed by me. His absence reminds me of who it is I am addressing, who I am daring to call upon. Not a God who runs to my timetable or even my best efforts at prayer but a God who is beyond what man can grasp or understand. And so, I continue to struggle on in prayer and allow that sense of absence to speak to my heart of God who has made his home there.
Another poet puts it like this:
“…..often there is no sign of you
no gentle breeze to touch my face
no parting of the dark wood to reveal your shadow
but still I look-
for once I saw you there in the dying light
and imprinted on my heart is your
stark against the bare crossed limbs of a tree…”