‘I will not leave you comfortless’

by
15 May 2020

Robin Isherwood reflects on real presence in a virtual world

Art Library/Alamy

The hand of Adam and the hand of God, from the fresco The Creation of Adam (1510) by Michelangelo, in the Sistine Chapel in Rome

The hand of Adam and the hand of God, from the fresco The Creation of Adam (1510) by Michelangelo, in the Sistine Chapel in Rome

“KEEP in touch,” we say. Usually just when we’re moving out of touch — leaving a place of work or study, or moving house. Or, since the introduction of social distancing, moving into isolation. The notion of touch has become associated with infection, and protection. Remote forms of communication have come into their own, and I wonder how we practise a priesthood of presence when we are not there. The sense of presence is central to our pastoral practice, and, try though we may online and on the phone, we can feel bereft when that sense is lacking.

My wife and I used occasionally to attend Holy Trinity, Bath. One of the attractions was a small choir that was invisible to the congregation. But there was still a real sense in which the sound, and the singers, were present. Music shares with God the quality of having presence without locus. There is a quality to our voices when we are in the same room as the person we are speaking to which is missing when we are not. The anthropologist Steven Feld has noted that, when voicing and listening take place within the same physical space, there is an embodiment of presence and memory.

That embodiment is palpable when we are with people we know, and we feel its absence when we are separated. When we can’t see one another, the silences are less companionable, the pauses more ponderous. With electronic communication, however good the hardware, we miss the resonance in the inner life as well as in the inner ear. The connection is incomplete. (On the phone, my mum could not distinguish me from my brother.)

John Hull, in Notes on Blindness, explains that the pauses that add warmth to a conversation between sighted people can induce panic for the blind, opening an existential void, reviving nightmares of abandonment and isolation: “[Other] people have become disembodied voices, speaking out of nowhere, going into nowhere.” When you look, he says, even if you don’t find, the world is still there. But when you listen, and there is silence, the world is no longer there.

 

I CANNOT remember a pastoral visit that has not, towards its end, opened to silence. The visitor and the visited might hold one another’s gaze (at times with penetrating intimacy), or there might be a tacit agreement to gaze into neutral space. My mind moves towards my departure, and I seek reassurance that I am not causing more harm by leaving than I would have done by not coming at all.

Frequently, I will be wondering whether we will never meet again. And I find that, from that hearthside, that hospice bed, that decking in the sun, I who went to comfort have come away comforted. That comfort can be renewed, years later, by a scent, the feeling of a settee, the sense of a room, any one of the many tokens of presence which, as John Hull notes, help us to order the conversations of the past and preserve them from chaos.

We do not have to be blind to experience the panic that Hull writes about. Everyone who has suffered acute loss recognises the enveloping blackness, the erosion of those features by which we mapped our lives, the threat of oblivion. Here is the heart of my anxiety about digital and telephonic communication: we might at any time be cut off. My fear that the person at the other end might not be present is also my fear that I myself might not be present.

This uncomfortable thought may help to explain why we can tell without looking if a person we overhear is on the phone. It is not simply volume of the voice: it’s the catch of desperation, the yearning for validation.

The desire for validation affects institutions as well as individuals. We, the Church, can experience existential anguish, and can react — like the man with his mobile on the train — by being louder, pushier, less self-conscious. Alternatively, we can strike out in a new direction: online, for example, or on TV.

We should not underestimate the value of good intentions, but we nor should we be over-confident of their capacity to console those cut off by Covid-19, and in particular those lives and relationships approaching their end beyond the reach of touch, outside the gathering silence of the beloved.

 

THE presence that matters is not mine (or ours), but God’s. Poets from the Psalmists onwards have regretted that this presence too often looks like absence. It is, however, all we have; and we might reflect that the root of our longing lies not in God’s having gone, but in God’s having been here.

I am reminded of D. Z. Phillips’s comment that, if you knock on the door and it’s not answered, it doesn’t mean that there’s no one at home. And I think of R. S. Thomas, throwing his prayers like grit at the window. Throw bigger stones. Knock louder. It won’t make any difference.

The author of Luke’s Gospel wrote for readers who found it difficult to forgive Jesus, having come, for leaving. The narrative of consolation which I find sustaining just now is the Good Samaritan. He does everything that can be done, but he must depart. So he entrusts the patient to the care of another stranger, one who — essentially — is present.

 

The Revd Robin Isherwood is a priest living in the diocese of Bath & Wells.

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