The Weight of Absence

Reflections on the experience of isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic lead me to a George Herbert poem about being stretched, “The Temper (I)”

A friend wrote to me recently about the “weight of absence,” and I am finding absence heavy, these days. It has been almost a month since I “did Sursum Corda,” and it looks like it will be at least another month for me, because of our family’s covid decisions. Oddly enough, absence is not the silence it would have been thirty years ago. I interact on band, see faces in Zoom Opening Gathering now and then, receive and send occasional text messages.  You would think these things would make absence lighter, wouldn’t you? But sometimes the effect is that I am hearing about people without hearing people. I spend more time interacting with my memories of them, or my interpretations and speculations about what they mean, than interacting with persons, who are always so surprising and other in real life. The digital interface sometimes makes me feel like my real life is a book I am reading; and just like an immersive good book I occasionally put it down and think, “what is my real life?” Am I really the person who was in that community this Fall? Was it all actually a dream? My heart swings back and forth from longing for more contact to feeling cold and dissociated. I find the absence heavy.

What is God doing, in all these shifts of mood, connection, identity? Because truly all this year has been a pendulum between closeness and distance, for me—with unprecedented closeness followed by moments of unusual isolation. If he wants to give us to each other, why keep pulling us apart? I find, perhaps, the beginning of an answer in a poem called “The Temper (I)” by George Herbert. Herbert writes about the spiritual mood swings of life—about feeling close to God and then falling back into distress. He cries out to God to just take him out of the misery of this fluctuation—because a human soul is not as big as God, and can’t handle the stretch. But then he tells God to have his own way, “for sure thy way is best,” and speculates that this stretching tunes his heart like a musical instrument–the title also hints that it tempers his heart like steel. How can he bear the ups and downs of that brutal tuning and tempering? By trusting in God, who is present in both places, and makes every place “one.”       

The Temper (I)
George Herbert

How should I praise thee, Lord! How should my rhymes 
      Gladly engrave thy love in steel, 
      If what my soul doth feel sometimes, 
           My soul might ever feel! 

Although there were some forty heav'ns, or more, 
      Sometimes I peer above them all; 
      Sometimes I hardly reach a score; 
           Sometimes to hell I fall. 

O rack me not to such a vast extent; 
      Those distances belong to thee: 
      The world's too little for thy tent, 
           A grave too big for me. 

Wilt thou meet arms with man, that thou dost stretch 
      A crumb of dust from heav'n to hell? 
      Will great God measure with a wretch? 
           Shall he thy stature spell? 

O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid, 
      O let me roost and nestle there: 
      Then of a sinner thou art rid, 
           And I of hope and fear. 

Yet take thy way; for sure thy way is best: 
      Stretch or contract me thy poor debtor: 
      This is but tuning of my breast, 
           To make the music better. 

Whether I fly with angels, fall with dust, 
      Thy hands made both, and I am there; 
      Thy power and love, my love and trust, 
           Make one place ev'rywhere. 

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