Following up on my post on Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was A Child I Read Books: her essay on Imagination and Community shows how reading fiction teaches us to empathize with imaginary people.
Amid her dense prose, another concept moved me. “Presence in absence” is how Robinson alludes to fictional characters we learn to care for, even though they do not “exist.” “Presence,” she says, “is a great mystery, and presence in absence, which Jesus promised and has epitomized, is… a great reality for all of us in the course of ordinary life.” Here I believe she touches the heart of spiritual reality. Jesus left our world of space and time, and yet millions of us sense his presence here and now. That does not make him a fictional character; rather, fiction helps us to grasp how presence in absence can be experienced.
Call it imagination if you will, but everyday experience shows its power. People we love but are separated from remain real people in our imaginations. We see them, hear them, sense their presence. This is more than memory of past companionship, or anticipation of reunion. It is can carry us through long periods of separation without loss of relationship with another person. Our love for them, and theirs for us, persists even in absence. And this, Robinson says, “Jesus has epitomized.” He is gone but he is here, he is absent but always present. Or in another metaphor, he and the whole spiritual realm are now separated from us by a veil that becomes almost transparent at certain moments.
Robinson goes on to draw a connection with community (communion?): “Presence in absence – I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community…. [which] consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.”
Thank God we can live “by faith and not by sight,” and love our loved ones in their absence, and Jesus in his absence, without them becoming less real. And by imagining the lives and needs of people we know less well, we enter into community with them.