This summer I’ve been struck by the number of goodbyes I have said. Some were to people I had just met; others to people I have known my whole life. But regardless of the length and depth of familiarity, each goodbye has stirred up some amount of heartache, wistfulness, or sadness. It’s easy to see God in the people I love, but how is God present when it comes time to say goodbye to them? Where is God in this messy, emotional, and often painful experience of parting with those we love?
The summer began by saying goodbye to friends who were moving out of our community in St. Louis. We came from different parts of the country and belonged to separate provinces, and so a sadness hung over me as I wondered whether I would ever see some of these friends again.
When it was my turn to leave St. Louis for the summer, I travelled to El Paso with a few other Jesuits to serve at a migrant shelter. As the guests left the shelter there was often effusive thanks for the help received and joy at the prospect of reuniting with family they had not seen in years. But the sadness struck me when my six-week stint at the shelter came to an end and I had to say goodbye to the other volunteers. I hadn’t appreciated how much camaraderie I had come to feel with them, nor was I aware of what my presence had meant to others until I was leaving. Since leaving El Paso, I’ve visited and said my farewells to a friend moving abroad, to family and hometown friends I had not seen since before the pandemic, and to a sacred place, the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, which will be closing on August 15th. It’s where I made the Spiritual Exercises as a novice and discerned to profess vows.
Those vows call me to fully love and give myself to others and to have the freedom to move to a new assignment when missioned. It can be very difficult to hold these two callings simultaneously, especially when I feel affection for the people I have served and befriended, and for the places where I have encountered God. Of course, this tension is not unique to Jesuits. Anybody who has had to part with loved ones or move from a beloved place knows this difficulty. It just seems that in my four years as a Jesuit, I have gone through this experience more frequently than in my 28 years before becoming a Jesuit. And the quickness with which friends are made and then separated during formation has caused more than a few moments of emotional whiplash. After experiencing that whiplash again this summer, I realized that if I was going to be both as loving and as available as I wanted to be (and as God was calling me to be), then I had to discern how God was present in the midst of these difficult goodbyes.
To my surprise, God guided me in this discernment through a Wendell Berry novel I happened to be reading. The book’s eponymous narrator, Jayber Crow, is a barber in a small town in Kentucky, and he describes the moment when he looks into the faces of some of his regular, elderly customers only to recognize that they are dying. The barber reflects that in this moment, “[T]his man, your foolish neighbor, your friend and brother, has shed somehow the laughter that followed him through the world, and has assumed the dignity and the strangeness of a traveler departing forever.”
That analogy of the “traveler departing forever” leapt off the page and I suddenly saw myself in a way I had never seen before. I saw the “dignity” and “strangeness” that I had assumed in each of my goodbyes, even the ones that were not forever, and I saw that same dignity and strangeness in those I had parted from. And in that dignity and strangeness, I found the presence of God.
We have a tendency to take for granted not just the presence of friends, family, and others whom we know well, but also their personalities and identities. It is natural to reduce others to our knowledge of them, especially those with whom we spend the most time. But in saying goodbye, there comes a sudden realization that there is something of this person that is beyond my knowledge and escapes what I have been able to capture. There is a life, a future, an inner depth that is separate from me, and so this person whom I thought I knew so well suddenly becomes a mystery. And from that mystery comes their dignity and strangeness.
When I picture the faces of those whom I have said goodbye to this summer, I see in each of them that mystery, dignity, and strangeness, and I am filled with awe and wonder. And when I continue to gaze at this person with that newfound awe and wonder, I catch a glimpse of their sacredness and transcendent beauty. That is, I see the image of God.
Saying goodbye will continue to be difficult. As long as we love, there will be no avoiding the sadness of parting. But I no longer fear or dread this part of my Jesuit vocation, or more accurately, this inevitability of life. I have come to accept these frequent partings and the accompanying sadness with humble gratitude. I now see the sacred when saying goodbye. What a privilege it is to dwell for a little bit in the other’s mystery. And it is worth the sadness, as I have come to feel more deeply than ever before that even in parting we remain united to each other. The shared dignity and strangeness in our parting reveals our shared divine image, and the same Love that created us unites us to His Body and in our unique travels guides us all to Himself.