A Spirituality of the Ascension

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

The Ascension throws some important light on the mystery of love and intimacy. What's the Ascension?

It's an event inside of the life of Jesus and the early church, a feast- day for Christians, a theology, and a spirituality, all woven together into one amorphous bundle of mystery that we too seldom try to unpackage and sort out. What does the Ascension mean?

Among other things, that the mystery of how we touch each others's lives is strangely paradoxical in that the wondrous life-giving power of arriving, touching another's life, speaking words that nurture, doing actions that build up, and giving life for another, depends also upon eventually leaving, being silent, absorbing rather than actively doing, and giving our goodbye and death just as we once gave our presence and our life. Presence depends too upon absence and there's a blessing we can only give when we go away.

That's why Jesus, when bidding farewell to his friends before his ascension, spoke these words: "It's better for you that I go away." "You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy." "Don't cling to me, go instead to Galilee and I will meet you there."

How might we understand these words? How is it better that someone we love goes away? How can the sadness of a goodbye, of a painful leaving, turn to joy?

This is something that's hard to explain, though we experience it daily in our lives. Allow me an example: When I was 22, in the space of four months, my father and mother died, both still young. For myself and my siblings, the pain of their deaths was searing. Initially, as with every major loss, what we felt was pain, severance, coldness, helplessness, a new vulnerability, the loss of a vital life-connection, and, the brutality and finality of something for which there is no preparation. There's nothing warm, initially, in any loss, death, or painful goodbye.

Time is a great healer (though there's a lot more to this than simply what washes clean or is anaesthetized by the passage of time). After a while, for me this took several years, I didn't feel a coldness any more. My parents' deaths were no longer a painful thing. Instead their absence turned into a warm presence, the heaviness gave way to a certain lightness of soul inside me, their seeming incapacity to speak to me now turned into a surprising new way of having their steady, constant word in my life, and the blessing that they were never able to fully give me while they were alive began to seep ever more deeply and irrevocably into the very core of my person. The same was true for my siblings. Our sadness turned to joy and we began to find our parents again, in a deeper way, in Galilee, namely, in those places where their spirits had flourished while they were alive. They had ascended and we were the better for it.

We often have this kind of experience, simply in less dramatic ways. Parents, for instance, experience this, often excruciatingly, when a child grows up, grows away, and eventually goes away to start life on his or her own. A real death takes place here. An ascension has to happen, an old way of relating has to die, painful as that death is. Yet, it's better that our children go away. The same is true everywhere in life. When we visit someone, it's important that we come, it's also important that we leave. Our leaving, painful though it is, is part of the gift of our visit. Our presence partly depends upon our absence.

This however must be carefully distinguished from what we mean by the axiom: "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." In essence, that's not true. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but only for a while and mostly for the wrong reasons. Physical absence, simple distance from each, without a deeper dynamic of spirit taking place beneath, ends more relationships than it deepens. In the end, most of the time, we simply grow apart. That's not how the ascension deepens intimacy, presence, and blessing.

The ascension deepens intimacy by giving us precisely a new presence, a deeper, richer one, but one which can only come about if our former way of being present is taken away. Perhaps we understand this best in the experience we have when our children grow up and leave home. It's painful to see them grow away from us, painful to say that particular goodbye, painful to see them, precisely, ascend.

But, if their words could say what their hearts intuit, they would say what Jesus said before his ascension: "It's better for you that I go away. There will be sadness now, but that sadness will turn to joy when, one day soon, you will have standing before you a wonderful adult son or daughter who is now in a position to give you the much deeper gift of his or her adulthood."