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  • Space
  • Douglas Burton-Christie

"It is only now, after many years, that I am able to speak of God again." That was how Sr. Dianna Ortiz described her emerging but still fragile sense of God's presence in her life last October. She had just finished speaking to a packed auditorium of students and faculty at Loyola Marymount University of her experience as a victim of torture in a Guatemalan prison and of the long, painful road she had traveled since then—toward wholeness, toward hope, toward a restoration of faith in God. "Only now." Those words are haunting. Fourteen years had elapsed since her abduction and torture. But it was "only now" that something approaching an ability to speak of God had begun to surface within her. What about the space in between, all those years of doubt, pain and darkness that had transpired since that terrible event? I could not help wonder about this as I listened to her speak that day. It was so clear that the experience of that long ago day was still vividly, painfully present to her, almost as if no time had passed at all. And yet it was also apparent that living through the immense space of those years, through the awful silence, the unrelenting darkness that had eclipsed God from her life, had yielded an utterly unexpected gift. Something new and tender and fragile had begun to emerge at the center of her life: something like faith.

In the book, Writing in the Dust: After September 11th, Rowan Williams reflects on the necessity of space, silence, emptiness within the life of faith, especially when persons and communities are faced with profound rupture and loss. Speaking of the terrible void that so many experienced after the events of September 11th, Williams says: "It was an empty space. . . we don't fully know what goes on when, in the middle of terror or pain, this emptiness and anaesthesia set in. . . . But somehow the emptiness 'resources' us. Not to run too fast to explore the feelings and recover the words seems important." To dwell in such emptiness does not mean giving into helplessness. It means, rather, resisting the temptation to "fill up the void," to assign meaning to everything (including God). It means cultivating the capacity to attend honestly and openly to experience, to wait patiently for what is yet to emerge into the light of day. Emblematic of this kind of patient attention is the story of Jesus writing in the dust. "What on earth is he doing?" Williams wonders. "He hesitates. He [End Page vii] does not draw a line, fix an interpretation, tell the woman who she is and what her fate should be. He allows a moment, a longish moment, in which people are given time to see themselves differently precisely because he refuses to make the sense they want. When he lifts his head, there is both judgment and release."

Can faith be reborn in the face of terror, or torture? Or any other kind of rupture that threatens to leave us lost and broken? To respond to such questions honestly often provokes just the kind of hesitation we see in Jesus's unexpected act of stooping to write in the dust. A space opens up, born of the recognition that the experience is too dense to absorb or understand (at least in this moment), that what we know is dwarfed by all that we do not know. It becomes clear that one cannot offer the kind of answer that will provide the longed-for closure, or perhaps even speak at all. Not yet anyway.

One sees expressions of this hesitation, this need to dwell in emptiness, throughout the Christian spiritual tradition. Not long after Jesus paused to write in the dust, his followers found themselves falling into the awful void created by his torture and death, by the dawning awareness that his spirit and vision were (apparently) lost to them forever. One senses the pathos and meaning of this long journey into the void in those first, halting expressions in the New Testament of what that journey meant. Or consider the habit of the fourth century desert...


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