The Presence in the Absence – A Timely Re-posting

southwest-trip-392This short post is among the first to appear on this blog – dating back to October of ’06. In the light of conversations here over the past few days, it seemed timely to bring this back to our attention. I I have written on the topic of the absence of God (or our sense of it) since the beginning of my work. And even though conversations with contemporary non-believers can be tedious – they are very much worth having – if for no other reason than most Christians have a great deal of non-belief in their hearts. I also believe it is the particular calling of contemporary Orthodox (in this I follow St. Silouan of Mt. Athos) to empty ourselves and enter the abyss of the spiritual hell our world has created for itself and there preach and pray – for it is there that the contemporary Adam has confined himself – and it is there that we must also find Christ. The emptiness of the secularized world – the first floor of a two-storey universe – is a man-made hell, the place in which we have exiled ourselves from God. We will not find God by looking elsewhere for it is here that He is present and filling all things. It is the mystery of our faith. I have reposted this original article without change.


There is a strange aspect to the presence of God in the world around us. That aspect is His apparent absence. I read with fascination (because I am no philosopher, much less a scientist) the discussions surrounding “intelligent design” and the like. I gather that everybody agrees that the universe is just marvelous and wonderfully put together (I can’t think of a better universe). But then begins the parting of ways as one sees God everywhere and another sees Him nowhere. Reason surely need not deny Him, though reason does not seem forced to acknowledge Him. I have spent most of my life around these arguments – one place or another. I can stand in either place and see both presence and absence.

But as the years have gone by, I have come to see something I never saw before – the Presence within the absence. I don’t mean to sound too mystical here – only that I see in the hiddenness of God a revelation of His love. The Creator of us all draws us towards Himself and knowledge of Him, with hints and intimations, with seen and yet unseen signs.

The strange deniability that He leaves us is the space in which love is born. Love cannot be forced, cannot be demanded. It must come as gift, born of a willingness to give. To give God trust that what I see is indeed evidence of the wisdom in which He made all things is also a space – one which God fills with Himself and the echo, the Yes, that the universe shouts back to us.

It is where I grow weary of the arguments – not because they need not be made – but because it becomes hard to hear the silence in the noise of our own voices – a silence that invites us to hear the sound of the voice of God that rumbles all around us.

There’s more to say – but not now.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


12 responses to “The Presence in the Absence – A Timely Re-posting”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: Not Buddha under the Bo Tree. It’s me exhausted from a hike in ’06 in Zion National Park. I used a lot of Southwest shots the first year of the Blog.

  2. DavidD Avatar

    I have made something of this same observation, the fact that God has not provided irrefutable evidence of His existence is an act of love toward humanity. If it were not so, our rebellion would be as the angels and there would be no hope for repentance. In requiring faith, relationship with God pushes us ever deeper – it can never be a cold, sterile FACT. It is moving forward, growing, or it is receding, dying.

    Well, forgive me, a sinner. These are just thoughts I have had.

  3. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! A timely repost, indeed! What you say here really resonates with my recent experience–both with my disabled friends who are in crisis this week and in following the comments under “A Faith That Cannot be Defended:”

    “I also believe it is the particular calling of contemporary Orthodox (in this I follow St. Silouan of Mt. Athos) to empty ourselves and enter the abyss of the spiritual hell our world has created for itself and there preach and pray – for it is there that the contemporary Adam has confined himself – and it is there that we must also find Christ.”

    As I mentioned in another comment, I’ve been reading Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird, O.S.A., on the Christian practice of contemplation. I do recommend it as an expansion perhaps of the essay by Met. JONAH “Do Not React.” I just read the last chapter again and the epilogue, which is the story , of a young man who wants to become a monk by finding a “real” monastery–a story that is a take off from a saying of Abba Poeman, one of the Desert Fathers. The author of the book points out that the point of entry into this Silence within us is our wounds. Somehow it is the humble awareness of our woundedness and the realization of our own helplessness in the face of this woundedness that is the very portal to the Presence of God. We have to learn that we are not our wounds, but we are who God created us to be (which is also something other than our achievements)–that is, who we really are in Christ. We do not learn that except by learning to live in Christ. It is difficult to enter this abyss with and on behalf of others and impossible if we have not already begun the process of being willing to encounter our own woundedness within ourselves and finding the Lord with us in that process. This also reminds me of the post you wrote about being in a cave.

    Christ is risen!

  4. fatherstephen Avatar


    God’s grace is made manifest in our weakness. Amen.

  5. zoe Avatar

    “God’s grace is made manifest in our weakness.” How true this is, I have observed the working of God’s grace in my dying father, when he told me a month before he died, to make sure I ask forgiveness from God for all the sins I have committed and to also make sure I forgive others, as He and my mother did so, before they became very ill. This is the humblest I’ve seen my father and the most pious that I have seen him. It is sad, but true, to most of us, that in our youth, when our physical body are still strong, there exists only hardness of heart towards God and other people. It seems for some of us that we recognize the presence of God, finally, in the absence of our own strength, as in my father’s case. At that moment I actually saw my father practice what he believed. ( My father was not an Orthodox Christian). Sorry Father, if I deviated from the main topic of your blog.

    Christ is risen!

  6. elizabeth Avatar

    Father Bless! Yes. Thank you for this. And please pray for us who are struggling. Thank you.

  7. Damaris Avatar

    I’ve been reading “Beginning to Pray” by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. He also addresses the absence of God and suggests we be grateful to God for it. When we approach Him in prayer we approach our own judgment. Perhaps His withdrawing Himself is mercy to us and an opportunity for us to repent and humble ourselves before having to meet the living God. I liked that idea very much and feel less abandoned now if God seems absent.

    This is a wonderful book, by the way. One of the best I’ve read in a long time.

  8. Carl Avatar

    1 Corinthians 1:27 – 28

    But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.

  9. David Avatar

    As I posted just now in the previous story, it isn’t God’s absence that presents a problem, but His manifestation. God may tell us that the greatest theophany is in the Eucharist (some might argue Baptism, but at any rate, these are both common-to-all). But that’s an easier pill to swallow if you saw your Guardian Angel the other say and offered him a cheese sandwich.

    It is well and good for those who have experienced both to say silence is better. But those who have not cannot make just a judgment for themselves and can only take you at your word.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar


    Sorry to be absent today in my responses – I had a medical test this morning that left me recovering from anesthesia, etc. and have only just returned to the waking world. Medically – everything is great… and otherwise as well.

    I understand the observations very well – and, to a degree, would want to say that it’s a bit like agreeing to live in a one-storey universe but wanting an appearance from the second-storey just for reassurance… In Orthodox ascetical teaching, it would be correct to observe that we first off do not see the world as it is, or rarely with much clarity. Thus good ascetical practice – prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc. – are a simple part of the healing process. Without proper asceticism and the gradual healing of our heart (nous) and its proper relationship to the rest of who we are – many kinds of experiences would do more harm than good and would only serve to trap us in delusion. The classic book within Orthodox tradition (though relatively modern) is St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s The Arena. I would also recommend Archm. Meletios Webber’s Bread and Water, Wine and Oil – it’s a very useful text.

    I had my own brush with the Charismatic movement back in the 70’s and would observe that most of what passed for religious experience would, in Orthodox terms, have to be scored as delusion and harmful. One issue that drove me away from all that was a hunger not to live in delusion. My thought was, ‘If there is a real God then I want to know Him really, and not just because I want to” if that makes sense. My spiritual experiences since then have been quite different. I recognize within myself that I’ve got a long way to go before there is anything like the clarity needed in order to be safe with “experiences,” and, in a way, I don’t seek them as I did those many years ago. The clarity that I do have is the awareness of the sickness and what needs to happen for me to be healed. It’s a slow road forward but it’s a far more sure road than any I’ve known before.

    I haven’t written much on the topic but it is important to say that there is no Orthodox faith without asceticism. Webber’s book is really great in this respect. I am working with the text a great deal at the moment – preparing materials so that I can use it as a primary text for catechumens (and inquirers) in my parish.

    I hope I haven’t rambled too much here. My head is still in the clearing process today.

  11. David Avatar

    There you go Father Stephen, like a choirmaster’s tuning fork you always produce a clear note to reset the sloppy chanter in my mind.

    You are, of course, completely correct and there is no rambling, not a word wasted.

    I am simply kicking against the goads again. I must remind myself that my heart is a tricky snake that often appears to be submitting its head to the ground only to rise up and suddenly strike me again.

    I remain a man wanting to want God and not the idols I’ve horded over a lifetime.

  12. femaabemack Avatar

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