There are some things in life which warrant their own word, reserved only for a very precise phenomenon or moment. The catalogue of such words ranges from the light and inconsequential (‘schadenfreude‘ for example), to the most weighty (think of how ‘holocaust’ has now become almost exclusive shorthand for one specific twentieth century horror). A word which I’ve come to value is ‘lacuna’, a term which denotes a gap in a manuscript, an unfilled space in a narrative, or an intentional omission in a sentence or series of sentences. At their most innocent lacunae have been employed to help children with their literacy and comprehension (Bill _____ the car to the _____); at their most enigmatic they conceal what a manuscript may have originally contained, or what an author has willingly/politically omitted from their work.
Lacuna is a word to conjure with, and in another setting I’ve used the term as a way of writing poetry about miscarriage and other losses. In this article, I want to talk about spiritual lacunae, gaps in biblical narratives and in our own narratives which can be heavy with signficance, positive and negative. My prayer is that by thinking clearly about discontinuity in our lives we might be able to understand something of the absences we experience and how they can be productive for us.
There are a number of biographical and spiritual gaps which we might identify:
1. Lacunae of loss: there are absences in many of our lives which carry tremendous gravitational pull on our emotions and even on our mental well-being. A loss lacuna is a space in the narrative of our lives which has been occasioned by significant disjunction, and the trauma identified with it. These gaps can be produced by bereavement, by relational breakdown, by overwhelming mental health issues, and by the loss of physical health.
Some of these gaps are glaringly obvious. Writing about the pain of his own divorce, Paul Simon could say ‘losing love is like a window in your heart, everybody sees you’re blown apart, everybody feels the wind blow’ – words which powerfully frame how devastating an absence can be. Often a funeral service is a shared acknowledgement of absence, of the fact that a loved one has now gone from us. In fact, one of our narrative devices for capturing that trauma is to talk about ‘the empty chair’ where someone once was.
Other loss lacunae are much harder to see. The struggle which is endured by those whose mental health has crumbled, who feel a disintegration of the confidence and sense of identity which they once enjoyed, is almost impossible to articulate – and few there are who take the time to see the fragmentation and alienation which such an experience brings. The loss of unborn life is a particularly profound form of lacuna, a loss so personal and so physically unseen that those who suffer its reality often live in silence with unbearable heartbreak, perhaps longing that someone would see what isn’t there for them with each passing year. Family breakdown, the souring of once cherished relationships is a lacuna laced with feelings of guilt, personal shame, and perhaps even an instinct not to share what has been endured for fear of judgement.
In Scripture we find categories for these kinds of gaps. Take up the words of Job, or of Jeremiah, record the short-versed, heartfelt, silent tears of Jesus at Lazarus’ grave (or his vocal cries in Gethsemane), fill in the gaps of Paul’s assertion that he was ‘under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life’ and you have a helpful assertion of bereavement and disappointment, as well as nervous and mental strain. This world which we inhabit, post-fall/post-cross/pre-eschaton is cross pressured for us as Christians. We have hope that one day these gaps will be filled, that the lacunae of loss will come to be ‘flowering absences’ as Irish poet John Montague so beautifully phrases it – but that hope is held in tension by the actual experience of gaps that we can’t fill for now.
2. Lacunae of guilt: when it comes to our own biographies, we can be expert storytellers, and clever editors. The stories that we tell ourselves and others about our lives tend to be linear (A to Z), and progressive (onwards and upwards), and seldom reference the defeats and sins which are so much a part of our experience. This can be witnessed in the biographies of ‘great’ Christian men and women whom we are right to hold in high esteem, and whose faith we should follow. What we don’t get in their stories, though, is any sense of their social history, of their day-to-day, and even less of the internal conflicts which must have been theirs. ‘If my thought-dreams could be seen’, confessed Bob Dylan, ‘they’d probably put my head inside a guillotine’, and if we’re honest that statement is true of us as well.
When we review our stories for ourselves, though, these incidental depravities, these day to day transgressions are quickly consigned to the ‘deleted scenes’ menu. We don’t like to relive our failures, and we almost never recount them. In many ways this can be a healthy gap in our self-understanding – to labour long over past regrets is to plough fields of doubt and depression for Satan to plant in. But we can discredit the gospel if our story seems to say that we don’t need it, we can dishonour the truth if we don’t acknowledge that sin is something which we wrestle with, and we distort Christian fellowship if our encounters with one another more resemble the polished parade ground, than the grit of spiritual trench warfare. Sometimes the lacunae of guilt need to be filled, we need to speak to ourselves of the trends which lead us into the untold story of personal sin over and over again, and we need to help others to speak their stories in confidence that they are addressing fellow sinners.
3. Lacunae of preparation: these are momentary lapses in our life story which can often seem like diversions from the main plot, horrible tangents which serve little purpose. The loss of employment, the loss of health, the undeserved loss of reputation, setbacks to our life goals, doldrum waters where no progress is observable, can make us wonder why the otherwise steady stream of our lives is punctuated by side-roads, pit-stops, and unpleasant stalling.
Often, though, these lacunae are gaps where God is working in us for his future glory. We don’t know much about Moses’ forty years in the wilderness except that he had to shepherd sheep in an arid world before he shepherded people there, and Jesus’s early life is shrouded in mystery. His emergence at maturity comes to us with little reference to the actual experiences and events which formed and shaped him, a glaring lacuna which only the most absurd of pseudo-gospels have tried to fill. We can be certain, however, that in those gaps God was getting his servants ready, that he was concerned to work in them before he would work through them, that the silence of these narratives should not be taken as a signal that they were stagnant.
All of these gaps should be understood by us as part of our story, rather than departures from it. If we believe that God is sovereign, then we can rest in the fact that our most significant traumas, our most egregious sins, our most inert periods, are all ‘working together for good’ and ‘working for us a greater weight of glory’. We don’t need to fear the feelings which gaps give us in our lives, we can find voice through the experiences of those who have gone before (most especially through our compassionate Great High Priest, Jesus), and we can can find confidence that God can use our gaps temporally for the good of others, and eternally for his glory.
Perhaps we should prayerfully consider telling our stories in a way which honours the gaps which God allows us to experience, and open up conversations where we identify our part in the story in the passive as well as the active voice. In doing so, we might find grace to worship God even in the most painful of absence, and grace to help others in their times of loss and uncertainty.