Creative Absence: An Unexpected Gift For Community


-by Chris Heuertz

One of my favorite stories about Mother Teresa comes from my priest, Father Bert Thelen. He often recounts the experience of one of his fellow Jesuits who, while visiting Kolkata, saw Mother Teresa rushing across a street carrying a dying man.

The eager young Jesuit ran up to her and asked, “Mother, what can I do to help you?”

She abruptly replied, “Get out of my way!”

Sometimes the best gift we can give to our communities is simply to get out of their way.  Sometimes our friendships, relationships and communities need the gift of our creative absence.

The writings of Father Henri J. M. Nouwen awaken us to the possibility of creative absence in community.

Nouwen taught at some of the most illustrious and prestigious universities in the world, including Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale. He left academia to explore a vocation of service among people living in poverty. After spending time in South America and France, he eventually ended up in the L’Arche community outside Toronto, Canada.

Serving and living among adults with profound mental and physical disabilities was devastating to his ego. The core members of the community would never have been admitted into any of the universities he taught in, nor could many of them even read the books he had written. The core members of L’Arche didn’t care if Nouwen was their priest or the janitor.

The loss of identity based on accomplishments, accolades, and acclaim forced Nouwen to redefine how he perceived himself. From the tremendous darkness he experienced during that time of desolation  and rediscovery emerged some of the most provocative of all his writings and teachings.

Nouwen kept journals that he shared only with those closest to him. His friends found great comfort in the confessional writings tucked away in the pages of those intimate diaries and urged Nouwen to publish them. He resisted. The pages he had penned were private, so painfully vulnerable that he didn’t want them read by anyone else. Reluctantly he did get to a place where he was able to offer them to the world. Sadly, the very week that his book The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom was published, Nouwen died unexpectedly.

Almost annually I read that little book. The chapters are essentially pep talks. Two or three pages each, they are loaded with intense yet winsome little admonitions to sit in the darkness of nothingness and live the undramatic faithfully. In his chapter entitled “Claim Your Unique Presence in Your Community” he wrote, “Your way of being present to your community may require times of absence, prayer, writing, or solitude. These too are times for your community. They allow you to be deeply present to your people and speak words that come from God in you.”

Creative absence gives us back to our community in fresh ways.

Our communities won’t always be able to offer us everything we need, nor will we be able to give back all that they need from us. This is tricky because sometimes we can’t see it when we’re submerged in community life. The insulation of shared rhythms and life sometimes convolutes our perception. That’s often when we need to step back, to refocus.

The gift of creative absence also allowed for previously unimagined approaches to old problems, for fresh ways of doing things, and freedom to explore undiscovered layers of community members’ gifts. We had to get out of the way.

Sometimes absence may be as simple as staying home on the weekend and watching the football game. Other times it may be as exotic as making pilgrimage across northern Spain. But when our own hearts, minds, and souls are nurtured, we care for ourselves. When we tend to our own needs, we are able to bring better versions of ourselves back into community.

Some of us may feel guilty about taking time away, going on retreat, or taking a vacation or sabbatical, but as much as we long for those things, and as luxurious as they may seem for us as individuals, they are necessary gifts to our community.

Creative absence suggests awakening to our own recognition that our community sometimes needs a break, sometimes needs space to reorganize itself, and sometimes needs the freedom to grow without the dominant voices, the typical expectations that sometimes stifle us.

Though I’ve gained clarity in recognizing my need for absence, it’s still hard to take. My rhythms have become clearer over the years. I know I need:

Sabbath for Rest

Retreats for Reflection

Vacations for Recreation

Sabbaticals for Renewal.

And if I don’t make rhythms for rest, reflection, recreation and renewal then all of these opportunities will inevitable be wasted on recovery.

Alice Kim was the fashion accessories director and an editor of InStyle magazine. Her work took her to some of the most luxurious places in the world. While flipping through the pages of The New York Times, she came across an article about Omaha’s Old Market, a bohemian downtown district with old redbrick streets packed full of cafés, bars, and art galleries. Something about the Old Market captivated her. She promptly quit her job, moved from Manhattan to Omaha, and opened a little shop called Trocadéro.

Trocadéro is located just up the street from my office. It’s a lifestyle emporium, a boutique filled with handbags, shoes, designer Japanese toys, and hand-pressed stationery. Tucked away on the shelves are handwritten notes from some of the world’s leading designers, “Good luck in Omaha, Alice!” and other good wishes.

When friends come to Omaha for a visit, I take them by the shop to introduce them to Alice. Recently Phileena and I were hosting a guest from Atlanta, and I wanted him to meet Alice.

As soon as we walked through the door we were hit in the face by a thick fragrance of exquisite perfume that almost knocked us over. Literally thousands of dollars of designer perfume bottles fill the little shop with their heavenly scents.

I asked the young woman working that afternoon if Alice was around. Sadly, we had just missed her. I inhaled again. “This place smells dreamy. It must be amazing to work in here all day.”

She replied, “I don’t even notice it anymore.”

How tragic.

What a waste.

She misses out on the enjoyment of the fragrance because she’s too familiar with it. She has to withdraw from the fragrance to remember that it is there. She has to leave the store and clear her head so that when she returns she can experience the beauty of being there.

So, too, do we in community.


This article is a revised excerpt from the chapter on “Insulation” in Chris Heuertz’s newest book, Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community.

Chris Heuertz has spent his life bearing witness to the possibility of hope among a world that has legitimate reasons to question God’s goodness.

Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Chris studied at Asbury University in Kentucky before moving to India where he was mentored by Mother Teresa for three years. While living in India, he helped launch South Asia’s first pediatric AIDS care home–creating a safe haven for children impacted by the global pandemic.

A forerunner in the New Friar movement, Chris and his wife Phileena served with the Word Made Flesh community for nearly 20 years, working for women and children victimized by human traffickers in the commercial sex industry. This has taken Chris to over 70 countries working among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor.

In 2012 Phileena and Chris launched Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism.

Named one of Outreach magazine’s “30 Emerging Influencers Reshaping Leadership,” Chris is a curator of unlikely friendships, an instigator for good, a champion of collaboration, and a witness to hope, Chris fights for a renewal of contemplative activism.

Join Chris on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisHeuertz) in his adventures to love on the margins.


[Photo courtesy of Michelle Marie Photography.]



Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. [...] and developmentally handicapped people of L’Arche (founded by Jean Vanier) outside Toronto. For the first time in his life, Nouwen’s life was not defined by externals. The people he served could never attend the [...]


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