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December 12, 2011

To more fully understand presence we must engage in what is for us a very difficult practice: to opt more for being than for doing.  St. Thomas Aquinas states this priority succinctly:  “The most marvelous thing of all things a being can do is: to be.”  Of course “doing’ is also a part of life, and the point of being cannot be to eliminate activity and involvement from life.  Rather, what we must learn is the gentle art of being-with whatever we are doing.

     The opening paragraph of Adrian van Kaam’s On Being Involved provides a classic description of this stance:

On the way toward living a spiritual life, I become aware of the relevance of really being with whatever I am doing.  To be wholeheartedly with people, nature and my task fosters spiritual growth.  Not to be there means that I grow less or not at all.  If I am serenely committed to the task God gives to me to do or to the person he allows me to meet, it matters little what engages me.  Even the simplest task assumes a new dimension, a deeper significance.  Regardless of its simplicity, each event becomes an encounter with reality, with all being, with the Lord himself.

In this paragraph we discover three key points concerning the nature of presence.  First, presence fosters spiritual growth.  To withhold presence or to fail to be with people, nature or my task diminishes our potential to flourish as human.  Second, what engages me is less of an issue than how I am present to the person or task before me.  When we are serenely committed to our task, writes van Kaam, “even the simplest task assumes a new dimension, a deeper significance.”  This insight suggests that meaning comes from the value we place on being present.  And third, everything is capable of lighting up for us when we are really there.  The simplest events in life, the most ordinary aspects of reality, “become an encounter with reality, with all being, with the Lord himself.”

     We are called to be, to give priority to spiritual presence, but as experience teaches, it is easy to override the summons to be.  Social pressures may cause us to lose contact with this inner call to original presence.  Ambitiousness may cloud sincere aspirations for deeper, satisfying presence in the world.  Personal emotional vulnerabilities may complicate our best efforts to practice simple and loving presence.  Our life situation, habits and personal woundedness also play a part in the difficulties we encounter when we strive to become fully present.

     The story of our desire for presence and the anxiety that may accompany the practice of presence are bound up with the story of our wounded presence.  In scripture, the Book of Tobit reminds us to

Take courage!

God has healing in store for you.

so take courage!

The word courage is repeated, but the operative word is healing.  God has healing in mind for us.  Healing applies to us personally and communally.  In terms of human presence, God’s intention, and promise, is to heal the wounded and limited presence that we are.

     When we hear the term presence, three not clearly differentiated senses may come to mind.  As believers the word presence triggers our sense of the presence of the holy, of sacred presence.  When we speak of The Presence, we think of God, of the ultimate reality of spiritual presence.  Being present also connotes our ability to be present to reality rather than diffused, abstracted or dissociated from reality.  Here, the emphasis is on self-presence: we are brought to a level of awareness of ourselves as present or absent, of our aliveness to and in the present moment.  Ludwig Wittgenstein reminds us (as presumably he hoped to remind himself):  “All that is real is the experience of the present moment.”  Finally, the phrase on being present suggests a capacity for presence to others, or to reality in general.

     We shall consider these three senses of presence more fully in our next reflection. 

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