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January 30, 2012

The habits we have formed to keep the world at a distance are depreciative ones which inhibit our appreciative presence and our trusting abandonment to the Mystery that creates us.  This being the case, one way we can work to decrease the hold of those depreciative habits inhibiting our presence is to practice appreciation.  The conversion of our depreciative way of seeing and experiencing the world to a more appreciative one requires of us a reckoning with our painful experiences of loss.  How can we come to appreciate the world and God when our experience of life constantly confronts us with contingency and limit, with the loss of those who are dearest to us, and finally with our own diminishment and death?   The only way is to learn how to remain present to, and then appropriate and trust our experiences of loss, loneliness, and disappointment and the painful feelings which these experiences evoke in us.

     Since our first experiences of loss occurred before we were able to reflect on and understand them, we were unable to do anything but endure them.  We developed strategies to avoid such experiences and to dissociate from the painful feelings they generated.  We developed our own unique ways of being present (and not present) that would filter out those aspects of experience that caused such suffering for us.  These became habits of partial presence, a way of being in the world  that we hoped could avoid those aspects of life which seemed unbearable to us.  For example, we might learn to limit our openness to and care for another so that we should not be so disappointed or pained when we lose them or are disappointed by them.

     This controlled stance before others and the world is largely constituted by fear.  We distance and dissociate from others due to our lack of trust in them, in the world as a whole,  and in its Creator.  The first letter of John (1 John 4:18) recognizes this truth when it proclaims:  “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear . . . .”  Love is the willingness to be present to the situation and the other whom we encounter in each moment, to respond and engage in trust.  In this trusting and open presence we increasingly experience our lives, according to Adrian van Kaam, as “assignment, task, mysterious call” and we stand ready before the summons to our originality that is inherent in each life situation.

     Since there is always distance and evasion in our habitual modes of non-presence, one way we can work to reform them is to try to increase our level of involvement and engagement throughout the moments of our day.  We can go to a museum and spend time with just a few paintings to try to learn how to see more fully what is before us.  We can take slow walks and attentively observe nature and the world around us beyond our manifold reactions at the sensual and emotional levels.  We can take the time to wash and dry the dishes, clean our homes, or fold our laundry carefully, actually experiencing all that such ordinary experiences evoke in us.  We can make an effort to let go of all the extraneous thoughts and demands for our attention that distract us when another person is speaking to us and attempt to be fully present and responsive to him or her.  In short, we can attempt to practice greater mindfulness or recollection from moment to moment.

     As spirit we are a capacity to receive reality in its wholeness.  At the level of our rational-functional capacity, however, we are a limited and partial presence.   Our fearfulness of the dimension of mystery leads us to focus on those elements we can manage and control and to filter out those that we fear are beyond our functional capacities.  To be present at the level of spirit, thus requires of us a disciplining of the arrogance of our managing selves, a humility to recognize the partiality of our presence and understanding.  Humility and detachment create a space for greater presence, an opening in which our spirit can allow the other to show itself to us on its own terms.  This requires a conversion, a turning away from our reliance on our habitual modes of presence to an appreciative abandonment to a way of being present that is trustingly unknowing, a trusting more in God’s wisdom than our own.

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