Dedicated to Research and Reflection in Formative Spirituality




About Us Programs Staff Links Contact Us



Spiritual Presence

spiritual presenceThe truth is that every sheet of blank paper by its very emptiness affirms that nothing is as beautiful as what does not exist. . . . This presence of absence both spurs on and, at the same time, paralyzes the pen’s commitment.  There is in all beauty an absolute that forbids touching it . . .

               ~ Paul Valery

In the general introduction to his four-volume series on The Presence of God: The Foundations of Western Christian Mysticism Bernard McGinn explains that “Christian mystics over the centuries have never been able to convey their message solely through the positive (italics added) language of presence.” (p. xviii)  Mystics such as Teresa of Avila speak fervently and eloquently about their quest to attain a special consciousness of the divine presence.  But, as McGinn points us, the pursuit and experience of presence tells only half of the story: in fact, mystical language of necessity employs a paradoxical dual strategy of presence and absence.  “Positive” or cataphatic mystics such as Origen and Bernard of Clairvaux present the alternating rhythms of presence and absence in terms of the comings and goings of the Divine Lover, as in the “Song of Songs.”  “Negative” or apophatic mystics have tended to emphasize the “no-thingness” of God; that is that our consciousness of Divine Presence proceeds by way of negation.  God is not an object, not just one more thing apprehended by focal consciousness.  Indeed, we must empty our mind (consciousness) of concepts, images and words.  Simone Weil conjectured that if “contact with human creatures is given us through the sense of presence . . . contact with God is given us through absence.”  McGinn also calls upon the particularly powerful negative language of The Cloud of Unknowing:

Leave aside this everywhere and this everything, in exchange for this nowhere and this nothing. . . .  A person’s affection is remarkably changed in the spiritual experience of this nothing when it is achieved nowhere. . . .

     McGinn correctly points out that the modern consciousness of God is of an absent God, though for the religious person absence does not suggest forgetfulness of the Deity. Two contemporary works of spirituality have dealt sensitively with the experience of absence in modern times.  Martin Marty’s A Cry of Absence speaks for those whose experience has primarily been negative, believers who long for God’s presence yet are often left in want, deprived of the spiritual consolations they have been led to believe should be theirs.  Doris Grumbach’s memoir The Presence of Absence is an eloquent case in point.  After experiencing a transformative religious epiphany, she finds herself thrown back to a place of utter absence and desolation.  The condition of loss and absence becomes a school of formation for her:

Leave aside this everywhere and this everything, in exchange for this nowhere and this nothing. . . .  A person’s affection is remarkably changed in the spiritual experience of this nothing when it is achieved nowhere. . . .

     The “practice of presence” takes many forms and is practiced with different ends in view from spiritual tradition to spiritual tradition and even within a given tradition itself.  The “object” can be a deepening and enhancing of personal presence—a greater ability to “be” in the moment; it can foster attentiveness to others, as in social presence for service and ministry, or greater formative presence as a parent, teacher, preacher or counselor; or the practice can take the form of a discipline and discipleship that opens our spirit to gain contact with the ever-present Divine Presence.  The following titles represent time-tested approaches to the practice of presence: The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection; The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre de Caussade (available in several translations); Practicing the Presence: the Inspirational Guide to Regaining Meaning and a Sense of Purpose in Your Life by Joel S. Goldsmith; Our Appointment with Life: The Buddha’s Teaching on Living in the Present by Thich Nhat Hanh; What Is Meditation? By Osho; The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom by Henri J. M. Nouwen (a dialogue with depression opening up to the spiritual horizon of God’s loving presence); Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Copyright © 2007 [Resources in Spiritual Formation].

All rights reserved.

Last updated: 11/24/10.