You might know that I put my personal cell phone number in the back of a couple of books I wrote. When I told my publisher what I wanted to do, they said, “Are you crazy?!” I thought for a minute and said, “Actually, yes and no.”
I’ve noticed that the people who have had the most impact in my life were the most available. Granted, I get a lot of calls. And guess what? I answer every single one unless I’m on a plane or out of cell range. It’s terrific. I can’t get a thing done. Here’s the point. It’ll be hard to be like Jesus if you don’t want to be available to people. It’s what He did. Every day. If you don’t want to be with people, you’re going to hate heaven.
On a Friday in July of 2007, fourteen-year-old LaSaller David Melia stumbled upon people giving away hugs outside a movie theater. Strange, he thought, and refused to take them up on their offer. Hours later, as the idea bounced back and forth like a pinball in his mind, he found himself intrigued. The next day, David walked Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago (where nothing comes free!) dispensing hugs while sporting a t-shirt with the words FREE HUGS applied in neon-colored duct tape.
Hugging hooked David. Every day since his first foray on Michigan Avenue, David has worn the words FREE HUGS somewhere on his person—on his shirt, his sleeve, even his forehead. In 2013, as a business management major at DePaul University, David published a book on his experience as a “free hugger” and with the proceeds traveled the following summer to thirteen cities, logging 2,500 hugs on the tour.
David has no question about who he is. He’s a serious student, a beloved son, a supportive brother, and a humble Christian. But at his core, David is a hugger. “I am making sure my actions reflect what I believe,” noted David. “What I do with my finances, what I want to do as a career, who I spend time with, where I spend my time: those are all resources that I have control over and can use to effect change. There is something in that small act of a hug, in that small gesture, which allows someone to switch their focus from negative to positive. I truly believe small, random acts of kindness have a big effect.”
The cynical side of us might retort: C’mon! At twenty-one, David hasn’t experienced the complexities of life; he doesn’t have kids or a mortgage or aging parents to support. He’s free to be himself.
True. But David sees a through line in his story that many of us miss. David has connected the various pieces of his journey into an arc of meaning. What if we did something similar? What if we remembered that openness, graciousness, generosity once came easily to us.
Knowing our Being and the Ground of Being
Martin Heidegger said that being is presence. Whatever else this means, it suggests that in some way presence is a basic property of simply being. Everything that exists has presence by virtue of its being. Being is more straightforward for rocks, trees, and black holes than it is for humans. Inanimate objects are never tempted by false ways of being. They are aligned within their being, and consequently their presence is less ambiguous. This is also true for nonhuman living beings—for example, animals and trees—all of which remain closer to their natures than is true for most humans. As a result, their presence is also more pure and singular.
For humans, living our truth is much more of a challenge. First, we are profoundly alienated from our being. We forget what it is to stand in awe of being itself, and of our being in particular. We are lost in doing and tempted to believe that there is nothing more to us than this. This separation from our being also reflects our separation from Being itself.
At the core of our soul is an ache that is answered only in knowing both our being and the Ground of Being. But that ache is easily ignored and misinterpreted, and consequently we seldom are aware of this most fundamental level of our alienation.
I’ll Be There
There’s a wonderful scene in The Grapes of Wrath, where Tom Joad says a final good-bye to his mother and assures her that his presence transcends physical boundaries—even when she can’t see him:
Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . . I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.
In his excellent book, An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling describes the challenge of experiencing God’s presence, even in the relatively slow world (in comparison to our own) of the fourteenth-century:
It is said that fourteenth-century philosopher and theologian Catherine of Siena once asked the Lord why he seemed so present to his people in the time of the Scriptures but seemed so absent in her own time.
God’s answer is as true today as it was then: [God seemed so present to people in biblical times] because they came to Him as faithful disciples to await His inspiration, allowing themselves to be fashioned like gold in the crucible or painted on by His hands like an artist’s canvas, and letting Him write the law of love in their hearts.
Christians of [Catherine’s] time acted as if He could not see or hear them, and wanted to do and say everything by themselves, keeping themselves so busy and restless that they would not allow Him to work in them.
Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Practicing Presence at L’Arche
The L’Arche communities—founded in 1964 by Jean Vanier as places where “people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers” are a good example of faith communities in which all members are learning to be mutually present to one another. Often the core members of L’Arche communities (those who have a disability) are not able to communicate with words but instead speak through motions or emotions.
Noncore members have to be present and attentive over time in order to learn to communicate with core members. Communication cannot be taken for granted; it is hard work that is cultivated day-by-day as all members of a L’Arche community live together and care for one another.
Journalist Kristin Lin spent some time with L’Arche communities and articulates this work well: I’ve come of age in the world of words; I believe in their power to connect, even redeem, us. I take faith—comfort—in their ability to frame, account, order, justify. But I think I’ve forgotten (or never knew) the value of not knowing what to say, or even what to think, or do—the value of simply being—and being accepted for just that. . . .
Presence is difficult, and L’Arche members seemed acutely aware of the uncertainty and awkwardness and hurt that comes with it. The gifts of presence are not always found in the comforts of getting along with each other, but rather in sitting with messiness and complexity.
Both core and noncore L’Arche members regularly find that they are being transformed by their mutual presence with one another. Vanier tells the story of a woman who came to a L’Arche community in her early forties. This woman was epileptic and paralyzed on one side of her body. When she arrived, she was prone to frequent violent outbursts, but as she continued for months and years as part of L’Arche, being cared for and accepted for who she was, she slowly began to be transformed and the violence began to ebb. Similarly, noncore members of L’Arche have reported being transformed by their presence with core members, learning patience, tenderness, and unconditional love.
Presence in the Universe
Now, in our lifetime, scientists are finding ever newer evidence for what some religious people called presence in the very organizing energy of the universe—from fractals, to holograms, to electro-magnetism, to force fields, to gravitation itself—all of which invite us into a certain degree of mystery and non-explainability—and also participation!
The great scientists are revealed in their contentment to live provisionally with a certain degree of mystery! I wish we clergy were as patient. We seem to like certainty and answers—now. In our too literal attempts to explain and control presence, we often explain it away, and most people just lose interest in the deeper journey because they are told, in effect, that there is no “deeper” to be had!
Meanwhile, the scientists still search for the pattern behind the patterns, the seeming vibrational fields that hold all things together. We from the religious world often call these vibrational fields the divine presence or perhaps the Holy Spirit. As usual, religion intuits and gives metaphor to what science is now confirming and illustrating on ever new verifiable levels. Remember, truth is one (Ephesians 4:4–5) and will necessarily and in time be seen from different angles and at different levels—with ever more appreciation. How blessed we are to live in our time! There are, however, few teachers who can honor the different levels at the same time.
A Social Media Fast
So in the last three years, in order to reorient myself and head back onto the narrow way, I’ve given up social media and/or the internet for Lent. At first it’s agonizing. I’m like a caffeine or nicotine addict going through withdrawal. I get all panicky and shaky, wondering what to do with myself. My fears assail me with the tales of all the fun, banter, and insider information I am missing.
I’m nearly asphyxiated by the thought that I am left behind or uninvited, that I am an outsider looking in while others are living the good, glamorous life of connectedness. I fight the urge to check in. As Lent carries on, my urge slowly subsides. To some extent, I experience my life as it was before the internet. I read more books. I am more fully present to my family and friends. I hear God better. I am less hurried, more like God, who is never in a hurry.
In Lenten silence and solitude via social-media fasts, I discover the words of Isaiah 30:15 to be true: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, / in quietness and trust is your strength.” It is a soul-soothing time. I realize that I need to flee to this desert more frequently. Probably, weekly. My Lenten practice has become a regular spiritual discipline. It allows me to disentangle myself from the cares of the world and follow Jesus more closely. It allows me to better love others.
Tolerating Absence Means Trusting Presence
Tolerating absence is, in essence, trusting presence—even when the one who is present to us is not physically present. Think of the two-year-old gradually loosening his clinging grasp to the leg of his mother as they dance around the house. Slowly, he allows himself longer periods of independent movement, but, at least initially, these bursts of independence are made possible only by periodic rushes back to mother for emotional refueling. Over time he ventures farther away for longer and longer intervals. Initially, he needs his mother to be in sight to keep his anxiety manageable, but soon he is able to tolerate absences that include not just physical separation but his mother being unseen.
Singular, Holistic Absorption
Presence is experienced as a unitary whole. Think, for example, about the experience of sitting on the top of a hill, far from the polluting lights of a city, gazing at a dark, starry sky. Unless you are an astrophysicist or an astronomy buff, your experience will not likely be one of thought and analysis but of singular, holistic absorption. You will experience the presence of the starry sky, not your thoughts about it.
The World is Full of Presence
The world is full of presence. Every moment of life is crammed full of potential encounters with people and things that are present to us even though we may not be present to them: the presence of a city—vital, decaying, dangerous, enchanting, oppressive, perhaps even seductive the comforting presence of loved ones—long unseen, sometimes long dead the troubling presence of people with whom we have unfinished business the evocative presence of a sacred space—
perhaps a cathedral, a grove of trees, a shore’s edge, or wherever we are called into awareness of the transcendent the distinctive presence of a home—immediately noticeable on entering, if we are paying attention the unmistakable presence of death that we might experience at a funeral the plethora of presences that confront us on entering an art gallery, walking through a shopping mall, or attending to sea life in a tidal pool the numinous presence of the Wholly Other—both at times and in places that might be expected but also at times and in places and ways never expected the puzzling presence of someone we encounter—disturbing us in ways that may be good or bad but that cannot easily be ignored What is this strange thing called presence?
Presence is the awakening that calls us into an engagement with some aspect of the present moment. Presence makes us feel alive, or, perhaps better, it lets us know that we are alive. It demands that we notice, and, in so doing, the distance between whatever we notice and us is suddenly reduced. We feel connected. Sometimes this might feel like more connection than is comfortable, but no longer are we on the outside looking at life through a thick glass.
Suddenly, we have passed through that which distanced us, and we are inside and a part of life. We are involved. We are participants, not simply spectators. Presence is elusive, but it can come to us with astounding force. Notice how a wisp of a scent can pull us into the presence of a beloved—a presence that may be both subtle yet powerfully real. A great work of music can similarly draw us into the presence of the artist—often into a period of time and a world dramatically different from our own. An experience might invite us to be present to the world and to ourselves. A fleeting memory might instantly draw us into awareness of the absence of one still powerfully present to us.