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Presence: A Gift Given, An Awareness Cultivated

Presence. How does this word strike you? I find I’m both drawn to it and resistant toward it when I consider it in light of being present to my one particular, here-and-nowhere-else life. Too often my way of being could be described more by its antonym, absence. Doesn’t this movement back and forth, in and out of presence and absence, describe one of the deep dynamics of our human experience?

When I shift from being present to being absent I lose connection to myself. I lose sight of others and I especially lose experiential awareness of God with me. When I shift from being absent to being present something fundamental shifts as well; I live connected to what is most true about me, what is most real about others, and I’m more aware of God’s loving presence toward me.

Sleep is another apt metaphor for being dangerously absent from life. Have you ever been driving along the highway and startled after becoming drowsy and drifting onto the rumble strips? They are present as road safety features designed to alert inattentive drivers of potential danger by causing a tactile vibration and audible rumbling that shakes and wakes us up!

If only these classic signs of drifting would act like rumble strips in our awareness, helping us wake up to the present moment. Signs like--

  • When I find myself sliding into looping memories of past regrets, disappointments or hurts.

  • When I’m carried away into the future--into some fantasy, a potential problem, or catastrophe.

  • When I’m not tasting my food, or hearing the sounds and voices around me.

  • When I’m moving too fast, trying to do too much, or too many things at the same time.

  • When others, even those whom I most love, seem to be in my way.

  • When I notice how little real compassion another’s suffering evokes in me.

  • When I feel and operate as if God were distant, silent, and unfeeling toward me.

When we drift into being absent from our lives, sometimes all we need is a gentle shake up; at other times we need to be jolted out of the coma-like depths with some very strong smelling salts. What helps you to “come to” and be present to life again?

I’m beginning to wonder if absence can more simply be thought of as a bad habit we need to break. There are a thousand reasons we become absent, but at its core, we cease to be present because we’ve simply taken on some poor mental habits that temporarily numb us to the beauty and brokenness of our lives and the world.

Presence, however, is less about acquiring a new habit, and more like a gift to be received. Think of Jacob, asleep in the desert, dreaming a dream, when suddenly he awakens and declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn't even aware of it!” (Genesis 28:16 NLT)

If we return to our driving example, when I’m present and awake, what am I experiencing? I’m fully alive to the world surrounding me as it passes me by--the color of the maple leaves turning reddish-orange, the scent of rain on the hot engine of the car, the soreness in my back telling me it’s time to pull over and stretch my legs. I’m engaged with my grandson in the back seat who’s describing his new favorite video game; sensing the fatigue in my partner who didn’t sleep well last night. I notice the family alongside the road with a flat tire and am present enough to respond and offer help. I murmur prayers of gratitude for God’s goodness, while also expressing concerns about a difficult relationship. In other words, I am present to life. All of it.

When I shift from being absent to being present something fundamental shifts as well. I live connected to what is most true about me, what is most real about others, and more aware of God’s loving presence toward me.

In Prayers at Twilight, we close the daily liturgy centering on the theme of Presence with this simple breath prayer:

God of the Here and Now, help me live with presence.

Would you take one full minute, right here, right now, and simply breathe deeply while you murmur these gentle words of desire?

This is the fifth blog in the series, The Shaping of a Life, about seven values that are reflected in Prayers at Twilight: Daily Liturgies for the In-Between Times. If you’d like to purchase a copy of Prayers at Twilight, the link is below.

Prayers at Twilight

The Shaping of a Life: Introduction


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