The Gift of God’s Presence
God’s presence in our lives is like a gift I can unwrap by merely shifting my awareness and intention in a small, quiet way.
God’s presence is a gift that keeps giving itself as something to be continuously experienced.
It is a gift that prolongs forever that feeling of joy as one participates in the mystery of unwrapping a gift that you do not know what it is, but you can nevertheless sense its presence and weight in your hands, except with God’s presence we do not unwrap it with our hands but with our entire Soul.
In the immediacy of unwrapping a gift we have not “gotten” the actual gift but we are nevertheless joyful to be engaged in the unfolding process of discovering what the gift is.
Arguably, the pleasure of unwrapping a gift is greater than the gift itself for it is in the midst of unwrapping that the gift contains infinite possibility. It is only when unwrapped fully that the gift hardens into actuality, often leaving us clinging to the fading joy that came from the unwrapping.
But with God, it is a gift that would require all of eternity to unwrap fully. We never quite get to the end of the unwrapping. And if we do get to the end, it is not a state of consciousness easy to pin down with the tools of memory or language; it becomes more akin to a feeling than a memory, a kind of spiritual muscle memory of total immersion.
With every tear of wrapping paper another emerges underneath it, renewing itself continuously. It is as if as soon as we come close to the center of the gift, it suddenly swells in its depth and fecundity, somehow its inner mystery becoming even greater.
But crucially we never get frustrated in never quite arriving at the center, for it is the process of forever unwrapping, of letting go into the unfolding moment of mystery, that is the greatest gift of all. The gift of the unwrapping itself becomes enough to satisfy our souls even if we never get to the “real” gift.
Eventually, we come to reorient ourselves to what truly is the “real” gift.
We realize the true gift of God’s presence is not a heaven far off in the future, a distant city of golden mansions our immortal Souls will walk around like eternal tourists at a luxury resort.
No, nothing like that.
Rather, as Jesus says, “nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)
The Kingdom of Heaven is ripe for the picking in every possible present moment, for God is always with us.
9 I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
“Omnipresence” is not merely God being physically “there” at every point of spacetime. Omnipresence is also about the pervasive presence of God in the incredible richness of experience in our lives, the sweetness of an apple, the redness of a sunset, the soft glow of the Moon, the warmth of a fire.
God’s presence is available in every tiny detail of our experience. As such, we usually just take this presence for granted, like a fish takes water for granted.
Every so often we slow down our minds enough to experience our experiences in a way that makes everything fresh, almost like a magical spell has been cast over the world, giving it a subtle, invisible glow.
This is God’s presence in our lives. What a gift!
And what if there never was a gift at the center? What if it’s just infinite unwrapping all the way down? What if the gift of presence is precisely in the unwrapping of presence rather than the acquisition of presence, as if God’s presence is a commodity that we store up in a little box and seal away in our memories to recollect when in need of a spiritual boost.
What nonsense! Clearly, the gift of present-ness in the continual unfolding present moment is greater than any memory of the present, for nothing but the actual present feels like the present; everything else is but a pale cognitive shadow.
And what a wonderful gift this is!
The gift of a sunrise.
The gift of walking up a mountain.
The gift of walking down a mountain.
The gift of lying in warm sand with the sun kissing your face.
The gift of playing the piano.
The gift of my lover’s embrace.
The gift of air in my lungs.
The gift of music in my eyes.
The gift of stars above my head.
The gift of birds in the sky.
The gift of grass beneath my feet.
The gift of love.
The gift of letting go.
The gift of Life.
The gift of Death.
Thank You God! Thank You Christ!
The Manna of Presence
Your manna rains down from heaven every nanosecond of every moment, filling up every possible intersection of time and space, blessing me with the opportunity to reciprocate the gift of Your presence with the gift of my presence in Your presence, such that Your presence becomes my being present of Your presence.
As the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, “The eye with which I see God is the same one with which God sees me.”
In the cosmic dance of seeing-and-being-seen, we are gifted with wonders and joys and mysteries contained within the infinite depths of an eternal now, a gift impossible to hoard, impossible to store up for tomorrow. This is why God gave just enough Manna to the Israelites to last for a day, and any attempt to store it for tomorrow spoiled and went rotten.
As an allegory, this can be seen as a lesson of God’s presence. The gift of presence in the holiness of the present moment is always there, waiting for us to reap its bounty. There is always enough presence in the present moment; but if we cling to it as a “thing” or static state and try to hoard that special feeling, tucking it away for a rainy day, then the present-ness of God’s presence will surely become unbearably foul.
As Psalms 139 says,
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
You cannot flee from God’s presence any more than you can flee from the reality of the present moment.
You can ignore it, forsake it, overlook it, take it for granted. You can live in the anxieties of the future and the memories of the past, but the eternal now stands ever-present, ready to crash into your consciousness with the overwhelming feeling of suchness. Thatness. Isness.
Now, obviously, there are perfectly understandable reasons to be gripped by the terrible anxieties of the past and future. The traumas of reality have certain, definite impacts on how our minds work.
But even so, I believe everyone has the inner capacity for experience presence; in a way, it is the most natural thing in the world. Indeed, there is even a present-ness to be found in the present moment of remembering, for remembering itself is a mental process that unfolds over time and still contains an essential kernel of now-ness.
And sometimes reality itself forces us to pay attention to the present moment.
We have a phrase for this in English: getting “snapped back to reality.” Imagine you are lost in your head and then lightning suddenly cracks nearby. We become “snapped back to reality.”
This is an interesting turn of phrase, for it reveals an essential truth of human consciousness: the truest reality is to be found not in the past or future but in the now.
This concept of “now-ness” has been trivialized and has become a spiritual cliche. We say, “oh duh, everyone knows that.”
But often it doesn’t make an impact on our life. Our anxieties still consume us. Our worries and doubts and troubles filled up our mind to the point where we can no longer take pleasure in the simple things, like taking a stroll.
The Art of Strolling
I say stroll, and not walk, because walking has become about exercise and utilitarianism and self-help and productivity.
But a stroll does not have a purpose like that.
You don’t stroll so that you can boost your metabolism or improve your cardiovascular system. You aren’t going anywhere in particular, nor competing against anyone for distance traveled or speed. When you stroll you simply stroll for the strolling’s sake. You don’t even do that much, necessarily. You stroll in the same way a child plays: it just happens, spontaneously, and the point is just to let loose and enjoy it without getting all heady and intellectual about it.
I think we might also benefit from a kind of spiritual strolling.
Strolling in the infinite wonderland that is the present moment, pregnant with wonder, awe, joy, beauty, profundity, mystery, holiness, vitality, intensity. How rich we are! An infinite playground of presence to explore and encounter.
But instead of waiting on cracks of lightning to “snap” us back to reality, we can instead gentle ease ourselves in the warm waters of the Wisdom, who God poured out upon all his works:
9 It is he who created her;
he saw her and took her measure;
he poured her out upon all his works,
10 upon all the living according to his gift;
he lavished her upon those who love him.
Instead of waiting for something else to snap us back to the reality of the present moment, the traditions of meditation and contemplation found across all wisdom traditions, including Christianity’s wisdom tradition, give us practical methods to lovingly and willingly “let go” into the reality of the present moment, to relax our minds and bodies and simply let ourselves float in the ongoing stream of sensorimotor experience, a full-on embodiment and embeddedness into the total gestalt of what psychologists call our “umwelt,” or “living world,” which is the total experience of meaning given to us by our surroundings in relation to our own subjective viewpoint.
Although these contemplative traditions give us concrete methods of practice and discipline like formal meditation methods, it is important to not become too attached to any particular method or indeed get attached to the very idea of needing methods at all in order to “let go” into the embrace of holy presence.
Because if we get too attached to a method, we can become overly rigid, clinging on to this mistaken idea that if only we became more ascetic, more methodical, more technically disciplined, then, and only then, we will reach our goal of having finally achieved a state of total letting go.
The irony, of course, is that the person beholden to all these methods becomes dependent on them and thus unable to let go of the methods themselves. This can be seen in the Zen parable of the overly eager student:
A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.” The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice every day, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?” The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”
So although Christian contemplative practices are wonderful tools for learning to “let go” into reality, we must not become overly legalistic prescriptivist about it, and we certainly shouldn’t resort to cognitive schemes based on penance, shame, and guilty for not being more “pure.”
All that is counter-productive. One does not need to sit down and set a timer for 20 minutes to practice contemplation. The best laboratories for present-minded consciousness are the traffic jams of life, those annoying and tedious moments of everyday existence when it does us no good to not simply go with the flow.
As Alan Watts, put it, “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”
But personally, I don’t think peeling the potatoes and thinking about God are mutually exclusive. I would rephrase Watts to say that peeling the potatoes is a way of thinking about God. Indeed, everything we do can be a way to think about God, to love God, to be with God, if we bring the right kind of intentionality into our life.
As Richard Rohr so wisely observes, the act of breathing itself can be seen as a way of speaking the Holy Name of God:
“This unspeakability [of God’s name, YHWH] has long been recognized, but we now know it goes even deeper: formally the word was not spoken at all, but breathed! Many are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation. The one thing we do every moment of our lives is therefore to speak the name of God. This makes it our first and our last word as we enter and leave the world.”
As we are peeling the potatoes, we are breathing, and thus potentially thinking of God. But not in an overly intellectual or abstract kind of way. It is a much more right-brained and holistic way of thinking, one that is interesting, not in tiny focal points of logical analysis, but broad sweeps of experience gathered into perceptual wholes that are constituted by our fundamental embodiment, such as Christ himself experienced the world through his embodied incarnation.