Experiencing God as “Presence”

In the wilderness, my mind spreads out like water…
I listen to the trees whispering and think no thoughts.
– Anne Hillman
Presence comes simply, as well as definitively, through a sense of
the More, of the quietly and overwhelmingly Deep, of archetypal Mystery.
– Barbara Fiand

This week I am back at our lake lodge in the Wisconsin Northwoods, joined here by the small group of friends with whom I also share community life. We regularly set aside time each summer to be here together, if at all possible. It is a precious opportunity to just enjoy the presence of one another in this beautiful, natural setting.

We all have traveled here from the distant places we live – Chicago, Dubuque, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Quito, Ecuador – and from very busy lives. It is good to be here together without an agenda, decisions to make, or problems to solve.

We have come, too, to be open in deeper ways to the “Presence” we find most readily here in this place of lush greens, soft breezes, rustling leaves, the sparkle of sunlight on water, the leisurely stroll of a deer family at dawn, the majestic flight of an eagle at midday, and the trill of a loon deep in the night.

This particular morning, as I sit on the front porch looking out through the trees at the lake rippled by a southern breeze, I come once again to my own place of stillness and connectedness. From this place, I am moved to reflect on the experience of Divine “Presence” for this week’s blog post.

For myself and for many others I know who have embraced the New Cosmology as their personal context, this new worldview has made it difficult to imagine the Divine using old languages and images. The change in perception of our reality to the vastness of our Universe, which appears boundless and perhaps even timeless, can present a difficult challenge in particular for those of us whose consciousness has been shaped by a Judeo-Christian tradition which named and even defined God with such limiting, human-associated terms as “Father,” and “Son.”

Recently, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by the feminist theologian, Barbara Fiand. It was a version of one she previously gave in 2008 at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, which is printed in the small book entitled, Awe-filled Wonder: The Interface of Science and Spirituality (Paulist Press, 2008). In these lectures, Fiand suggests that speaking of God as “Presence” is one way to name the Divine in the context of the New Cosmology. In making this suggestion, Fiand concedes that the tradition’s human-based imagery more easily evokes a sense of relations than the more amorphous concept of “Presence.”

However, it occurs to me now that the human-like images of “Father,” “Son,” and even “Mother,” do not fully correspond to the depth of our experience as humans present to one another. Fiand articulates how the experience of presence can be found in moments when we truly are open to receive the essence of others:

One feels at ease in moments of presence, enveloped by the good. One can breath deeply, sigh. There is a sense of rightness, of homecoming, of quiet peace and awe….Should one be blessed by the company of others to share a moment such as this, the experience almost always evokes communion. It gifts us with knowledge that surpasses mere mind (p. 37).

In moments such as Fiand describes, we know in a way that is not knowing that there is more to our existence than can be captured in our ordinary human bodily experience. We look into another’s eyes and sense that there is more between us than the things that ordinarily define us to each other. This “more” comes to us uncontrolled and sometimes even uninvited by us, and connects us to something beyond ourselves, something quite real and yet indefinable. Fiand cites the words of Ralph Harper to describe this experience:

When I think of presence, I think of what it is like for the soul to be touched, the mystery of the whole self, body and spirit….It is a unitary experience and an experience of totality in the midst of shattering differences (p. 57).

In her book, Awakening the Energies of Love: Discovering Fire for the Second Time (Bramble Books, 2008), Anne Hillman speaks of the “conventional understanding of religious meaning” from which our past language and images of the Divine emerge and take hold. She contrasts this understanding with “the Fire of Moses’s awakening,” as described by the Sufi poet, Rumi:

Light up a fire of love in thy soul,
Burn all thought and expression away!
Moses, they that know the conventions are of one sort;
They whose souls burn are of another
(p. 211).

Every religious tradition has within it spokespersons for this experience of Presence. We call them “mystics.” They are not, however, the ones whose teachings are generally preached about from the pulpit on Sunday. Previously, I often had wondered about this lack of attention to the reality of this experiential dimension of our spiritual existence, particularly within Christian public ritual. At one point, I finally realized that it probably has to do with the fact that in their essence these mystics were and are radically free of “conventional understanding.” Their deep and expansive experience of the unity at the core of all Being does not allow them to fit neatly into the controlled categories so often demanded by convention, thus often placing them at odds with those who seek to protect those conventions.

Another reason, though, may be the difficulty there is in finding language and images to accurately report these experiences of Presence. I like the way Hillman describes the awareness of Presence that can be so fundamentally different from our every-day consciousness. It lies, she says, “across the gap from thought.” Attempting to describe such an experience, she writes, “is like trying to lasso water” (pp. 213-215). And yet, many have tried to describe the experience using the words that fit with their own time in history. Their writings are considered “classic,” and are a source for confirming our own experience. Among those to whom I have turned are John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, and Thomas Merton.

My own first experience of this Presence came at a time when I was so young I really had no words to describe it, just a sense that it must somehow be connected with the “God” I had  by then heard about; although it also was so much more. I have written about this experience elsewhere on this blog. Hillman’s contemporary description of her own experience and its life-changing impact comes close to mine:

Suddenly, something in you – not sense nor sight nor sound nor smell but some other faculty – beholds a vast and boiling ocean that pours itself into the room/into you and leaves you streaming with energy. You are stunned….Something fundamental has changed (219-221).

Richard Rohr also speaks to the transformational nature of the experience, saying,”You can never go back” (p. 227).

For me, my first experience of what Hillman describes did indeed ultimately become the underlying perspective and motivation for all my life choices going forward. I marvel now that it has led me to the small circle of friends with whom I share Presence in these Northwoods days. Hillman again helps me to understand this joining.

Now…we also notice how the powerful energies of Love in us are drawn to the same power in another. Our allurement is not an attraction to the other’s personality: it feels more like a current resonating between soul and soul. This potent magnetism brings us into a new kind of relationship with others – the living Communion at our root (p. 260).

Sitting in the awareness of this Presence, I can only follow the advice of the mystic, Meister Eckhart, who tells us that the only prayer we ever need say is, “Thank you.”

Hillman, A. (2008) Awakening the energies of love: Discovering fire for the second time. Putney, VT: Bramble Books.

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