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I’m beginning to think we need more conscious practice for being present to persons.
Though I know that you are a deep mystery and a unique, unrepeatable reality, you enter my space as an object in the environment and I often do not register your presence at all. This is a sad state of affairs, exacerbated by the speedy pace of life, the isolation of persons in cars and suburbs, the barely-there transactional symbology that counts as ‘communication,’ and other obvious factors of reality that I can’t change.
What can I change? What can I suggest to help along this ‘practice of the presence of persons’?
- Prayer before coming into the presence of others. “Dear God, please help me to be fully present to those I am about to encounter, to believe you have arranged for me to meet with the particular individuals who are present, to resist my own inward resistance to showing real heart hospitality to them, and to place my interest truly into the essence of who each person is and yearns to be. And Lord, please help me remember their names!” (I am so bad at this!) “Please bless our time together, help us to edify and encourage one another, and remain undistracted by other concerns during our visit. Please come into the space between us to unify us for your greater glory.”
- Courtesy. I think we should resurrect the courtesy of formal greeting and leave-taking. I’m trying to move into a “Grace and peace to you” format that I usually forget as greetings take a much more casual turn and the moment is lost. I love getting and giving good-bye hugs, but still stand there wondering if I’ll seem foolish, old-lady-ish, or overly personal if I lunge forward with a hug someone doesn’t want. Still, if you come to my Open House, please say hello on arriving and good-bye on leaving, please. And I’ll do the same when we all meet for book groups or meetings or whatever.
- Be affected. I need to do more than see you. To be present to you is to receive you into my own being and to be affected by you, there. I can’t be present to you without that opening that allows you entrance and makes me somewhat vulnerable to you. I hope I can look into your eyes and that you’ll see yourself loved in mine. I need to do more than hear you. You need to sound in me so that I resonate with you, mirror your movements and expressions, sense the meaning beneath the message on the surface. Just the other day, as I was listening to a friend and being deeply affected by him, one word he said in passing seemed to reverberate in me. I couldn’t shake the sense that this word held much more meaning for him and, as it turns out, it sure did! When I asked why that word was somehow very important or meaningful to him, out came the stories and the emotions elicited by them. It was fascinating to experience the reality that one word could ‘carry’ so much ‘weight’. He hadn’t realized it himself, but as we explored it together it was clear that God had helped my own heart be troubled with a message meant for his healing. What a delicate, lovely instrument the open, affect-able heart is!
Naturally, I am very much interested in your thoughts about how we can better practice the presence of persons. Please let me hear from you!
Just thinking about how I want to live…
Live so completely immersed in the Faith that you must be in a life support suit to go out into the world.
Live so deeply embedded in Catholic culture that you are a living artifact of that culture wherever you interact with others – your gestures, collar, habits of speech, prayer before meals reveal your home of origin.
Live so fully in kairos that chronos does not limit the scope of your being.
Live so richly in Catholic community that your tribe goes into the world with you – at your back when you encounter enemies; at the service of those you serve.
Live so well-ordered to the Truth that you cannot be deceived.
Live in such need of grace that you cannot take a step without prayer.
Live in such tender awareness of pain that your heart is a fountain of mercy.
Live with such bubbling joy that you seem a foolish, childish, strangely attractive person to those who don’t know the secret of your Source.
Live with such keen perception of beauty that the world becomes a wonderland, and the distressing disguises of the persons around you cannot hide Christ.
Let the word of God dwell in you so richly that it resounds in your sounding and is realized in your becoming.
I often think of Mary as a place where I can go to be held, to be with Christ in simplicity. Psalm 27:5 speaks of God as hiding me in His pavilion, His sacred tent, His pavilion, His tabernacle. This shelter, set upon a rock, keeps me safe in the midst of my enemies. The battle may rage around me, but God fights for me with His strong arm while I am at rest – the rest of the eternal Sabbath of the Lord’s presence.
I have the sense of seeing, there, a matrix of woven light that reminds me of the invisible support of the Holy Wisdom, whose light filters through the whole fabric of Creation. That light is intangible, but fully three-dimensional, filling the space with a kind of infrastructure that holds open space, within, for me, for the growing Body of Christ. This place is silent, but vibrates with life, with light. Sound is not far away, but I am buffered from a glory I cannot yet bear. The strands of light here are like crystal strings humming with a music played far away.
Meeting with Christ there, in a womb un-skewed, unstained, un-torn by sin, is to meet where He is most fully realized – Incarnate Word barely veiled by flesh. It is enough for Him just to be, and the effect of His presence upon me is great peace and joy at just being. Love holds me afloat like an ocean, pulsing with the gentle waves of a motherly heartbeat.
Delicious, profoundly restful, beauty-full.
Isn’t mail a marvel? That someone is tasked with the solemn duty of conveying your thoughts to me! That for pennies my missive flies to you through an unseen network of hands, scales, sorting machines, rolling bins, airplanes and trucks! And against what odds!?! Mail arrives despite thick, thin, rain, wind, hail, gnashing teeth, pilfering paws, gas prices and competition from private enterprise.
I so envy Jane Austen’s ladies their Morning and Evening Posts. What a delicious wait it can be (pace Marianne) for the favor of a reply. Ah, response! Beyond the wonders of its physical delivery lies the profound mystery at the core of mail: correspondence. I utter, you respond; you invite, I respond. We act and a person amplifies the freedom of that act by the exercise of freedom in reciprocity. This is glorious stuff! The stuff, in fact, that freedom is made of.
Letter-writing is a dance that accommodates two paces that may be quite different, yet generates a rhythm of its own. Correspondence, if you can bear it, is a delightful and demanding game, played over time and space between persons who recognize that they cohere somewhere beyond time and space – a game for supernatural giants, in a way. Letters drop into chronos from another moment as much as they drop into a mailbox from another place.
Fr. Schall enjoys the surprise of letters. In The Unseriousness of Human Affairs he writes, “The letter comes unexpectedly some morning or afternoon in the post. It bears that element of surprise, which is almost the deepest of our spiritual concepts.” It is noteworthy that Nietzsche despised letters: “A letter is an unannounced visit, the postman the agent of rude surprises,” said he. This explains a lot about his refusal of God’s ongoing surprise.
C.S. Lewis, in the essay On Stories, speaks of the surprise made possible by re-readings:
It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us….Knowing that the ‘surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact…. …We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties….The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the ‘surprise’…. …It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteiea.
G.K. Chesterton was known for his childlike delight in that ‘sudden reversal of fortune,’ whether it came in the form of the sun’s rising (again!), of the Incarnation, or of a letter from a beloved friend. His and Lewis’s correspondence was voluminous and decidedly burdensome, but there was something about the men that continued to respond to the call of duty inherent even in the most unpromising letters. For Lewis, the biggest surprise may have been meeting his future wife through this faithfulness. For Chesterton, it may have meant writing fewer books, but choosing the better part over and over again – to multiply the freedom of others by this exercise of his own.
Sadly, the expected surprise, though it always delights us children, is out of favor with publishers of ‘children’s books’ these days – linked, no doubt, to the death-by-‘freedom’ of the practice of reciprocity. We may still experience it at the mailbox, waiting for the response of a friend, or by re-reading saved letters on rainy days. Speaking of literature, correspondence has gifted us with an entire genre. Is there anything quite like epistolary style for granting access to the inner world of the writers through the breezy intimacy of their letters? It may be unfair to peek, but they did create such windows to lure us!
The details of their particular moment and surroundings welcome us to kairos as we – later, elsewhere – enter in. The intrusion of little quotidian realities, and allusions to background material taken for granted as known, weaves a fabric that wraps readers into their world. The hint that much more could be said is provocative. There may be much more said between the lines than in them. The free use of the ellipsis makes me feel I’m in a real conversation…one that may actually be possible in eternity.
Fr. Hardon particularly emphasized the importance of writing letters for the development of writers. “The writing apostolate…must include the writing of letters, not only to those who have written to us, but especially to those from who we have never received a letter, and who may never correspond with us in return.” Surely writing letters without the hope of the consolation of response is a high and magnanimous gesture of freedom. I recommend it to Advanced Practitioners. First, practice writing letters at all, to people who will play with you as you develop your facility and voice.
But – letters as literature, or ministry aside – it is the wonder of mail, of Real Letters, of co-respond-ing itself that thrills me. Email cannot compare, though it may aspire (and, at its best, may accomplish a great deal). It lacks the human touch, the beat of the heart, the stain of tea and tears. The email is naked! Gone the envelope with its doodles, last-minute P.P.P.P.S., the message “God Bless Our Postal Workers!”, the lipstick kiss, the enclosures of tea bags, confetti, pressed flowers and such, and the stamp which, chosen well, may be one last message in itself.
Real Letters are not likely to catch on again in a big way with people who feel burdened by duty, uncomfortable with complete sentences, impressed by speed and efficiency, impatient for results; who read a message or book only once, and who just don’t get the point because letters, like persons, do not have a point. With people ‘of the Word,’ however, there is hope of rekindling regard for the lowly Letter and its implications. Literally, much is folded in to a letter that cannot as easily be placed elsewhere.
This essay first appeared in Gilbert magazine.