The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, said that “spiritual practice is not about an idea or concept of God. It is about seeking the experience of presence.”
On a recent Sunday evening, I sat quietly in a space heavy with memories waiting for the ordination service for my daughter to begin. The sanctuary was filled with people who were part of our tribe – those folks who helped Phil and I raise Lesley-Ann. In the silence, I glanced to my right and spotted Gene Hester sitting on the same pew, just one section over. I was startled and puzzled to see him there. Gene didn’t have a relationship with Lesley-Ann, but he did have a connection to our family. He went to college with my Dad at Lees-McRae in Banner Elk, NC. I wouldn’t describe them as friends, just classmates who had reconnected about five years ago. As it always does, seeing Gene made me think of my Daddy. I could feel tears begin to form in my eyes. Thoughts of my Father and his unconditional love for his granddaughter stirred the grief that I still carry from his sudden death 18 months ago. The reality of his absence stung.
During the service, the gathered community was invited to come forward and lay hands on Lesley-Ann, blessing her through touch and spoken words. Gene joined the line and as he moved toward Lesley-Ann, I was sitting close enough to hear him speak to her – I’m Gene Hester and I went to school with John Citty. And then, like those before him, he placed his hands on her and offered a blessing over her life and ministry.
Over the past few days, I’ve pondered the gift of presence – not just the presence of the Loving One, but the authentic gift of presence that we as individuals can offer ourselves and one another. What would change in our lives and in our communities if we practiced at being fully present to the tasks, events and people right before us? What power does presence have?
I’m not sure why Gene chose to be present at Lesley-Ann’s ordination service. What I know is that his presence transformed that experience for me. When he spoke my father’s name into the room – loud enough for me to hear it – it took me to a different level; one where I saw that the tribe of folks gathered that evening included the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. A cloud that my Father is a part of now.
Gene’s presence invited me to see and hear with the eyes and ears of my heart, not my head. That’s how inner work is done and what I think Merton was getting at. There are shimmers of the Spirit all around us and true spiritual practice invites us be present to them. We never know how the gift of our presence may create a passageway for those shimmers to delight and transform us or someone else. Even the most ordinary of experiences is crammed with the holy if we have the eyes to see it.
J. Philip Newell, The Rebirthing of God, (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2014), 62.