The Art Of [Experiencing] The Presence: Celtic Thought

20290616 THE ART OF PRESENCEThere’s an ancient story of a man wandering in the desert, and though he had done this for many years, on this specific occasion he noticed something strange, something out of the ordinary, something that caught his attention like it had never done before. He saw a bush in the distance that was on fire, and yet it wasn’t being destroyed by that fire. He drew closer to look.

From that ancient story it looked as though an angel was responsible for that burning bush, but when the man went to investigate it seems, from the one who then spoke, that the angel deferred to a higher power, the Presence. One wonders for how long that angel had been trying to catch his attention – days, weeks, years? Nevertheless, the man went to investigate.

This old, old story goes on to tell us that the burning bush spoke to the man by name, and told him to remove his shoes because the ground he was standing on was, indeed, holy ground. He did so. He drew aside, and in silence and in the desert, and experienced the Presence.

There is another story, more recent about a woman called Catherine Doherty. Arriving in Canada as a Russian refugee and living in the poorest parts of Toronto, she spent almost all of her life seeking to encounter the Presence, the Source of All, God, in the desert. She wrote in her book, ‘Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence…’, that deserts (and the Russian name for desert is Poustinia, hence the title of her book), those times of silence and solitude are ‘not necessarily places but states of mind and heart’.

These deserts can be found in busy cities, in sparsely populated area, as well as in places where we live each day of our lives.  These deserts of encounter, where the Presence can be experience, can be ‘tiny pools of silence’. They can be anywhere.

But how do we achieve this silence?

How do we experience the Presence? She says, ‘By standing still!’. Catherine Doherty

However we define the Presence, that Mystery, That Which Is Bigger Than Us, that which some call God (and that’s a word that is much overused hence my search and usage of other words), the Elements or Elementals, the Spirit, that Presence is much needed. Not to experience the Presence is not to experience Life in all its fullness.

If perception is looking at something and understanding it from some way off, then encountering the Presence is all about experience, communion, one-ness with and the acceptance of a relationship with the Presence, initiated by the Presence, and which is always beneficial.

And, yet we can ‘distance’ ourselves from the Presence, from that Great Flow, The Spirit, call ‘it’ what you will.

We can ‘distance’ or remove ourselves from the experience of the Presence by being too busy – we all live such busy lives, after all, and some seemingly quantify their worth by a ‘crowded’ diary; by being too precise  – we can so want our words of liturgy and ritual to be word-perfect that we focus on the words rather than the encounter; by being analytical – to use our minds to objectively observe what is going on with the Presence at the time of the encounter  immediately puts us at some distance and we step outside of the basking of sacred-time, and step back into ordinary time; by ‘crowding out’ the Presence by an excess of words, especially if we have limited time and a shopping-list of prayers to recite; by ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’.

Ofcourse, in one very real sense removing or distancing ourselves from the Presence is impossible – because the Presence is ubiquitous and is always close at hand – but we can remove ourselves from the knowledge and experience of the Presence by focussing on what really isn’t important at all.

Why do we do that?

We might fear the Presence and so don’t want to draw close, or we might not fully understand the loving and invitational presence of the Presence, we might be too busy (and if so, please find time to slow and stop occasionally), we might not realise the importance of ritual and prayer (that puts us in a position of being receptive), or (and this is true of some ‘old hands’, mature and ‘holy people’) some may not really want to draw close to the Presence because their lives may be changed (and even if for the better, it can be worrying for some to have Someone Else in the ‘driving seat’). And so, some may prefer an ‘arms length’ approach, to be in control of the ‘on-off’ button, and in such cases may actually be angry and upset with those that point to a closer communion.

Yes, it’s good to encourage greater communion in others, but if you do, be aware that there will some well-meaning people (even using Bible verses) to counter your good works and declare you to be a heretic. But, I can sense that you’re a principled, determined and passionate-for-the-truth sort of person, and that that wouldn’t stop you.

‘All I did was light candles.
Did God find me or did I find God?
Hush!
The time for words is past’.

(Barbara Brown Taylor)

So, how do we encounter the Presence?

Well, liturgy, prayer and ritual are some ways to put us in a position of being receptive to the always-there Presence, but they are ‘doorways’ to step through and enter that ‘inner sanctum’ of sacred-space. They are ‘tools’ to usher us into an awareness of the ‘Divine Ubiquitousness’.

There are many other ways to encounter the Presence (eg music, art, works of service, a numinous event, a tragic event, a loving event, a huge surprise etc) But the encounter of Presence always leads to silence, perhaps perceived in (inner) darkness (‘luminous darkness’), and without analytical thought. It is experience that takes place in time-out-of-time, without words, is a state or mind and being, and it is only after the experience, as we look back analytically, that we ‘remember’ being in the presence of the Presence. This is one of the purposes and uses of the Caim.

‘Your hand opens and closes,
opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralysed.
Your deepest presence
is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birds’ wings.’

(Rumi)

 

The Art Of Encountering: Celtic Thought

20170614 THE ART OF ENCOUNTERINGAnd so there I was last evening, sitting in my little inner-city garden – some would call it a yard, but this is Fulham – with a lit candle on the garden table. The sun was now below the horizon, the sky was cloudless and a most wonderful deep, deep blue. Even a few swallows could be seen darting overhead, near the bridge.

All was fairly quiet. Peaceful. Lovely.

With my eyes closed, I said some silent prayers to send light, energy, well-well-wishes for family, friends, and, yes, for those who will be reading this, like you. And, then I stopped. Quite abruptly.

‘During each encounter, ask yourself: How does this incident bring greater awareness into my life?’ Azim Jamal & Brian Tracy

As I sat there, at that garden table, now with thoughts racing, I wondered at how easy it is to engage with people when they look like us, speak like us, have the same views as us or come form the same tribe as us. That’s encountering, I guess some would say. But, it shouldn’t stop there, I’m saying to myself, too. There’s more. Mae mwy.

What about the ones who don’t look like us, don’t sound like us, and who are marginalised and sometimes dehumanised? What about them? Ofcourse, they must be included. Yes? Isn’t that the meaning of philoxia? [Philo, an ancient Greek word for love, xenai meaning stranger].

Sometimes, it’s not until we’re the excluded ones, not until we are the strangers that the penny drops, and we realise how awful such distancing can be.

‘You shall love the stranger first of all because you know what it is to be a stranger yourself. Second of all, you shall love the stranger because the stranger shows you God [the Source of All, The Great Spirit]’, Barbara Brown Taylor

When travelling I sometimes like to visit churches on a Sunday, and though I’m a mature person, not easily ‘thrown’ and very inclusive and chatty, it is often the case, sadly, that I’ll worship alone even when the building has dozens of worshippers in it, and afterward drink coffee alone, surrounded by others who are obviously of the ‘in’ tribe. Not always the case, but it is sometimes the case. To them, I’m guessing it felt like I was an ‘it’. They were persons (an ‘I’) and it felt like I was regarded by them as less than a person. An ‘it’.

Being in an I-It relationship is no real relationship at all. A jug of water is an ‘it’. Apple peel is an ‘it’. A paving stone is an ‘it’. And, ‘it’ can be ignored and discarded.

However, just to even things up, I did have to laugh, inwardly, when at one particular church service some time ago, a person came up close and sat next to me, explained everything, absolutely everything that was going on and in great detail (although I knew the Anglican form of service very well), found the hymn for me each time (yes, I know the hymn book is arranged numerically for ease of use and the numbers are up there on the board), and then found the Bible passage for me (even though I’ve been a Christian for over forty years), but I felt welcomed, at that’s the point. To that person I was a person. Not an ‘it’, but a ‘thou’ (a ‘you’, a person approachable in some kind of relationship). They were an ‘I’ and I was a ‘thou’ from there viewpoint. From mine I was the ‘I’ and they were the ‘Thou’, and there was the relationship, the bonding,  and it worked.

Another reason I stopped praying as I sat in my little inner-city garden was that my prayer had turned into a mere shopping-list of wants, albeit for other people, but in some way I wasn’t encountering them, even spiritually. I had turned these good people into ‘its’.

‘I am not a number, I am a free man!’, ironically said #6 in the old tv series ‘The Prisoner’.

How many times have we sat in a glade or a church building and communed with the elements, elementals, angels, or God, participated in a ritual without meaning it deeply, and unknowingly distanced ourselves by doing things by rote, and regarding one or all of the aforementioned as an ‘it’, instead of focussing on the relationship between us and them, and so forging an ‘I’ to ‘thou’ (I to another ‘person’) bond? How many times have we prayed a shopping-list of prayers or conducted a ritual and speedily worked through it, only to feel a little ‘hollow’ at the end and have to acknowledge that we had been a bit glib and superficial. That we had accepted the ‘liminoid’ rather than the liminal. Sometimes that happens, doesn’t it?

Still sitting at my garden table, with rampant thoughts now subsiding, I encouraged myself to move into the ‘le point vierge’ (the virgin point), liminal space, sacred-space, that area deep within each one of us where, in silence, we can come closer to others (in an I-Thou) relationship, and indeed into such a relationship with the Other. Isn’t that what the Caim is about?

Martin Buber wrote that we may address existence in two ways: (1) The attitude of the “I” towards an “It”, towards an object that is separate in itself, which we either use or experience. Or (2), The attitude of the “I” towards “Thou”, in a relationship in which the other is not separated by discrete bounds.

Ofcourse, if the other person is a ‘person’ then I should imagine none of us would have a problem in being able to relate.  If the other is the Source of All, that which some call God, an angel or elemental etc then, even then,  if we have the right mind-set and are ‘open’ then we can encounter deeply.

But, what about an animal? A tree? An insect? A star? Ofcourse, that is up to you to work through, depending on your theology. I must profess to finding it easier to forming an ‘I-Thou’ relationship with another person or God, than, say a tree. But, I can’t end this here. Nevertheless, in some profound way the tree, and all of creation is still more than an ‘it’. So much, much more! And so I do try to regard them, too, as part on an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. After all, I am a panentheist (like most Christians are (or were), and some Druids and others. Please note that I’m not a pantheist (but some of my best friends are pantheists), but am proud to declare that I am a panentheist).

‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’. Acts 17:28, The Book.

Still, in my garden, it is now late evening. A cup of hot chocolate sits on the table – a ‘reward’ to myself and a great way to end the evening. I have now finished sending well-wishes, light, prayers, energy and positivity to others, and feel power has, indeed, gone out. And it feels good. It took some time to move into an ‘I-Thou’ relationship tonight, to move into that ‘inner sanctum’, to encounter, especially but not only when people are some geographical distance away, but that exquisite task, nay privilege, was accomplished, and it is so worth it. This is my encouragement to you, to encounter.

Relationship. Bonded. Oneness. Sameness. Achieved. Deep, deep satisfaction.

Encountering, then, is a soul-to-soul connectedness, a oneing, a relationship, rather than just proximity or geographical location, and it embraces the whole of creation.