As a household, we decided to spend fifteen minutes in silence together once a week, early in the morning when we are all theoretically available. We are rarely all there; in fact I think our average is two. But on the times we have dragged ourselves out of bed early enough to help get the breakfast ready before meeting in the dark living room at 6am, we are not sorry. We try to do as we’ve been taught and empty our heads of plans and memories and even of the strangeness of sitting quietly in the dark when there is so much to do and we would rather be sleeping. We try not to think of this, or anything. The goal is simply to be there. Almost always, there are moments of success – if only for a few seconds. Most of us agree that our very modest, weekly practice of remaining still and present in the moment stays with us for a bit and sometimes allows us to experience more deeply the people and events we’re heading for later in the day.
Sometimes it is almost magical. Somehow, instead of thinking about the level of coffee remaining in the pot and counting in our heads the number left to serve, we can listen to the guest telling us about his family’s farm in Tennessee. We remember the name of the farm late in the day. We notice and marvel that a woman’s poems sound like those of another poet we’ve read and how these two, separated by over a century, see things so similarly. We remember who prefers their coffee black and to ask about the bike ride to St. Augustine. The two hours of serving breakfast to neighbors seems exactly like two hours of serving breakfast to neighbors – not a chore on a checklist before the next thing. Sometimes we are really present.
Catholics have an interesting doctrine about “the real presence” – that the body and blood of Jesus are actually present in food, specifically the bread and wine that has been blessed at mass. Actually there, transformed at the moment the prayer is prayed into flesh and blood – not just symbolically. This hurts our modern ears. We understand that the chemical composition of bread and wine are the same with or without prayers and incense. But still we have experienced a mystical presence. Some of us have indeed felt it at the moment the prayer of “consecration” is prayed, when we feel transformed in the community of kneeling pray-ers, desiring the same thing together – that we be one, and become as one with our creator. Many more of us have experienced it outside of church.
It is a human experience, universal. A dear friend is far away, but he lies heavy on our hearts, and weighs on our mind, as if concretely here. We experience a beloved parent who has dementia – and whom we saw twice a year during the best of times – constantly present to us in the landscape or at moments of decision, the places we have been together, the person we are. A friend who died over a year ago walks beside you as you see things through her eyes and hear her voice clearly. The presence grows without bounds as if these loved ones are physically with us at their most vital. When Latino people hail one who has died as ¡presente! – I think this is what is meant. We have been transformed as a person or community by someone no longer here physically, but who lives on in us. We feel those we can no longer touch. We hear those who can no longer speak. It is mystical to the point of feeling magical. And it is real.
Real presence is connection – to ourselves and our own lives, and to our Creator. The quiet practice of it, sitting still in a dark room, is a discipline. But the growing expansiveness of presence in our daily lives is perhaps the most profoundly real thing we can experience. Our eyes begin to open to sparrows and mustard seeds, the lilies in the field, the lost sheep, the person across the room praying with us and the one on his way for a cup of coffee. “It went by so fast,” said a friend’s dying father before he took his last breath. Be here now.