Encounter and presence

Being-presentI continue to enjoy reading David Benner. As I come across passages that strike me as particularly enlightening, I pass them along. As I finish up his Presence and Encounter, a passage from its ch. 10 grabs my attention:

It is now time to shift our attention from presence to encounter. While my primary focus to this point has been on presence, you may have noticed that I have been unable to avoid talking about encounter. The reason is that it is impossible to separate them. There can be no presence without an encounter and no encounter without presence.

Even the act of being present to yourself involves and encounter with your presence. The same is true when you are present to a sunset, a person, your pet, or God. In each case, you encounter something or someone. If you do not encounter anything or anyone, either you are not present or your expectations about what form that encounter should take are getting in the way of it actually happening.

Presence is never, therefore, strictly solitary. It always involves a relationship. More particularly, it always involves a relationship between an “I” and a “Thou.” Presence involves honoring the sacredness of whatever or whomever you seek to be present to. Even presence to ourselves demands this same honoring. Anything approached as an “It” will never be encountered. But anything approached with reverence for its sacredness has the potential to become an encounter.

Every “It” can become a “Thou.” And you hold the key to this transformation. That key is the way you engage it. Engage with honor and its otherness will be revealed to you through an encounter with a “Thou.” But engage with anything less than this and you simply meet an “It.” It all depends on you.

True presence means being the presence of a “Thou.” This is the mode of being in which we encounter the sacred that is the hidden treasure in everything and everyone. We don’t have to look for it. The sacred reveals itself to us when we approach it as a “Thou” seeking to encounter another “Thou.”

There is no reason to suspect that Moses set our looking for the sacred on the day when he suddenly encountered a burning bush that was not being consumed. He was simply going about his daily work, tending the sheep of his father-in-law, but the fact that he noticed not only that the bush was burning but that it was not being consumed tells us that he was attentive to the transcendent. He was attentive to the extraordinary in the ordinary and to sacred presence.

Anyone might have noticed a bush on fire and passed by, but Moses was so sufficiently present in the moment that he noticed that the bush was not being consumed. This led him to come closer, and as he did, he countered not merely a mystery but the Sacred Presence that lay behind it—the Present that revealed itself as the “I AM.” Moses encountered the “I AM” because he approached the bush as the presence of a “Thou.” And his encounter with God confirmed that both he and God were also a “Thou.”

Only in presence is it possible to know presence. Only in bringing the presence of a “Thou” to a meeting can the other reveal itself as a “Thou.” And only in bringing the presence of a “Thou” to a meeting can that engagement become an encounter with the Eternal Thou—the Wholly Other that lies behind all encounters and every other Thou. This is the great mystery and the great truth that is revealed in the story of Moses and the burning bush. Every encounter with an “other” can be an encounter with the Wholly Other. For in each particular “Thou,” we encounter the Eternal Thou.

What does it mean to treat yourself as a “Thou”? And how does this shape the potential encounter when you seek to be present to yourself? The nature of an act is determined by the motivation out of which it arises. This is the source of its meaning. We recognize this when we speak of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. An act of apparent love that does not arise from a heart of love is not love.

An act is made sacred by the intentions that shape it. Being present can be nothing more than a psychological technique, useful, for example, in treating anxiety, depression, or a range of other issues. But the same action of being present can also be prayer. Prayer is not a behavior but an intention of openness in faith to God who is both beyond and within one’s self. Presence as prayer involves a sacred offering. It involves offering myself in the moment, to the moment, and to the possibility of an encounter with what that moment holds.

Sacred acts are free of the instrumentality that characterizes much of human action. It is not true prayer when we expect to get something from the act of openness. Genuine openness in presence means setting aside our hopes and expectations about what we might gain from being present. It is stepping outside our usual mode of doing so that we may return to being.

Being present to one’s self, or simply being present in the moment, can be a sacred act when it is offered with this openness. Openness means, of course, that we must be prepared to be open to whatever the moment may hold. We can never, for example, be open to God without being open to our own selves. Nor can we be truly open to our selves without being open to the God who inhabits the depths of our selves. There are no closets or drawers in openness. Nothing can stay hidden in a heart that is genuinely open. This is why prayer is honesty and honesty is prayer. All that is required to make presence a sacred act of prayer is to be as open as you can be in that moment. That will always be enough.

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