Presence and Encounter

This book presents a series of reflections on presence and the way in which it makes encounter possible and life meaningful. When we are truly present, life reveals its meaning to us through encounter with ourselves, others, the natural world and God.

Presence is the link between the divine and human realms. Ordinary consciousness distorts the closeness of these two realms and results in our feeling that there is a great chasm between them. But, in truth, the human and divine spheres of life interpenetrate and are inseparable. Presence makes us aware of the thin places in which we live. It is the threshold through which we pass to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, the secular into the sacred.

Presence and Encounter is an invitation to live with more presence so we can encounter the transformational presence of God more deeply in our lives. It is organized around 14 short chapters that invite reflection rather than attempt an exhaustive treatment of the topic. The book also includes end-of-chapter reflection exercises for individual or group use and a foreword by Fr. Richard Rohr.

Excerpt

Chapter One

The Nature of Presence

The world is full of presence. Every moment of life is crammed full of potential encounters with people and things that are present to us even though we may not be present to them.

    • The presence of a city – vital, decaying, dangerous, enchanting, oppressive, perhaps even seductive
    • The comforting presence of loved ones – long unseen, sometimes long dead
    • The troubling presence of people with whom we have unfinished business
    • The evocative presence of a sacred space – perhaps a Cathedral, a grove of trees, a shore’s edge or wherever we are called into awareness of the transcendent
    • The distinctive presence of a home – immediately noticeable on entering, if we are paying attention
    • The unmistakable presence of death that we might experience at a funeral but which can surprise us in other encounters
    • The plethora of presences that confront us on entering an art gallery, walking through a shopping mall, or attending to sea life in a tidal pool
    • The numinous presence of the Wholly Other – both at times and in places that might be expected but also at times and in places and ways never expected
    • The puzzling presence of someone we encounter – disturbing us in ways that may be good or bad but which cannot easily be ignored

But what is this strange thing called presence? Presence is the awakening that calls us into an engagement with some aspect of the present moment. Presence makes us feel alive, or perhaps better, it lets us know that we are alive. It demands that we notice and, in so doing, the distance between whatever we notice and us is suddenly reduced. We feel connected. Sometimes this might feel like more connection than makes us comfortable but no longer are we on the outside looking at life through binoculars or a thick glass. Suddenly we have passed through that which distanced us and are inside and a part of life. We are involved. We are participants, not simply spectators.

Presence is elusive, but it can come to us with astounding force. Notice how a wisp of a scent may pull us into the presence of a beloved – a presence that may be both subtle yet powerfully real. A great work of music can similarly draw us into the presence of the artist – often into a period of time and world dramatically different from our own. An experience may invite us to be present to the world and to ourselves. A fleeting memory may instantly draw us into awareness of the absence of one still powerfully present to us.

Sometimes, the presence of another commands our attention and demands our own presence. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus teaching in the temple and describe those hearing him as being astounded because he taught as one having authority. But what was the nature and basis of that authority? I can’t imagine that it came from polished delivery, command of his material, highly developed rhetorical skills, self-confidence, or any other personality trait or thing that he was doing. It sounds to me like the authority of presence.

I recall a silent retreat my wife and I led for a group of advanced contemplatives. Many were nuns and monks and all had well developed practices of contemplative prayer and meditation. As I stood before them for an initial teaching session I was struck by their stillness, openness and attentiveness. All seemed to belong in this room of invited attendees. But one person particularly caught my attention. There was nothing remarkable about either her appearance or behavior but something in her way of being suggested what I can only describe as a fierce presence. She seemed to be fully in the present moment – free of inner preoccupations or distractions and capable, therefore, of being unusually open, still and engaged. I found her presence to be comforting and disturbing, attractive and terrifying. She did not have to speak to have authority. But her authority, or power, did not appear to come from anything she did but from who she was. I simply knew that I was in the presence of someone who was fully present to me. That awareness served to deepen my own presence. But, while there was nothing frightening about her as a person, the intensity and alignment of her being was disarmingly different from the sort of diluted presence I was used to in others and myself.

Presence can be like that. When it is even relatively unclouded, it can shine with a brightness that can be disturbing. But what a good disturbance it is. It is like an alarm going off. It is an invitation to awaken and be present. Its authority is only troubling when we want to remain asleep!

There is something magical about presence. It is not subject to the ordinary laws of materiality and time. Our presence enters the room before us and often stays long after we leave. When in the presence of someone who is fully present to us, time seems to slow down. Sometimes it even seems to stop. For a moment we may feel that there is no past and no future.

Physical and emotional distance also seems to collapse in presence. We may feel close to someone who is far away or intimate with a just-encountered stranger. Boundaries between self and others soften and sometimes seem to dissolve leading to a sense of shared oneness similar to that which people report sometimes experiencing in orgasm. The mystics speak much of this sense of oneness and seem incapable of talking about it without the use of the imagery of sexual union.

Presence instantly moves us into a strange place that has an unreal quality to it. And yet in our depths we know that what we are experiencing is more real than anything we encounter in ordinary consciousness.

Presence can be dramatic, but it can also be remarkably ordinary. It can be calming, but, as we have seen, it can also be disturbing. It can be confused and confusing, but it can also possess a luminosity and clarity that lights up a room and can light up a life.

Ralph Harper suggests that, “From theophanies to erotic closeness, presence feels the same, even if the personalities are not the same.” This also reflects the mysterious nature of presence in that the clearer the presence of a person, the less it is simply that person’s presence that we are experiencing. There is something transpersonal about presence. It is as if we are not experiencing the presence of a unique individual but of Presence itself.

Notice how someone can offer us a clear and luminous presence and yet we may know nothing, or almost nothing, about him or her. If we are fortunate enough to subsequently be able to get to know this person better we may then become aware of two almost separate realities that are present when we are together. We may, on the one hand, continue to encounter the presence that they radiate, and this may continue to be quite unchanged by knowing things about the person. And at the same time, we can be clearly aware of their uniqueness, or what we might call their personality. Their presence will always be less differentiated and more global than their personality. It is as if their presence is less “theirs” than a Presence they mediate.

When I think of this distinction between encountering a person in their uniqueness and encountering the presence they carry and share I think again of the nun I met in the silent retreat I just described. After this retreat I had a chance to spend time with this woman, and since then we have become very good friends. In these subsequent interactions I have come to know much more about her. When we are together now I can readily see her in her uniqueness and individuality. But I also still powerfully experience the presence she possesses that is not simply either hers or about her. The two operate on different planes of reality. Each involves a different level or type of knowing. My knowing of her is shaped by information she has shared about herself and my experiences with her. This grows and changes as the relationship develops. But beneath it I am always still very aware of the presence that I continue to meet in her. And this, I know, is not simply reducible to her personality or behavior. It is grounded in her being and made possible by her way of being in relationship to this transcendent reality.

These mysteries of presence render it resistant to exhaustive analysis. However, like all transcendent realities, while it can never be fully understood, there is no question it can be deeply known.

Everything and everyone has presence. Just think of your experience of things and people when you step back from your thoughts about them. Think, for example, of the presence of a building you are familiar with, perhaps where you work or some place you frequently visit. Notice how the presence of this place may be related to its design and aesthetics but isn’t limited to it. Or think of people you regularly encounter and notice the presence they emanate – not simply their behavior or their personality but the aura they give off.

Martin Heidegger said that being is presence. Whatever else that this means it suggests that in some way presence is a basic property of simply being. Everything that exists has presence by virtue of its being.

Being is more straightforward for rocks, trees and black holes than it is for humans. Inanimate objects are never tempted by false ways of being. They are aligned within their being and consequently, their presence is less ambiguous. This is also true for non-human living beings – such as, for example, animals and trees – all of which remain closer to their nature than is true for most humans. Consequently, their presence is also more pure and singular.

For humans, living our truth is much more of a challenge. First, we are profoundly alienated from our being. We forget what it is to stand in awe of being itself, and of our being in particular. We are lost in doing and tempted to believe that there is nothing more to us than this. But this separation from our being also reflects our separation from Being itself. At the core of our soul is an ache that is only answered in knowing both our being and the Ground of Being. But that ache is easily ignored and misinterpreted and consequently we seldom are aware of this most fundamental level of our alienation.

A second way in which living the truth of our being is more complicated for humans than non-humans arises from the fact that humans alone have the capacity to create false ways of being. As children we learn to try on various identities as we attempt to discover a satisfactory way of being in the world. Even though we usually lose awareness of doing this after adolescence or early adulthood, we continue to try and create our self through the first half of life. But the self we create is a persona – a mixture of the truth of our being and the fictions we spin as we attempt to create a self in the image of an inner fantasy. The simple truth of our being gets lost in the meta-narratives we spin. We become the fictions we live. But consequently, our way of being in the world is so false and unnatural that our presence is thoroughly ambiguous. It is no wonder that we find the presence of most people so clouded as to be not worth noticing. And it is no wonder that a truly unclouded presence is so luminous and so compellingly noteworthy!

One final thing to note at this point about the nature of presence is how it lifts us above the sphere of particularities and separateness into a world of integral wholeness. Presence is experienced as a unitary whole. Think, for example, about the experience of sitting on the top of a hill, far from the polluting lights of a city, gazing at a dark, starry sky. Unless you are an astrophysicist or an astronomy buff, your experience will not likely be one of thought and analysis but will be one of singular, holistic absorption. You will experience the presence of the starry sky, not your thoughts about it.

The more pure and uncontaminated the presence, the more it is experienced as a whole. The power of presence seems to simply gather up all the separate and isolated parts that normally are our focus and wrap itself within a harmonious whole. Complexity is enclosed within a shroud of singularity and wholeness.

Often this sense of wholeness brings with it a surprising sense of increased vividness to everything being experienced – possibly a sense of being more present to your experience, even to yourself. Sometimes this includes a sense of being at one within your self. Occasionally, this sense of oneness may even include the person who offers the presence (or others who share it), possibly even involving a sense of oneness with everything that is. Frequently it produces a sense of intimacy that strains the usual subject-object duality. Such an experience might also leave you in awe before the mystery of life. And because it frequently leaves you feeling more whole and integrated, it often feels like an experience of standing on sacred ground. Like Moses, you may feel a need to remove your shoes to honor the sacredness of the moment and the place it offers you.

This is the reason the language of presence is so frequently on the tongue of mystics. This is how the saints feel in relation to God, and how they experience God with them. It is the experience of totality and union in the midst of shattering fragmentation and separateness. It offers fleeting moments of knowing that stand in stark contrast to what our senses tell us so much of the rest of the time.

And this is also why presence has such transformational potential. John O’Donohue describes such moments of presence as a sacrament – a visible sign of invisible grace. The source of the grace – or, if you will, the gift – is the Transcendent Presence that is mediated by more immanent forms of presence. Although that source may be invisible (sometimes even beyond belief) and the presence ephemeral, the gifts of the encounter can be readily seen by anyone who has eyes to see.

 

 

    • I have suggested in this chapter that presence has a paradoxical quality to it. Often subtle and easily missed, it can also have great authority and power – sometimes commanding attention and demanding a response. Notice whether you can recall an encounter with someone whose presence carried this sort of authority, an authority that did not come from an imposing personality or authoritarian behaviour. How would you describe the quality of their presence? If others experience you in this way on at least some occasions, how do you relate to inner authority that, at least occasionally, you seem to carry? How do you understand it?
    • Notice whether you have ever experienced in the presence of another the hint of a larger presence that was less “their” presence than something they mediated. How do you understand this transcendent dimension of presence?
    • If being is presence, what do you know about the way in which inanimate objects can communicate presence simply through their being? What qualities of presence do your home or other things associated with you communicate? How would this differ from or be similar to whatever presence you might assume you communicate?
    • In this chapter I proposed that the more pure and uncontaminated the presence, the more it transcends the particularities of the person associate with this presence. This may explain the fact that presence feels the same in some fundamental way, even when experienced with quite different people. Consider whether your experience supports this.

Reviews

Having journeyed with Dr. Benner in a Transformational Coaching relationship for the past year and having experienced profound shifts through reading his many books before that, it is a privilege to recommend the book you hold in your hands. I am excited about the potential for a beautiful unfolding in your life as you encounter practical sacredness, wisdom held humbly, and God’s luminous presence within these pages.

~ Lisa Whelchel, actress;
author of The Facts of Life: And Other Lessons My Father Taught Me and Friendship for Grown-Ups

With his trademark blend of scholarship and accessibility, psychological insight and spiritual depth, David Benner has done it again. Presence and Encounter goes to the heart of spiritual formation and direction, awareness of Divine presence. Whether in Eucharist or casual encounter, it is awakening to Presence that makes encounter possible.

~ Gary W. Moon, executive director, Martin Institute and Dallas Willard Center, Westmont College;
author of Apprenticeship with Jesus

I always learn when I read David Benner. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Benner expresses what I already know, deep down inside, and he does so with such intelligence and eloquence that my heart just soars!

~ Ruth Haley Barton, founder, Transforming Center;
author of Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community

In Presence and Encounter David Benner provides a simple but profound guide to experiencing the presence of Christ (even in absence) in everyday life. Every day holds sacramental possibilities if only we learn by God’s grace to be present and to authentically encounter and dialogue with each other and with God. I highly recommend it!

~ Siang-Yang Tan, professor of psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary;
author of Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Christian Perspective

This book is a profound articulation of how the Divine Spirit pervades all things in the universe: the life force in all living things, the spirit that takes the form of our own spirits within us, and the energy that keeps the electrons in orbit in the atoms of a rock. This all-pervasive Spirit is what Jesus promised in John 14 when he said in effect, ‘The age of Jesus Christ is over. Now comes the age when God is a Presence as Spirit.’ Presence and Encounter clearly illumines our possibilities to be such a Presence to ourselves and each other that we experience in our encounters not just the dynamics of personalities but the numinous Presence of God.

~ J. Harold Ellens, author of Light from the Other Side:
The Paranormal as Friend and Familiar (Real Life Experiences of a Spiritual Pilgrim)

Presence and Encounter immediately draws a reflective reader into the essence of human living. It exquisitely points toward the possibilities of being totally engaged with all that is present in each moment–being available without reservation to oneself, to others, and to the Loving Presence that holds all. It is filled with joyous invitations to explore.

~ Jeannette A. Bakke, author of Holy Invitations:
Exploring Spiritual Direction
, spiritual director, teacher, and retreat leader

The words ‘presence,’ ‘awareness,’ and ‘encounter’ have experienced a vogue reappearance in recent years. But who is explaining these esoteric and ethereal concepts? My friend David Benner, that is who. In his probing, yet down-to-earth style, David gives us more insight into a spirituality that is at once contemporary and ancient. His work is winsome and practical; he explains and captivates like few can on topics this rich. If you have followed Benner’s work you will love this project. If this is your first book, you are in for a feast!

~ Ron Martoia, Transformational Architect (www.RonMartoia.com)