The gift and visit of Presence



Looking back over my sixty years I recall my first awareness of an unfamiliar presence, unfamiliar in that it was more than my immediate family, a presence that I would dialogue with throughout my life. I was wandering outside in the fields, age four, on a sunny day, walking through tall grasses, all alone and somewhat forlorn. The warm afternoon sun seemed, at least to me, to unleash a breeze that passed down the acres rustling the field grass and quickly passing over my face, brushing my skin, almost like a kiss. I was surprised but not afraid. The pleasantness of the experience opened me up, senses and all, and I felt ‘awakened’ to something, or someone, more than this world. This awakening was accompanied by a pervasive feeling of happiness and it piqued an attitude of inquisitiveness. I have always located my spiritual proclivity to this encounter with this primal experience of presence in the natural world. To me this experience of the presence formed the horizon of meaning under which I would grow and live. Through the teachings and lives of others I would gradually learn how to put words to this experience and how tolive within this horizon of meaning. My family and the religious worldview of Catholicism were crucial to my learning how to pray and to live. It was through my relationships with mentors, spiritual directors, teachers, friends, and loved ones that my prayer matured. And gradually, over time, with growth and pruning, my life-style aligned more closely, but never completely, with the experience of presence in the field, which I came to name as Presence—God.

Of special note is the fact that this visit of Presence, passing through on a warm wind, was unsolicited. Ignorant of its existence I could not call upon it to assuage my forlorn and downcast heart. It came unbidden. But it came nonetheless, as gift, a gift that would ground me from that day forward. Oh, there would be times during my life in which I would forget the memory and I would be tossed around by the trials of life and lose heart. But when I took time to withdraw, to pray, I inevitably recalled the experience and was visited on other occasions as well. Thus I learned that prayer, as dialogue with Presence, was essential to my way of life.

For me, all the forms of prayer I have engaged in throughout my life— the Rosary; prayer of petition; intercessory prayer; guided meditation; lectio divina; centering prayer; Eucharistic prayer; meditation; breathing; walking and so on—all these forms of prayer have always presumed this primary gift of Presence. All affective experiences during prayer—from peace, comfort, consolation, quiet, and silence to anguish, darkness, pain, argument, and despair— have been held within this horizon of gift. All times of prayer—from light to darkness, from idleness to overwork— have been lived under an abiding desire and quest to reconnect with the primal presence that took the initiative to connect with me as I roamed the fields so many years ago.

For me prayer is no longer an activity that I schedule within my day or week. I long ago let go of prayer as a mental exercise. My prayer has become more and more a wordless resting in quiet, a quiet in which I allow myself to be led and held by an incomprehensible presence. Now I focus less and less on praying and more and more on living, trusting that in every breath I am abiding in the presence of the God. Does any of this make sense? Does any of this have meaning? To me it does, but it is a subtle and quiet meaning, one worth living for, and, at my age, worth dying with.

Thomas Aquinas said that prayer is neither true nor false. It is highly subjective and it cannot be used as proof for the existence of God, which are tasks of the speculative fields of philosophy, theology, and perhaps even now the fields of physics and neuroscience. But, the subjectivity of the field of prayer does notnegate it. On the contrary it emboldens the need for language, symbols and ritual, fills the pages of spiritual theology, and adds fuel to the life we share in common. Prayer is lived and life is prayed and in the midst of all things is Presence.

Michael Dallaire,