practicing presence

What we think of prayer and speaking with God and how we practice such things may have little to do with how God speaks or communicates with us. Learning more of the nature of God’s communication and native language from the ancient Christian tradition can tremendously help point us in the best direction when it comes to unceasing prayer.

Every Moment, Every Person

Dave Brisbin 7.24.22
A dear friend and colleague suddenly diagnosed with stage four cancer brings everything to a halt. Not just in her life, but in ours as well—at least for a time. And when we start breathing again, I know what I’m thinking, but wondering what she’s thinking in the dark hours. Her voice sounds strong; she’s talking about fighting and treatment plans, but also logistics and last wishes for her children and all of us.

She’s striking a strange balance between hope for life and admission of the possibility of death, the preparation for it. But isn’t that just a statement of the human condition? Don’t we all live out our lives, plan and dream, laugh and embrace, under the shadow of a death sentence? As long as there’s no date attached, no end in sight, we can pretend, but at times like these it all comes hissing in like a leak in a submarine.

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Her family is now experiencing an intensity they haven’t in some time. We all do this. Why do we wait until the possibility of losing someone becomes imminent before we feel and express their value to us? With our own lives, with the moments that make up our time here—why do we allow the urgencies of life to masquerade as important and distract us from the only moment that exists? This one that we’re in right now. What is urgent is not necessarily important and what is important rarely feels urgent. Relationship and connection, like life, appear open-ended—and without deadline or urgency, they feel reschedulable. Until times like these.

None of us wants to think about death approaching out of the dark at unknown speed and distance. But the value of life can only be experienced in the acceptance of death. In accepting that there are no answers to the deepest questions of life, to stop searching for meaning in the darkness of what we can’t know, we can see again what we’ve always known in the light of each living moment. To stop trying to import meaning into our moments with thoughts made of words and see that each moment is already just enough for us is the gift we can receive at times like these.


Still Small Voice

Dave Brisbin 2.21.21
On the first Sunday of Lent, after having been through how many Lents? How many Easters? We’re pretty sure we know what Easter is all about. Just ask us, and we’ll rattle off all our theological truths about the resurrection. But when you bring the certainty of your beliefs to Jesus, you’re in for a shock. What would Jesus say? Probably to sell everything you have and come and see how the big Easter you hold in your mind is blocking a life-sized Easter that can actually fit into your daily moments. Every follower of Jesus, every hero of faith in scripture who received a spectacular revelation, a mountaintop experience with God, was immediately plunged into a forty-ness, a wilderness period represented by the number forty that was a time of consolidation and assimilation, of bringing the hugeness of the experience down into the DNA of daily life. It’s the inevitable process in which the great doubt sets back in, but through the action of faith, the great truth distills down for use in real life, if it’s to be used at all.

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From Noah and Moses to Jesus, Peter, and Paul, the shape of the journey is the same. And in the story of Elijah, we see the full shape of his journey from the spectacular miracles on Mount Carmel to the humble silence of a cave on Mount Horeb. And what stood between those two mountains? Forty days in the wilderness… Forty days or years is not literal here; it’s the long-as-it-takes time to grow the “shepherd consciousness” of Moses, the humble anawim spirit that can recognize God in the smallest of things. When Moses is still and small enough, he can see God in a burning bush, and when Elijah is still and small enough he hears his God in the kol d’mamah daqqah, Hebrew for the still small voice or better, the silent sound, sheer silence of God that draws Elijah out of the cave of his wilderness. Lent is the church’s ceremonial re-enactment of the wilderness that precedes the new life of Easter, an opportunity to grow deeper into our own still, small selves and an Easter we’ve not yet imagined.

Nothing More to Ask

Dave Brisbin 10.11.20
A conversation with a friend who was just diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer rivets me. From stomach pain to hearing a doctor say that the metastasis was so extensive that she had maybe two weeks or two months with chemo, all in the space of one Covid-empty emergency room visit… Her twin sister flies in and takes her home cross-country to Pennsylvania where family surrounds. Best place she could be, but she tells me of the anger and depression. Wants to know what she did to deserve to die so young? She fears death and wants at least to make it through the holidays and see her nephew’s baby. She’s angry with God. Feels abandoned, and no amount of prayer brings a sense of his presence. I just listen, asking questions here and there, but mostly waiting for any cue or clue as to how I could possibly help besides just being on the other end of the line. Then she begins talking about her family—her sister and her sister’s children, how much she loves them and they her. Her nephew who is expecting a first child in two months, an aunt who is like her mother and how they spend every moment they can with her. Then she tells me that her sister wants to sleep with her in bed every night so she won’t miss a moment, not even the moment of her death. And that image of her sister’s love is a turning point in our conversation.

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I ask what she is expecting God’s love to feel like, and she doesn’t know. I gently suggest she’s already swimming in God’s love but she hasn’t seen it because she’s been looking up instead of across at her sister and her family. It seemed to register with her, and I thought I heard her relax a bit even over the phone. Teresa of Avila said that we are God’s hands and feet in this world, that he has no body here but ours. God’s love is shown through each of us or it isn’t shown at all, and any prayer for connection with God is answered the moment we become present enough to see God in each other. We can’t ask any more than this of God or of life. There isn’t any more to ask.

Practicing Presence

Dave Brisbin 10.4.20
Have you ever been with someone who was so fully present and focused on you that you’ll never forget the moment? Someone who made you feel at that moment that you were the only person in the world? Or the room at least? Presence is an amazing thing. We can’t easily define it; it’s even harder to practice. But we know it instantly when it is trained upon us. Maybe because it is so rare these days that we instantly know it when we experience the difference. Years ago I had an elderly friend whose presence made me feel completely seen and accepted, and from that example, I can only image what it must have been to stand in Jesus’ presence and have those eyes trained on me. What a gift we give when we give our presence to another person. Why is it so hard for us? And how do become more present?

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If we look at the ways we can immerse ourselves in the day-to-day areas of our lives, maybe we can find the common thread between immersing ourselves in God, each other, in nature, and in our culture. In the stories preserved for us in the gospels, we see Jesus immersing himself in each of these areas, and through him, we can begin to find our own way to practice presence and become the person who can give it all away again, leaving each person we meet better than found.

Einstein’s Blackboard

Dave Brisbin 9.20.20
Still talking about presence as the foundation of Jesus’ Way and the contemplative prayer that will take us there. When Moses came down off the mountain with God, his face was shining, and when contemplatives and mystics come back from their experience of presence, they say strange things to try to express themselves: “Run from what’s comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. I have tried prudent planning long enough. From now on I’ll be mad.” (Rumi) What are we to make of such words? When Jesus says unless we hate our fathers and mothers, children and even our own lives, we can’t follow him, what are we to make of that? Truth is, trying to understand the words of those who come back from the experience of presence is like trying to understand the equations on Einstein’s blackboard—a dense wall of numbers and symbols that stops you in your tracks with its sheer incomprehensibility.

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It’s not until there’s enough of a change in our minds to allow the beginning of a change of habit, habitual action in the direction of the practice of presence, that we’ll get our first inklings of what Jesus, the contemplatives and mystics, and perhaps even Einstein are trying to express.

Present Service

Dave Brisbin 9.13.20
We’ve been talking about presence. Presence as the foundation of Jesus’ Way. Though Jesus doesn’t use the word presence in the gospels, he’s always talking about love, and love isn’t possible without presence. Love is the effect of being present—what it feels like to be present. To be fully present is to be in love. And what is the effect of being in love? Love understood as complete identification with another is a great definition of humility, fully realizing our position as equals in relationship. And what is the effect of humility? Service, of course. Jesus is always talking about service. For him, it’s the proof of a heart inclined toward his Way, kingdom. Service can be done for all sorts of reasons: duty, honor, obligation, reward. But service done for any reason not present in the moment of connection never reflects love or humility.

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When service is as automatic as breathing, as essential as good food, it becomes less what we do and more who we are. We won’t need to go looking for ways to serve as much as we’ll see opportunities for service in each moment. And though no one will pin a medal on us for these every-moment acts of service that simply leave people better than we found them…when service has become who we are and how we’re present, no one will need to.

Divine Dissatisfaction

Dave Brisbin 3.8.20
If we are to be persuaded to try to make this Lent a transforming process, the creation of a new habitual way of living in greater presence, it’s important for us to have realistic expectation of the result. Most of us would say that we expect peace in some form, and by that we mean we want any and all hurting to stop, an absence of the pain and longing that characterize so many of our lives. But Jesus never promised this. He said that he gives us his peace in one passage, then says that he didn’t come to bring peace, but the sword in another. It’s not until we translate his sayings back into Aramaic that his meaning comes clear.

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When I was just starting my spiritual formation decades ago, a mentoring pastor said he saw in me a “divine dissatisfaction,” a spiritual unrest and longing for something I couldn’t quite define. When we look at the clues left us in scripture, it becomes more and more apparent that this divine dissatisfaction is there for a reason, and we should pray it never leaves us.

A Sacrament a Day

Dave Brisbin 3.1.20
I often say that I’m a teacher, not preacher, by which I mean that a preacher’s main purpose is to persuade, and a teacher’s is to encourage students to engage. Both impart information, but the agenda is different. That said, there are things I do want to persuade my listeners: to be intimately part of a faith community and to passionately engage their own spiritual journeys. How this is done is entirely up to them, but this Lent I have been trying to persuade everyone to use this time to try to establish a new habitual way of making themselves more present to whoever and whatever occupies their moments—and therefore to God in the moment. How is it that we are persuaded to do anything?

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A marketer says we are persuadable when someone encourages our dreams, justifies our failures, allays our fears, confirms our suspicions, and helps throw rocks at our enemies. When you think of it, these five are all included in the promises of Gospel, if in a slightly altered form than probably first intended. But by whatever method of persuasion, if we can commit to creating one personal sacrament—a simple concrete action signifying an inner transforming intent—and performing it every day of this Lent: if we were to commit to making just one person smile each day, we may be amazed at what can change.

Blessed Assurance

Dave Brisbin 12.29.19
Anticipating a new year and new decade, how best to prepare and direct ourselves? How best to find the hope, peace, and assurance we need to remain undeterred and undistracted amid the noise and chaos of another year? Coming from an unexpected direction, I get a phone call from a licensed clinical psychologist, a PhD who had a near death experience that was so profound that he had to write about it, asking if I would be willing to read his manuscript. His story stood out among other such experiences I’ve read in its sincere attempt at objectively describing what is inherently a radically subjective and ultimately inexpressible experience—an experience of pure presence, of God’s presence—yet completely devoid of religious imagery. And most interestingly, his description matched in some cases almost word for word the experiences of the mystics and contemplatives who have written for millennia.

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Whether external circumstances like illness or accident bring us to the point where ego is completely stripped, or whether we live our contemplative practice to point we can voluntarily go to the same place, there is a common experience of the peace and assurance that all is well when we get beneath our conscious thought stream that is constantly telling us otherwise and maintaining the illusion of aloneness. That is the hope and blessed assurance we need to approach this new year, the conviction of knowing that ultimately everything is always and will always be well.

The Gifts of the Magi

Dave Brisbin 12.01.19
Why is there so much depression and anxiety at Christmas? One psychologist writes that there are three reasons: the demands of time, preparation, activities, and finances; family dysfunctional issues that are highlighted during the season; and inability to meet expectations placed on us both physically and emotionally. When you think about it, we first experience Christmas as children—learn what our culture says it’s supposed to be through a child’s eyes. And it’s a perfect storm for children: from three feet off the ground, the lights, decorations, candy, treats, magical beliefs, gifts, suspense, and anticipation create a breathless wonder. How do we expect to recreate all that through our adult eyes, looking at a different world from six feet off the ground? To recreate Christmas as our hearts remember it, is to recreate the world in our hearts as the child sees it.

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This is Jesus’ message to us—that the Kingdom he’s leading us toward is only experienced from three feet off the ground, from the standing height of a child or the kneeling height of a servant. And the genius of the Magi is that for all their learning and power, they retained enough of the attitude of a child to recognize in a poverty stricken infant the king for whom they traveled so far. For us, as in the O. Henry story, The Gifts of the Magi, we see how our full presence to each other in love recreates the abandon of the child that recreates the Christmas our hearts remember.

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