Presence

JACK MYHRE

BY NOAH BREUSS-BURGESS

At Duke, I have come to really value questions and their wonderful ability to open up worlds previously unknown. In the flurry and weariness of Duke life, I have found that a good question can break through the easy monotony of our social interactions and lead us to a new place; a good question reminds us that so much is unknown and recalls us to the gift of discovery, which reveals itself as the real paradigm of life. One simple question I found myself asking friends, classmates and acquaintances in the spring semester was, “What are you learning?” I meant the question in its broadest sense: what are you discovering about yourself and the world you inhabit? What is your developing understanding of purpose and truth?

I found these exchanges immensely rewarding—I learned so much about the developing identities and convictions of my peers—but also surprisingly similar. As I continued to ask this question throughout the semester, I discovered that multiple classmates found their learning culminate in this one exhortation:

“You have to be in the present.”

You have to be in the present. I am sure you have heard this counsel before—I certainly had prior to the spring. I typically think of this guidance as important but ultimately vague. I think the notion is true—that “the present” promises much and we are often far from it—but the advice doesn’t tell me much about what the “present” is, nor what “being in it” looks like. Rarely did the conversation move towards a more careful examination of the truth of this catchphrase: I would nod, my friend would smile, and we would silently wonder about “the present,” content to settle with the ambiguity so as not to confront the fact that we might think of “the present” and its possibility very differently, or shatter the illusion that we know what we are talking about. This imprecision keeps the peace but it also leaves truth at arm’s length.

Maybe, upon further examination, we would find this wisdom to be false: would not living wholeheartedly “in the present” lead to a decidedly ignorant, chaotic, and hopeless existence, with no consideration for the past nor any orientation towards the future? I certainly become quite anxious when I fail to see beyond the present moment, thinking that my present flu will last a lifetime or that this pandemic will never end. (Time will tell regarding the latter.) And do we not all already live “in the present,” for what is the past and future but mental constructs accessed in the present moment? We happen to live our entire lives in what we term “the present,” so this desire to “be present” is in fact a desire to be something we already are.

But perhaps that is precisely what this yearning to “be present” reveals: that we aren’t actually what the most basic examination of life seems to suggest we are—present—and that then maybe we do not have the very thing our daily breath seems to guarantee—life.

The Greek language reveals that this dissonance between existing and “being in the present” is in fact a very ancient notion. There are two words for life in Greek: “bios,” which refers to the condition of being alive rather than dead (from where we get the word “biological”), and “zoe,” referring to a life of fulfilment and purpose, of flourishing.[1] There is a distinction between existing and being, which is what I believe this desire to “be in the present” points to. We exist, but are we living? As we desire to be present, it seems that something is missing.

“Time Before And Time After” 

In T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a collection of poems I encountered in a seminar on poetry I took last semester, the American-British poet expertly captures this void of presence—let us call it absence—that my classmates alluded to in the spring. Diagnosing our sickness of absence, he writes:

Here is a place of disaffection

Time before and time after

In a dim light: neither daylight

Investing form with lucid stillness

Nor darkness to purify the soul

Emptying the sensual with deprivation

Cleansing affection from the temporal.

Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker

Over the strained time-ridden faces

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

Tumid apathy with no concentration

Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind

That blows before and after time,

Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs

Time before and time after.[2]

Notice the stark absence of presence: time is always “before and…after.” It is never now. The object of attention is “distraction,” a word that signifies that we are not focused on what is really there. As a result, there is an emptiness, filled only with meaningless “fancies” and consumed by “apathy with no concentration.” Men are “whirled by the cold wind / That blows before and after time,” driven by that which is never present. Time is ever-present in the absent mind, but it is always just out of reach and we strive and strain to hold to something that is with us, something “past” and “future” can never be. There is no depth to our existence—“neither daylight…nor darkness / …Neither plenitude nor vacancy”—which reveals itself to lack life, in the sense of flourishing: we see the “strained time-ridden faces” and “the unwholesome lungs,” a picture of suffering and sickness.

From the conversations I had with my peers, alongside my own experience, I know this sickness of absence to be strong and real and it is not remedied simply by “passing through time.” At Duke, absence can look like simultaneously giving my attention to school work, community engagements, relationships, and my own spiritual development seamlessly across windows and tabs on a laptop screen, and consequently giving myself to none of these things. I find my absence begins with a lack of identity and, with an undecided self of “neither plenitude nor vacancy,” I sign up for many events, lunches, and organizations in hope that they will say something about me that I cannot. But then there is too much, and I am caught worrying about having too many things to do in such little time that I am everywhere and nowhere, lacking sleep and sense, stuck in the very absence that prompted my action in the first place.

Amidst the suffering of absence, it is this notion of “being present” that reveals itself as the key to happiness, or wholeness, or God—all those things that we deem necessary for our flourishing. After all, this is a question of identity: If only we could be? Yet, being present always seems to rest on the periphery of our lives, momentarily experienced and yet never understood, so that we might enter into presence again. It only adds to the elusiveness of presence that we prefer to settle for its ambiguity, whether by feigning our ignorance or appeasing all possible interpretations of self and the world.

It is owing to this tragedy of presence that I write now and ask: might we be able to draw closer to the truth of presence? One could scoff at such an attempt, and David Hume is right to say that those things “most intimately present to us, whenever we try to reflect on them…seem to be wrapped in darkness.”[3] However, that did not keep the Scotsman away from a life of inquiry, and nor should it dissuade us from attempting to understand this experience of presence that appears essential to our flourishing.

So, to understand presence, we first must ask: what does it mean to “be present”? What is the experience of presence, and what does that experience suggest about its metaphysical make-up? Discerning what presence is, then might we be able to discern whether this presence is good or true, as opposed to a form of distraction or remove from reality. We must then confront what all this reflection reveals about the truth of the world, leading us to the most important question: how shall we then live? I write now to map the terrain that these questions have led me into, and I hope my discovery will also aid you in whatever plight or persuasion led you to these words today.

To understand the experience of “being present,” I thought that a descriptive account would be a helpful place to start. As I had not recorded any of the aforementioned conversations, I more recently messaged one friend who I spoke with in the spring to spell out his understanding of “presence.” I thought his response captured both the general notion and feeling of “being present” that I and my classmates discussed. He replied:

“it is just recognizing that all we will ever have is now, the present moment… so, the wholeness of the present moment only happens when we are at ease with not only the external world and the circumstances around us, but also with our internal world, our thoughts and feelings, not judging or labeling any of them… so i believe true peace and clarity of mind happens when both the intelligible world and the physical world come to harmony with each other.”[4]

There is the idea that to “be present” is to be beholden only to the present moment: your attention is given completely to that moment (i.e. that which is before you, both mentally and physically) and therefore you are not focused on the cares and concerns of other moments (or that which is not before you, mentally and physically). To use a cliché, you are “lost in the moment,” though you are not lost at all; rather, you, or your attention, is to be found only in this moment and no other. Therefore, in this sense, “being in the present” refers to something more precise than existing: it implies a unity between what we are present to and what is present to us. It is a communion between our attention and our environment. There is harmony, which is accompanied by a feeling of freedom or, as my friend writes, “true peace and clarity of mind,” which I believe is the attraction of presence. In absence, we are restless, and presence provides the possibility of rest and peace.

This all sounds quite wonderful, but there remains a crucial question: what is it that is present to us? My friend, who I think provides a clear and intuitive sense of what is presence, suggests that entering into presence appears to be contingent on our knowledge of what is present. But how can we know what is present to us? 

This might seem like a simple question in our material age: it is what you can see, feel, hear, and smell. But I would propose that a strictly material world fails to account for the goodness and subsequent desirability of presence. If all that is before us is material, and therefore moving towards the inevitable end of finite and deteriorating material things—death and decomposition—our existence becomes little more than “waiting-for-death” and “the present” simply the vehicle of time that inevitably lapses into oblivion.[5]   

I am also not sure if you can ever hope to be present in terms of being one with our purely material world. If our only point of orientation in the present is material, then we are always playing catch-up with the ever-changing world, as we do not have the intellectual capacity to know all that is “now.” Anxiety then becomes the paradigm for human experience, not just because of the perpetual certainty of death, but also because we are trying to hold onto something that is forever changing. The last nine months of navigating a global pandemic have made the uncertainty of the material life all too clear; as one friend put it to me, we can see how much of life is like sand.

Therefore, we resolve to meditate on “time before,” or we hazard a guess at “time after,” trying to find some place of certainty and rest there as it cannot exist here, in the present. In such a world, it is inevitable that we live in conflict between our attention and our circumstances, which we have diagnosed as absence. Living in such a world, it would be of little surprise to look in the mirror and encounter one of Eliot’s “strained time-ridden faces.”

This is far from the experience of presence described earlier, with its hope of harmony, peace, and rest. This leads us to ask: what does this experience of presence and its goodness suggest about what is present to us? Is “the present” a purely physical object, or something more?

An important aspect to this experience of presence is that this unity with time paradoxically involves a transcendence of time: that experience of being “lost in the moment” is characterized as “lost” because you are so absorbed by whatever is before you that you forget your location in time. “Being” becomes primary and allows no space for self-consciousness, which often tends to locate itself according to external markers—such as  time—rather than to be caught up in the enjoyment of “being.”[6]

The enjoyment of “being” suggests identities outside of our material and purely immanent existence. If the fullness of our “being” involves peace, rest, or any experience that transcends the instability of an ever-changing world, then that belief implies that there is some quality of “being” beholden to a frame of reference where identity and value does not change: i.e. an absolute or eternal reality. Without such a frame of reference, how could the experience of presence ever be desirable? Otherwise, as aforementioned, presence would consist purely of change and thus betray the hope of harmony and rest that presence seems to provide.[7]

What I propose here is that the experience of presence—with its promise of peace and harmony —suggests that we cannot understand the world as purely material, nor can we understand time purely as moments come and gone, expended and never to be encountered again. Rather, we need a larger explanation of time and reality to account for this experience of presence, something that can account for the paradox that in becoming one with time we transcend it.

Eternity Revealed

To return to Eliot’s Four Quartets, the poet proposes an understanding of time that makes room for a transcendent reality, but not in such a way that renders our experience of time as illusory. For Eliot, “to be conscious is not to be in time”; however, “only in time can the moment in the rose-garden, / … / the moment in the draughty church at smoke- fall / Be remembered.”[8] The experience of presence appears to involve an encounter with transcendence—an eternal time frame—yet one which can only be accessed our existence in time. Eliot alludes to the Augustinian notion that all time—past, present, and future—is gathered and seen together beyond time in an eternal reference frame. This is God’s perspective on time, seeing all history as an instant of action. God does not abolish time, but he gathers time and allows for the possibility for a transcending of time through time.[9] Eternity is not distinct from temporality, but rather fulfills our experience of finitude and imbues it with meaning. This understanding of time accounts for our finite experience of time that we know to be very real and yet also lacking in some sense. 

Again, if we are in any way suspicious of Eliot’s belief in a reality of something beyond and yet experienced within the finite, we can take heart that the poet approaches his poetry with the same conviction. Eliot desires a “…poetry so transparent that we should not see the poetry, but that which we are meant to see through the poetry.” And yet, it is only through poetry that we are able to “see through the poetry” and behold “its bare bones.”[10] The poet desires to bring us to a place that is beyond the poem, but we can only move beyond the verse through the verse. The paradoxical power of poetry is to move beyond itself: like time, it is what lies beyond poetry that gives the medium its meaning. It is a fitting medium to communicate that “only through time time is conquered.”[11]  

In both subject and form, Eliot is asking us to consider a reality that encompasses more than the material world. This is no challenge for our imaginations but, for a number of reasons, we have condemned the imagination as false and fantastical and so do not open ourselves to the possibility of something beyond. Eliot is asking us to leave behind the “bleak reductivism of our age,” whereby everything is only how it works, and consider presence as an object that consists more than the materially perceived.[12] For what is presence but the conquering of time in time, where we no longer understand our lives as circumscribed by before and after but find ourselves in the bliss of being in some sort of transcendent “now”?

So, the experience of presence suggests an encounter with an eternal frame of reference in our temporal frame of reference, meaning that we must account for eternity when we consider what is present to us. Yet, the question remains: how do we conceive of this encounter with eternity in our present moment? While we may be a step closer in understanding the make-up of presence, far be it from the limited human mind to resolve the question of eternity. Unless, that is, eternity reveals itself to us.

A Baby in Bethlehem

For Eliot, no person, place, or thing better facilitates this encounter of eternity with our temporality than the Incarnation of God—the “intersection of the timeless / With time,”—as a baby in Bethlehem.[13] He writes:

Here the impossible union Of spheres of existence is actual, Here the past and future Are conquered, and reconciled, Where action were otherwise movement Of what which is only moved And has in it no source of movement –[14]

As God enters human history in Jesus, he is the locus of where the source and creator of all being is present to our human condition as a Jewish man from Nazareth. It is the ultimate reconciliation between finite and infinite, creature and Creator, temporal and eternal. Our thirst to be one with reality, for the communion of attention and circumstance, is quenched in this one happening. We are presented with the human existence of the author of existence, the human presence of all that is present. It is the ultimate reconciliation of being and time. There is hope.

There is another, more profound aspect to how Christ facilitates presence. God entered into the world in Jesus Christ, and we crucified him. We rejected his presence with us, revealing our tendency towards the absence of light and life, that being darkness and death. The Hebrew Scriptures tell of how we rejected God in the beginning, preferring our own agency and control to the claim that His being makes on our lives; the Gospel narratives record the history of how we rejected Him when he came into this world two thousand years ago; and our daily meditation and action testifies to how we continue to reject His presence today. But in rejecting God, we refuse that which is not only beyond, but behind and amidst our world, and therefore can only live absently, in denial of and in rebellion against the Creator and Sustainer of all that is before us.

That, however, is not the end of the story. In the mystery of His power and goodness, God made it so that our act of divine murder became the way of salvation for all. He not only entered into our absent condition but suffered the conclusion of our choice of absence—death. It is profound that Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”— “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[15] He suffered our choice of absence so that we might enter into true presence: that is, oneness with God.

This is what Christians call the “good news” and what provides the ultimate possibility of presence: that God has entered our midst and restored us from absence—“Where action… / …has in it no source of movement”—into presence, where eternity, being, and God are “actual” and “the past and future / Are conquered, and reconciled.” He conquers the past, as His death delivers us from the penalty of our original rejection of presence, and so too does He conquer the future with His resurrection, defeating death and ushering in a new creation that will be rid of all absence when He comes again. This encounter of presence is not just with the moment accessed presently, but with the redeeming Author of reality itself. This moment of presence is neither ignorance nor escapism, but really a revelation of what being is—true identity—and a recognition of its, or His, goodness. As the Apostle Paul writes:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.[16]

How shall we then live? If Jesus, in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” is the paradigm for presence, or presence itself, how do we respond? There are no better words than from the Saviour himself:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”[17]

As God comes to us, He asks us to come to Him. He doesn’t ask us to work for Him or prove ourselves to Him, but first to come to Him with our heavy burdens of absence and take on the rest He has for our souls, which is His yoke. This is the Christian life: to be one with Jesus, having His life and time and way in us. He quite literally invites us into His life—to eat of His flesh and drink of His blood[18]—and asks us to invite Him into ours.[19] As He is gentle and humble in heart, so do we become gentle and humble; as He is one and present with God, so too can we become one and present with the ultimate Presence, who teaches us true being in the thin fabric of time.

This article was born out of a question: “What are you learning?” This question revealed to me this thirst for presence in my neighbor’s soul, as well as mine. At that time, I was learning poetry, in particular how words in verse can confront the barren imagination of our secular age. I was introduced to T. S. Eliot and his Four Quartets, whose words on Time recalled me to moments of a pattern in my life that my friend might call presence but I have learned to call Jesus. I wanted to examine both this question of presence and my own spiritual conviction and, with Eliot’s help, the properties of presence have led me to the conclusion that no phenomenon, philosophy, or person better fills this void of presence we encounter most frequently in our anxious age than Jesus of Nazareth. He does appear to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and I believe this because I have come and I have found rest for my soul. 

This Christmas, with all its burden and absence, I have learned to say the ancient prayer, “Maranatha”—“Come, Lord Jesus”—with an expectation of this presence we long for. Wherever you are, physically and spiritually, and however much you claim to know or not know, I pray that you too might whisper these words—“Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus”—this Christmas with faith in presence. You need not look further than his birth, where he was laid in an animal feeding trough, to know that he is gentle and humble in heart; it is His desire to give rest for your soul.

To finish to Eliot’s verse once more, which has been the object of my learning this past year:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this

Calling

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time. 

Through the unknown, unremembered gate 

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree 

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness 

Between two waves of the sea. 

Quick now, here, now, always—

A condition of complete simplicity 

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.[20] 


[1] http://www.bibleinoneyear.org/bioy/commentary/3669

[2] Eliot, T. S. “Burnt Norton.” Lines 93-110.

[3] Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Hackett Publishing Company, 1993. (pp.8-10 of ch.1).

[4] From whatever authority my recollection can summon, others’ responses were along similar lines.

[5] Pfau, Thomas. “‘Not in Time’s Covenant:’ Questions of Time and Eschatology in Heidegger and T. S. Eliot.” Konteksty Kultury, vol. 14, no. 3, pp..251, 254.

[6] Pfau Thomas. “‘Not in Time’s Covenant:’ Questions of Time and Eschatology in Heidegger and T. S. Eliot.” Konteksty Kultury, vol. 14, no. 3, p.256.

[7] If the possibility of eternity or transcendence troubles you, it is in fact quite an essential part of our individual and collective lives. If we think about consciousness and its reasoning ability, the object of reason and reflection is often beyond time. For example, if we think about truth in the universal sense – such as what really exists in the world, what our nature is, or how we even know these things – we are engaging with ideas that are not historically contingent: i.e., these questions apply to objects outside of our moment of time. Even in rejecting this argument, stating that all knowledge is situational, one would be making an absolute claim, and thus affirming what it seeks to deny.

[8] Eliot, T. S. “Burnt Norton.” Lines 83-88.

[9] Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007. Pp.56-57.

[10] Eliot, T. S. The Poems of T. S. Eliot: Collected and Uncollected Poems (Volume 1), edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. P.894.

[11] Eliot, T. S. “Burnt Nortion.” Line 92.

[12] Malcom Guite in “Above Us Only Sky? Reimagining the Cosmos with Dante and C. S. Lewis.” https://soundcloud.com/duke-initiatives-in-theology-arts/above-us-only-sky-reimagining-the-cosmos-with-dante-and-cs-lewis 

[13] Eliot, T. S. “Dry Salvages.” Lines 215-216.

[14] Eliot, T. S. “Dry Salvages.” Lines 180-199.

[15] Mark 15.34. NRSV.

[16] Colossians 1.19-20. NRSV.

[17] Matthew 11.28-30. NRSV.

[18] John 6.53-58. NRSV.

[19] Revelation 3.20. NRSV.

[20] Eliot, T. S. “Little Gidding.” Lines 239-260.

1 Comment

  1. What a beautiful reflection and amazing piece. There is so so much here to reflect upon, meditate and pray into, re-read Thank you Noah!

    Like

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