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The Presence of Absence
On Prayers and an Epiphany
By Doris Grumbach
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1998 Doris Grumbach
All rights reserved.
As a young camper in the Catskill Mountains, raised on the strict cement of New York City streets, I remember the summer pleasure of walking through the woods on a very narrow path, so small that I had to put one foot in front of the other to go forward. "Single file," we were told to walk. It meant walking one by one; but I thought it described one foot at a time, an emphasis on the smallest possible approach to progress.
Sixty-seven years later, I see that I am now trying to walk an inner life in idiosyncratic single file. It may well be that via trita est tutissima—the beaten path is the safest—but I have meandered from it and taken the via singulatim, a road of my own, in my attempt to reach what I have been searching for all these years.
I offer this rather elaborate image to clarify what it is I shall not, cannot, do in these pages. I cannot prescribe this journey, this route, this search, for anyone else. I believe that such treks into the interior must be made alone. The single track must be limited to one traveler. Its map will not be useful to any other person.
What is difficult about the trip is its extent. Dag Hammarskjöld reported in his surprising, posthumously published Markings, describing his secret spiritual life, that "the longest journey is the journey inward."
For some years I have looked at guidebooks, "how-to" books, personal accounts, advice-to-the-prayer-life works, all offering helpful hints on attempting the same expedition. They are well intentioned, I am sure. But they violate the one rule of which I am certain: no one can act as guide for anyone else. No one way is better, or best. All travelers must pack their own baggage, start out alone, travel single file, endure all the disappointments, despairs, and darknesses by themselves, and be resigned to making very slow progress. Still, as Montaigne said, "It is not the arrival but the journey that matters."
With this disclaimer, I shall try to describe my long and continuing search to recover a sense of the presence of God. The Quaker writer Thomas Kelly (of whom you will hear a great deal more later) thought that the most fundamental thing his writing could do was "bring people into the presence of God and leave them there." Of course, I cannot hope to accomplish his first action, when I have not yet found the way there for myself. So I will settle for writing an account of a journey that continues, and to leave the reader there, to embark upon his own stormy sea.CHAPTER 2
AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING
And in our sleep
pain, which can not forget
falls drop by drop
upon the heart
until in our own despair
against our will comes wisdom
by the awful grace of God.
THE EXPERIENCE OF PRESENCE
Many years ago an extraordinary thing happened to me. I have never been able to forget it. I have tried to believe it did not happen. But the memory of it, nagging, persistent, unavoidable, has never left me. For more than fifty years I waited for it to happen in the same intensity again. That it did not I attributed to the overcrowded condition of my life, and to my unworthiness.
It was a simple thing: two years after the end of World War Two, I sat on the shallow steps of a small house we owned in a village, Millwood, in Putnam County, a little north of New York City. My husband had taken our two, very young children in our wondrous new Ford to the market in Chappaqua, a nearby town. I was alone, for me a rare condition. I do not remember thinking about anything in particular in that hour except perhaps how pleasant, in my noisy life, how agreeable, the silence was.
What happened was this: sitting there, almost squatting on those wooden steps, listening to the quiet, I was filled with a unique feeling of peace, an impression so intense that it seemed to expand into ineffable joy, a huge delight. (Even then I realized the hyperbole of these words but I could not escape them.) It went on, second after second, so pervasive that it seemed to fill my entire body. I relaxed into it, luxuriated in it. Then with no warning, and surely without preparation or expectation, I knew what it was: for the seconds it lasted I felt, with a certainty I cannot account for, a sense of the presence of God.
You cannot know how extraordinary this was unless you understand that I was a young woman without a history of belief, without a formal religion or any faith at all. My philosophical bent was Marxist; I subscribed to the "opium-of-the- people" theory. I had never read the account of Julian of Norwich's "shewings"; I had never heard of Simone Weil and her experience in Assisi. For me to have been visited by what Monica Furlong in Travelling In has described, in even greater hyperbole, as "a spiritual radiance, a marvelous bliss, a noble freedom, an ecstatic sweetness ... an overflowing abundance of immense delight" was incomprehensible. But more astonishing to me, at that moment, was that I identified, without a moment's doubt, Whose presence it was I was experiencing. I cannot account for this certainty; I only know I was sure.
Then, after those long seconds, I felt an ebbing, a leaking out from me, a sense of increasing loss of the mysterious Substance around me, above me. The resultant feeling of emptiness was enormous, and strange to me. All my life (twenty- seven years) I had been filled with ideas, memories, fears, thoughts about everything I had experienced: memorized sentences from books, scraps of music I loved, visions of pictures I cherished. The space that was my mind was never without bits and pieces of content. This emptiness was inexplicable to me.
Until those inexpressible moments I had taken no notice of God. I had given His existence no attention, except to harbor a thoughtless conviction that God could not, reasonably, exist. When the sense of His presence had passed, my reason returned in the form of questions I asked myself until my family returned. But I went on for a long time mulling over the questions: How did I know who It was? Why did I so unhesitatingly give It the name of God? What did I need to do to get Him back?
I have read other accounts of such an experience, the most compelling by Simone Weil, a French philosopher and scholar of the classics. In 1937 at the age of twenty-eight (she writes in her Spiritual Autobiography, a long letter to her Dominican friend Father Perrin) she spent "two marvelous days at Assisi":
There, alone in the little twelfth-century Romanesque chapel of Santa Marie degli Angeli, an incomparable marvel of purity where St. Francis used to pray, something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.
Simone Weil was an unbelieving, socialist child of Jewish parentage who had no preparation for such a moment. She had read no mystical works and had never prayed: "I had never said any words to God.... I had never pronounced a liturgical prayer." Her life, until that moment of mystical compulsion to kneel, had been filled with every kind of affliction: terrible, almost constant migraine headaches, sinus infections, bodily pain, and voluntary hunger and self-deprivation in order to share the poverty of her fellow workers in factories and the hardships of war.
Still, "it" happened to her, as it did to me, the sense of an inexplicable visitation by an unseen, unknown Presence.
I think it was then, or soon after, that I went to church. I hoped that, in a hallowed place, and with the help of Holy Rite, I might again experience a moment of "noble freedom," the least of Furlong's seemingly exaggerated phrases.
It never happened again, at least not with the same force, with, never the same astonishing sense of epiphany. For almost fifty years I continued to pray in community. In all the welter of ceremony and rite, the daily office and the Eucharist, I would not encounter that overpowering sense of Presence. It never happened, to my great regret, almost to my grief, in any of the "regular" places and during the regular practice of corporate prayer.
Dear Allan: I have been afflicted with a kind of spiritual inanition. Church attendance has become for me an arid, sterile affair, more duty and obligation than reward. I have become aware that while my mouth was active in church, my spirit remained somnambulant.
For some months I have been reading about the experience of contemplative prayer, a practice to pursue alone. You will say, with some truth, that I am indulging my old, well-known preference for solitude and silence, my regrettable dislike of all social and communal activities and now this is extended to prayer. I have to take this observation seriously, but still, not being able to find any sense of God in community, even at the communion rail, I must try some other place, some other way. In the newsletter which came in this morning's mail you write, "Perhaps during Lent ... we could look forward for just a few brief moments simply to be." And then you suggest some activities for "simply being": praying, reading, dancing, singing. And you end with, "Or perhaps to sit with a friend and talk about nothing of consequence, or to be quiet together."
I was struck by the last phrase, because it seems to contain an impossible condition. How often, do you suppose, two persons sitting together have been quiet? For me, simply being has begun to be a condition of the mind that precludes togetherness. Solitude is an essential condition, without the distractions or restrictive unisons of corporate prayer (these words are Thomas Merton's), for the way I am trying to learn to pray.
In another newsletter I read a message from the "publicity" chairman of the church: "It is time to come together, as often as we are able, to prepare for the celebration of the Resurrection." It ends with an exclamatory "I'll see you in Church!" Corporate celebration will always happen, of course. But for me it is no longer a fruitful occasion.
I wondered if one could celebrate alone, if those words contradicted each other. Perhaps it is necessary to be with others in order to celebrate: the word, the dictionary tells me, means to "perform publicly ... to honor with rites," and the celebrant is described as the "officiating priest." I, in my needy egoism, wished to seem to be the celebrant, in a sense, to celebrate by praying alone.
I hope you will understand and excuse my absence. My respect and affection for you as my rector is very great. My sympathy for you is even greater: a charismatic, loving man whose spiritual life must be severely tried, almost consumed, by your duties as a church CEO, a leader, somewhat like a stage manager, responsible for the determination of the liturgy for an ever growing congregation, responsible for fidelity to the rubrics. Perforce, you are a sincere believer in the often onerous role you have been trained for and ordained to. How much easier it is to be the person in the pew, responsible only for the integrity of one's own prayer, but often, unhappily, having to concentrate on keeping step with unison responses and adjurations.
Too often now I find the business of church keeps me from the real enterprise of prayer. While there is still time, I must be about the journey I have started on. I hope you will understand and forgive.
Most of the faithful give evidence of their belief in public places. For them, worship is a communal act carried out in a consecrated or holy place where ceremony is predetermined, and the actions and postures of the body—kneeling, bowing, standing, making symbolic signs—are prescribed, almost automatic, so many times in a lifetime have they been performed. For many, they provide the warm security of unquestioned repetition, for others the outward demonstration of inner conviction.
Worship often begins in small gatherings. These inevitably expand to require governing bodies which, of necessity, must lead a worldly financial life at some distance from the worshiper in the pew. Religious institutions, now solidified and hierarchic, justify their existence in many ways. The most persuasive justification I have come upon is Peter L. Berger's. In A Far Glory he holds that "it is the very purpose of any religious tradition [for these words I read "institution" or "formally established body of worship"] to preserve for generations of ordinary people not only the memory of the great founding events but the possibility of replicating them in a much lower key." In another place he writes that "religious experience would remain a highly fugitive phenomenon were it not preserved in an institution. Only the institutionalization of religion allows its transmission from one generation to another."
Thus, for Berger, religious institutions are needed as repositories for the unique experiences of their founders, mystics, and saints. The past is one of the strong reasons for the existence of church, church place, and church governance. Another, of course, is the solidification and continuation of all matters of dogma. Simone Weil writes in Spiritual Autobiography:
A collective body [the church] is the guardian of dogma; and dogma is an object of contemplation for love, faith, and intelligence, three strictly individual faculties.
Since this is true, she reasons, the individual will be ill at ease in church; these faculties cannot be exercised, I take her to mean, in a social, corporate setting. She says, in the same letter, "What frightens me is the Church as a social structure."
My daughter, Barbara Wheeler, president of a Presbyterian seminary, listened to me on a long dark drive through the country, and then countered my view of the failure of public worship (for me) in a letter. "Faith," she wrote, "entails a response—specifically, that the love of God prompts us to show others what that love is like."
I accepted this, but not the absolute necessity of it. For someone like me, faith is not linear, a display, moving from the individual into the world beyond; but rather circular and centering, revolving around the hope of a hungry soul to meet up with God, for reunion with Him at some fortunate time. In old age, time and energy being limited, there seems no longer a need to display to others what the search for the sense of God is like. Church attendance for many people is just such a display, a "show" of faith, a hope that such evidence will convince others to join them.
Her letter went on: "Love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable." True, I thought. But there came a time for me when the balance fell off. I wanted to use the time I had left seeking Him out intimately, and loving my neighbor at a distance. Barbara wrote: "Because God's purpose is self-giving, we fulfill our purpose 'to love God and enjoy him forever' (as the Westminster Catechism puts it) by participating in God's way of being in the world, which is with and for others." True again, I suppose. But when I grew discouraged by my search for God in the world, repeating all the customary usages and practices of that search in church, I needed to try to find and know God as a Presence within. She went on to say that "private faith in God seems to me a contradiction, because God, who is perfectly sufficient without us, chose for love of us (first the people of Israel, then each of us and all of us) to be with us."
God with us, it seemed to me at this late age, is a matter of both public and private prayer. I had tried the former; I knew I was now in search of Him through the latter. That "faith is unavoidably social because God is fundamentally social," she wrote, cannot be true for everyone. Like Simone Weil, I fear the church as a social structure. Still, until three years ago, I made my way regularly into a church to participate in the liturgy, to affirm dogma aloud in the Credo and to pray, in unison most of the time, and silently, when time was allowed for it.
My recognition of what I was not doing in church came gradually—and late. I was not praying, but reciting, not using the well-worn words as vehicles to try to reach God, but giving easy, automatic responses, elocuting with others around me. I knew the liturgy by heart; it had worn a groove in me that cut away thought, as if the sentences were moving from my memory to my mouth without stopping for meaning in my mind.
William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, observed that in some, "religion exists as a dull habit, in others as an acute fever." To my dismay I had lost the acute fever in routine and ritual, in repetition, during the staple diet of prayer, and by what the eminent critic George Steiner in another context calls "eloquent vacuity." Perhaps I should have expected this to happen, after the long, worn usage of time. Edward Yarnold wrote about liturgy in The Study of Spirituality: "No one's spirituality is entirely individual.... [It is] shaped by public worship." I had allowed my inner life to be shaped almost entirely by the forms provided in communal worship. I had become a victim of habit and routine. My hard-won belief seemed to be barely alive when we came together.
Excerpted from The Presence of Absence by Doris Grumbach. Copyright © 1998 Doris Grumbach. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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