Practicing the Presence of People

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The phrase, “practicing the presence of God” was coined by Brother Lawrence (birth name, Nicholas Hermon), a 17th century Carmelite monk. Dissatisfied with his life in the world, Nicholas joined the Carmelites as a lay brother, which meant that he was part of the work force that allowed the rest of the community to study, teach, preach, and copy manuscripts.

Though he had no natural inclination for such work (in the kitchen), he figured it was God’s way of training him to learn discipline. But more – he later found new meaning and joy in such work when he consciously decided to do everything out of his love for God. He began to “practice the presence of God” in life’s little duties, i.e., sensed God’s involvement and pleasure, which in turn made a marked difference in his service and spiritual transformation.

Drawing on the phrase coined by Brother Lawrence, Mike Mason has written a book entitled, “Practicing the Presence of People,” of which this reflection has taken its cue (and title!). The importance of practicing the presence of people stems not only from the fact that it is God’s command to love one another, but that people reflect the presence and glory of God in the world. Mason writes, “The Lord has many other ways of being present; indeed, He is everywhere. But nowhere is His presence nearer or more glorious than in human beings” (pg. 17).

The need is also great: “There’s too little love in our world, too little genuine friendship, too little real connectedness and community. I think there is great value in the question, “How do we learn to love?  For we are not born with love; it is something we must learn” (pg. 4). Mason shares his own journey: “I, Mike Mason, lonely egoist, became a people person! From someone who had spent his life hiding from people in everything from books to nature to religion, I’ve become someone who sees God and touches reality most intimately through people” (pg. 4).

How then, do we learn to love people and practice their presence? Mason contends that it is not so much the matter of following certain techniques but of the opening of the heart. He says that one possible reason why we feel bored or trapped in our relationships is because we are trying to relate with others out of our mind rather than our heart: “The mind can function more or less on its own in a closed system of self-centered thought. But the heart requires bonding with others” (pg. 34).

Mason also contends that the key to practicing the presence of people is “looking and listening.”  In looking, we see people as they are, and that’s only possible when we first learn to reveal ourselves to them. He breaks down the word, “intimacy” into a little phrase “in-to-me-see,” and says: Isn’t it true that we see only as much of others as we reveal of ourselves? (pg. 132).

He continues: Instead of seeing people, we’re good at keeping them just out of focus, looking past or through them, avoiding direct looks, never touching anyone with our eyes. How cold and alienating this is! Why do we do it? Because this way, we do not have to care (pg. 133).

Paul Tillich, a well-known theologian once said: “The first duty of love is to listen.” Mason concurs and adds: The person who does not listen to others does not listen to God either. He continues: Good listening is a matter of becoming empty before people so as to sense when to speak, when not to, and how.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic, Life Together, echoes Tillich’s and Mason’s point: He says: Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening. But he who can not longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either (pgs. 97/98)

We meet people every day. May we value each encounter and “practice the presence of people.”

Danny Goh