When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord….
A couple years ago I was having some kind of argument with a freshman Hegelian. I’ll mangle his argument–I don’t remember it well enough and haven’t read Hegel–but what I took away from it was that everything in life served to advance ideas. Better and better ideas over time. So there’s a progressive view of history, but one which focuses solely on the life of the mind; consequences of these ideas, like suffering or love, are themselves only stepping-stones to the next and better idea.
And after we’d gone back and forth a bit on this, and he’d done his theodicy by saying that genocide makes us learn stuff (uh, like I said, I’m probably doing him an injustice here), I just said, “Look, I want you to go and be present to a tree. Just spend some time being with a tree. Face to–uh, bark, I guess. Be present and let the tree be real to you.”
I don’t know if he did this! (And I’m glad I didn’t use the esprit d’escalier line which hit me later: “Do you really mean to tell me that when you make love to your girlfriend, the important thing is that you might conceive an idea?” I could totally have gotten away with that line ten years ago, but now it’s just creepy.) But here’s why I remembered this scene, when I was thinking about the mystery of the Presentation:
The Presentation is a mystery of surrender to the Lord. Mary gives God her own and only child, and He–as He will do throughout His life–gives Himself to the Father. I often pray this mystery as a way of asking Mary to intercede for me with prayers about the many areas where I typically fail to surrender my own life to God. I ask for her help letting God into the areas I too often try to keep secret, private, whether out of shame or selfishness or distraction.
All of these places where I create and cherish holes in my integrity, little Las Vegases which I pretend have no relationship to my surrounding life or character, are places where I fail to present myself to God and be present to Him. Bp Kallistos Ware gets at the problem really nicely here. I don’t want to be too theoretical here, but it seems like often when I sin it’s because I’m failing to be fully present to other people, my body, my thoughts, or my circumstances: failing to acknowledge them, honor them, recognize God’s creative love in them, and give them back to Him.
And often what recollects me and helps me to be–briefly; I am so bad at this!–fully present, is some encounter with the physical world. A broken fence; the distant cry of a child or the hoot of an owl; a stain on a bathroom wall; a tree. Some sensory experience which helps me to live in my body instead of in the fantasy world I construct in my head. At that moment I can remember that the world as it is, is infused with God’s love; it becomes brighter, sharper, clearer.
Again, I don’t want to overgeneralize or overtheorize here, and I know that there’s a danger in thinking that perceived experiences or recognition of God’s love are super important to our prayer lives. All I’m saying is that this is how letting God’s love flow into me, or closing myself off from it, often works for me.
And so here is a song which captures how the world looks to me in those moments of perception and presence: