Why is being present with our families such a challenge for many of us? Why do the distractions of the world make it so hard for us to give our attention to the present moment? Mara Eller looks at the beautiful gift we give when we’re intentional about being present, and a path we can take to being more present.
The lights are dim. The house is eerily hushed without my older daughters, who are quiet in their beds. I can hear the whoosh of the warm air from the vents and the soft breaths of my last baby who, though she should be asleep, sits next to me on the floor, concentrating open mouthed on her play. The clamor of tasks—kitchen to clean, laundry to fold, lunches to make—rings in my ears. But my heart whispers, stay… sit… still…
Glancing up to find me watching her, she grins. She crawls closer and lays her head on my thigh, smiling up at me. I lie back on the carpet, and she scoots up to give me a ‘kiss’—smooshing her wet, open mouth against mine.
The world and its endless to-dos blur into the background, and it is just me and her—alone together. We play peekaboo with my shirt, taking turns hiding and revealing ourselves. Each revelation is worthy of celebration, each return a reconnection.
The moment is transcendent, beyond time—a foretaste of eternity.
Presence is both the easiest and the hardest gift to give.
It is easy because it costs nothing and requires no planning, expertise, or talent. It is hard because it requires us to stop doing everything else we have on our agendas. As modern moms, that is pretty much the hardest thing in the world to do.
Even if we manage to clear our schedule, put down our phones, and let the laundry wait, most of us still struggle to stop our minds from running away with our attention. We may be able to make ourselves physically present, but this means little if our minds are elsewhere.
So often, I may be physically present with my children, but I’m thinking about everything I need to do as soon as the baby goes down for a nap. Or, I’m trying to figure out if they might play on their own if I go to the kitchen to empty the dishwasher. Or, worse, I’m looking at my phone to catch up on Instagram or emails. In those moments, I’m not emotionally or mentally present, and the loss is great for all of us.
The Latin root of the word present or presence is ‘esse’ which means ‘to be’. This is where we get the word essence. I absolutely love this connection. To be present, therefore, is to make your essence available to another, to offer your true, full, deepest self to another.
This kind of presence requires attention. It requires availability—of heart and mind. It requires a willingness to put aside the clamor of self-will to reveal the self-giving soul that God has created in each of us.
THE INTIMACY OF PRESENCE
Presence also requires vulnerability. It’s intimate, sometimes even a little scary, to really be present with our full selves at the ready. But it’s also incredibly powerful and almost magical. We can all sense the difference, child and adult alike, when someone is really zoned in and abiding with us in a moment. When I’ve been able to really do this as a parent, it’s as though our souls begin to communicate in a way that transcends words, time, and effort.
This, I think, is communion. When we are truly present with another, we create the opportunity for our souls to connect on a deep level. And, it is only when we are fully present that we can fully encounter the presence of another—be that person a child, a friend, a spouse, or the God of the universe.
“In your presence,” the psalmist writes, “there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). We all long for that connection, for an intimacy with God that brings a peace that surpasses understanding (Philippians 4:7). But, for most of us, it is so very difficult to be fully present—especially with an invisible God. He can seem so intangible in a world always clamoring at our senses.
THE PATH TO PRESENCE
Dallas Willard writes in “Personal Soul Care,” “God will not compete for our attention. We must arrange time for our communion with Him as we draw aside in solitude and silence.”
Solitude is the intentional practice of being alone. It is a spiritual discipline that is particularly important for empaths, who easily and unconsciously pick up on the emotions of others. Purposeful disconnection from others makes space for intentional connection with ourselves and with God.
Solitude enables us, if we are willing, to reconnect with our true essence. It trains us to be fully present with ourselves, which is the prerequisite for being fully present with anyone else. Engaging in the sacred practice of solitude teaches us to be present to ourselves, to others, and ultimately to God (“The Sacred Enneagram”).
Jesus commands us to love others as ourselves, but so many of us overlook the prerequisite implied in that statement: In order to love others well, we have to first love ourselves. And in order to love ourselves well, we must first know ourselves—our true selves. This means spending time alone. Jesus modeled this for us by regularly retreating to ‘solitary’ and ‘lonely’ places to walk and pray.
Henri Nouwen writes, “Solitude is where spiritual ministry begins.” When we take care of our own souls first, we are capable of loving authentically, from a place of abundance rather than a place of need.
LIVING IN THE PRESENT
By developing a practice of solitude, we can train our busy minds to pause and be present—present in the moment, whatever and whoever that may encompass.
C. S. Lewis writes in “The Screwtape Letters” that, “the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” What I believe Lewis means here is that until we can experience eternity with Him, which is our ultimate goal, the closest we can come to a taste of Heaven is to live fully in the moment—concerning ourselves with our present trials, our present company, our present tasks, our present sensory experience. That is when we are most in line with God’s will for our lives and most able to access a glimpse of the Eternal Present that will be ours one day. It is the present, Lewis writes, for which God promises to equip us. It is these present trials through which God promises to help us. When we can rest in the present moment, He blesses that time abundantly.
If we are focused on the past or future, we are not living in the present. And as a result, we are not present. We must—if we want to be present with our children, our spouses, our souls, or our God—let the past and the future fall away. With our souls laid bare and our minds free of the clutter we have been carrying, we are more able to respond to whatever the moment offers us—be it the tearful embrace of a child, the frustration and hurt of a spouse, or the whispered grace of a Savior.
WHERE GOD MEETS US
Our lists are long. Our lives are filled often to overflowing. We race from one task to the next, planning what we will accomplish, worrying that we won’t do enough, have enough, or be enough.
The present slips away, like water through our fingers. And too often, God feels distant. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It may take some practice, but we are all capable of learning to be more present—learning to quiet our minds and, ultimately, gain control over our attention, which is all too easy to waste. One way is to simply close your eyes and focus on your breath—in and out, in and out. Become aware of the sensations of your body, observing and accepting without judgement. What can you hear? What can you smell? As thoughts enter your mind, imagine them as clouds floating by, and then refocus on your breath. When you’re ready, invite God to sit with you, perhaps internally chanting one of His names or a line from His Word. Ground yourself in the present, and open yourself up to the presence of His Holy Spirit.
God meets us in the present—in each and every moment—just as we are. All we have to do is choose to be present with Him. It’s that simple and that hard.
A TASTE OF ETERNITY
It would have been so easy to miss that moment with my sweet baby girl, to stew in irritation at the inconvenience of having my plans interrupted and, in so doing, barricade my heart. But, this time at least, I was able to hear and to heed that whispered call to the present, accepting the precious gift God was offering me. Like Mary of Bethany, I neglected the chores in order to attend to something much more important. I chose to sit at the feet of Wonder and listen, to bring my full self to the present moment and await the everyday miracle of connection.
May you too find the courage to choose presence and be rewarded with a glimpse of eternity. Take that walk. Hold that baby. Savor that sunset. I promise your soul will thank you.
What are the obstacles that stop you from being fully present with the people in your life and with God? What steps could you take toward being more present with them—and Him—today?
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