Once having known the presence of God, we can’t forget it.

It was the first sign of intelligence you showed, and no one taught it to you. It came, as it were, a gift of God: the smile that you offered when you first recognized a human face. What a basic human experience: responding to the presence of another. Everything changes when we realize that we are not alone. Whatever else we’re doing, we add to it the decision of how to react. It doesn’t matter if the person is friend, family, stranger or lover. Humans respond to the presence of each other.

If you’re unsure of that, think of that fundamental deception, which you’ve so often committed: acting as though you didn’t know someone was there. It’s a calculated, deceptive comeback, but it’s still a response to the presence of the other.

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Have you ever walked into a church, which you expected to be empty, only to find someone there, someone at prayer? And, seeing the other praying, did you have the sense that you had stumbled upon not one presence, but two? That this was a conversation?

The other day, sitting in the confessional, I heard someone enter the church, and I naturally prepared myself to encounter a presence, a person. But this individual never entered the confessional, and I came to realize that there were two presences, out there in the church, neither of whom I could see. Someone had come, not to confess, but to be the presence of God. It’s an interesting sensation, like waving at someone who smiles at you, only to realize that he or she is looking beyond you, at someone else.

Some would say that there was only one presence in the church, or, perhaps, one real and one imagined. One was there, praying; the other was only in my mind. But that’s the particular thing about presence. A human being knows when he or she is in the company of another.

When we pray, we know that someone is there. We respond to a presence. Yes, sometimes the sensation is lacking, but faith tells us that God is always present. And, for those who believe, noticing the contrast between feeling the presence of God and the absence of that feeling is evidence enough of God’s existence. We know the difference between sensing God’s presence and failing to do so. 

Back in the 1950s, the British philosopher John Wisdom created a parable about a garden, a spot of earth with growing things. Two people argue with each other about whether or not someone is tending the garden. The point of Wisdom’s parable is that neither debater can prevail in an argument about an unseen gardener. Is someone tending these plants, or do they simply grow that way? Without more evidence than that offered by the plants alone, the argument will never end.

Many non-believers see this as the problem with prayer. Are prayers truly answered? Or do events simply turn out as we hope that they will? And what about unanswered prayers?

Believers insist that prayers are heard, even when we don’t receive the desired response. It’s then that we talk of accepting the will of God. But can you see the challenge this creates for the non-believer? Why this sounds of self-delusion?

Still, there is no way to prove that a prayer was answered. We can’t step into a world in which the prayer was never uttered to see the difference. If prayers are real, then God’s response to them becomes the real. You can’t use the unreal to prove their potency.

Besides, efficacy isn’t the fundamental issue with prayer. It’s presence. Once having known the presence of God, we can’t forget it. That’s how we know that God is close, even when we fail to sense God’s presence. That’s the truly singular thing about God’s companionship. Feel it once, and you can never deny it, even when you can’t feel it. And the converse is true. If you’ve never felt it, talk of prayer is only that, talk.

The ending of a beloved novel will bring us down to earth. Brideshead Revisited was the original Downton Abbey, a great house full of loves denied and passions embraced. Evelyn Waugh ends his story with a strange little reflection about the Catholic chapel in the Brideshead home. The characters have all exited, yet the narrator, Charles Ryder, who revisits the estate, now an army post, during the Second World War, insists that one actor remains.

There was a part of the house I had not yet visited, and I went there now. The chapel showed no ill-effects of its long neglect; the art-nouveau paint was as fresh and as bright as ever; the art-nouveau lamp burned once more before the altar. I said a prayer, an ancient, newly learned form of words, and left, turning towards the camp; and as I walked back, and the cookhouse bugle sounded ahead of me, I thought: —
 
The builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend; they made a new house with the stones of the old castle; year by year, generation after generation, they enriched and extended it; year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness; until, in sudden frost, came the age of Hooper; the place was desolate and the work all brought to nothing; Quomodo sedet sola civitas. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
 
And yet, I thought, stepping out more briskly towards the camp, where the bugles after a pause had taken up the second call and were sounding Pick-em up, Pick-em up, hot potatoes—and yet that is not the last word; it is not even an apt word; it is a dead word from ten years back.
 
Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.
 

Arguments about the efficacy of prayer will never end, not in this world. Yet the awareness that we are not alone when we pray, isn’t up for debate. Why, we’ve known, since infancy, when we are in the presence of another.

Genesis 18: 20-32  Colossians 2: 12-14  Luke 11: 1-13

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J Cosgrove
1 year 3 months ago
I have a reminder on my IPhone every day at noon to pray. It makes a quiet sound. I often ignore it but more often than not say a quick prayer for someone. Otherwise it is just Mass when I pray.
Lisa Weber
1 year 4 months ago
Quite often, the answer to prayer is an interior change. New insights, a change of heart, an understanding of how to deal with a difficult situation - these are answers to prayer that are far more frequent than changes in external circumstances. Much of our life is lived internally, and changes in our internal life can make our external life look and feel like an entirely different place.
Bruce Snowden
1 year 3 months ago
Here’s two personal experiences dealing with being, I believe, “In The Presence Of Another.” Early morning back in the ‘80s on my way to work, I found myself in an uncharacteristically dour mood and didn’t know why. I remembered reading that Francis of Assisi used to tell his early Brothers when sad to “go to Confession!” Passing a Church in NYC where Confessions began early in the morning I decided to do as St. Francis suggested. Once inside my strange mood continued and as I tried to examine my conscience I found myself in negative prayer, asking Jesus why was I going through this confession ritual, immediately answering the question, “Because you, Jesus, recommended it!” Suddenly these words came to mind clear as a bell, “I want you to remember that Jesus Christ is your Friend and Brother!” Prodded by that reminder I entered the Confessional, made my Confession and was shocked to hear the priest say to me, “My good man I want you to remember that Jesus Christ is your Friend and Brother!” There was nothing in my confession that would elicit that kind of advice and back in the pew all I could say was “Wow!” I believe the priest himself spoke to me in the pew before he saw me, the words he was going to say in the Confessional before he said them there! How is that possible? Maybe it has something to do with the nature of God where there is neither past, or future, only an everlasting NOW. Whatever is going to be, already is, in “God-time.” Talk about being in the presence of “Another” none other than Jesus my Friend and Brother who reminded me twice of what I already knew but needed to hear again, that He is in fact my Friend and Brother. My dour mood vanished. The second experience is this. Years later, now retired, I decided to spend some quiet-time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, so entering my Parish Church I positioned myself as close to the Tabernacle as I could get, sat, and promptly fell asleep! As much as I tried I just couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I decided to “discipline” myself a little by focusing intently on the Tabernacle Door, imagining I was forcing it open. However I still tended to fall into sleep. Unexpectedly as I imagined forcing open the Tabernacle Door still half asleep, I heard the invitation, “Come on in!” I must have thought it was the Jesus talking to me, so I said, “Where, Lord?” The response was immediate – “In the Tabernacle with Me!” Wide awake at last, I understood the message. It was an invitation to friendship from Jesus, to come on in to where He lives to chat a bit, to kind of “talk things over” as friends do. But in an instant I understood it wasn’t meant just for me – Jesus wants to be everybody’s Best Friend and he wants everybody to be His Best Friend too! I believe this experience certainly placed me in the presence of “Another”, our best friend, Jesus, Who taught me that even asleep He can talk to us. Prayer is simply conversation with God any time, any where. Even wordlessly!

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