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A Review of
Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2014
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Reviewed by Peter Stevens
Presence is a powerful word. It is a very simple and profound word, and in the last year, it is word that has reshaped my thinking about how the church should minister in the the world. It started when I heard David Fitch and Chris Smith speak on how the church should be present in the neighborhood. I encountered presence again when Dr. Phil Kenneson presented at the Slow Church conference. He said that we do not have anything more precious to give each other than our own presence. Now, David Benner’s new book Presence and Encounter has added even more depth and weight to the idea of presence. Benner shows how profoundly important it is for us to practice and experience presence in our lives. He writes, “the most vital and significant moments in life are moments of encounter” (xiii). In order to make encounter possible, we have be present and experience presence.
He opens the book with a section chapters what presence is. He begins by offering descriptions and pictures of what presence looks like and what it is like when we experience presence. First, he writes that, “Presence is the awakening that calls us into engagement with some aspect of the present moment” (2). If we are open to it, presence grabs our attention and calls us to an awareness of what we are experiencing. It is also not simply an avoidance of absence. “Presence can be received only as a gift that comes from openness and trust, not by defensive grasping that seeks to avoid absence” (16). Next, he explains that everyone and everything has presence, but not everyone is fully present. Humans can create false identities and create a persona. Instead of being who we are and were meant to be, we create new identities that cloud our presence. Finally, he explains that presence is also something that is beyond us. When you encounter a person’s presence, you are really encountering something more than them. Benner writes, “the clearer the presence of a person, the less it is simply that person’s presence we are experiencing. There is something transpersonal about presence. It is as if we are not experiencing the presence of a unique individual but of Presence itself” (4).
From the nature of presence, Benner moves to how we are present. To experience presence, we must start by being present. What he means by this is really a two fold definition of being present. To be present often means being in a certain place or being in the present moment. “The spiritual practice of being present involves both of these understandings. It means to be here and now” (19-20). Being fully present comes from releasing ourselves to what is happening. “Presence is making one’s self available for temporary absorption by someone or something” (24). Instead of willing ourselves to focus and pay attention, we open ourselves to being absorbed. Being present is not so much about trying to be present but allowing yourself to taken into the here and now. To do this you must start be being present to yourself. He writes that, “Authentic presence is always grounded in authenticity. Because it emerges from our being rather than our doing, it is alway grounded in reality. Being present is being real” (28). To be present we need to start by being here and now with ourselves. When we are present to ourselves we can be present to others by developing a posture of openness. This openness then becomes a threshold to the Transcendent. Benner writes, “The whole world is sacred—as is everything within it and beyond it. Presence is an act of realizing the sacredness of life and of everything that exists” (33).
Our presence can also become clouded and distorted. It is dark and hard to encounter. He describes three common ways that our presence can become clouded. The first is the confused presence. These people are hiding behind a persona. They probably do not realize it, but instead of offering themselves, they are creating a new person to be. The second is a preoccupied presence. This is extremely common in a our age of distraction. We are so preoccupied with everything else, that we do not seek to be present to ourselves and so offer up preoccupied presence. The final type of clouded presence is ambivalent presence. A person with an ambivalent presence is living with internal conflict and not able to offer up a clear presence. All three of these reveal what is happening deep within the person. In contrast to having a clouded presence, there are those with a luminous presence. Benner writes, “Luminous presence shows us what it means to be fully human–created in the image of Presence. What makes us truly human is our capacity for presence and encounter” (63). In order to have and experience this luminous presence we need to return to the source of our being and humanity. We have to find our identity not in what we do or have but in our being which finds its source in God.
Finally, Benner moves to encounter. He explains that while his primary focus has been on presence, it is necessary to move to encounter. “There can be no presence without encounter and no encounter without presence” (77). In last few chapters of the book, Benner moves from the postures that are needed to be present to the transformation that happens in encounters because of presence. Every act of being present leads to an encounter with whatever or whomever you are present to, even yourself. Encounter can then lead to transformation. The degree of transformation often depends on the amount of presence you are able to offer and Benner writes that, “The richest gifts of encounter come to us when we are able to take our hands completely off the controls and receive the “other” in whatever form the encounter takes” (84).
For being a relatively short book, it is contains a deeply powerful message. Although at times what Benner writes is complicated because of some philosophical language, it is challenging nonetheless. Most are seeking life change, and most seek it by adding more to their lives. We are told that that if we only had this thing or went to this seminar, then we could be changed. The truth is, true transformation starts with being present and will lead us to encounter with the divine. Benner writes, “All encounters—with other people, with our own depths, or with nature—are mediated by Presence, and that presence is the being of Christ. While this presence is often anonymous, it shouldn’t be any surprise that every now and then the cloak of anonymity slips off and we recognize the Christ who stands before us and with us” (111-112). Presence is such a powerful idea, but most of us miss it everyday. David Benner’s book presents us with a message that we all need to hear.
Peter Stevens is the Pastor of Adult Connections and Missional Life at Westbrook Christian Church. He writes about discipleship and mission on his blog Life on the Go.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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