Thursday, August 30, 2012

Works of theology are by their nature general, abstract. I’ve been trying to marry the abstract to the particular, to my actual experience of what, for want of a better word I will call Presence. I believe that the religious--perhaps the term should be mystical—intimations have contributed to my reverence for life. My friend Ted Colson tells me that he believes that reverence for beauty is what constitutes the concept “God.”  He says, “I see beauty almost everywhere and sense that the whole world is connected so. God’s ‘justification’ of himself to Job is aesthetic.”   I have a hunch that is only part of the complexity. To write for anyone else about the Presence, I had to decide whether to capitalize the word and whether the entity is an “it” or the generic “he.” Like the word God, it certainly has no gender or physical body. In this regard it is akin to “love” or to “soul.” I decided to capitalize the word to distinguish it from other uses of  presence. 

When I was young, the Presence appeared in the natural world. Later I connected the Presence with the holy comforter and with love because it appeared in association with loved ones.  “But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.”  Faith, hope, and love seem to be exterior rather than interior and don’t seem to need exterior signs. Happiness and grief are entirely interior and have exterior signs to indicate their existence: smile, laugh, tears.

In recent art and thought, it is not a forgetting which is instrumental, but a negative theism, a peculiarly vivid sense of God’s absence or, to be precise, of His recession. The ‘other’ has withdrawn from the incarnate, leaving either uncertain secular spoors or an emptiness which echoes still with the vibrance of departure. George Steiner, Real Presences

Once when we were young, Bill and I had been fighting. He wouldn’t leave me alone, wouldn’t call a truce. I ran into the bathroom, sat on the floor, braced my back against the cabinet and my feet against the door so he couldn’t open it. I hadn’t turned on the light in the windowless room so I was sitting there in the dark in utter despair. Gradually I sank into a deep black space. It was the opposite of the Presence, utterly interior, utterly devoid of all feeling, images or thought.

I have at times tried to cultivate the conditions for the emergence of the Presence, in prayer, meditation or in the process of writing. But it has only appeared without my willing it to.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I had several other experiences of that Presence when I was young. When I was eleven (I always know how old I was for any childhood memory because we moved nine times in the same little village), I was wandering in the woods surrounding the Crooked Springs pond. We had only lived for a year in that house on School Street, the purchase of which had occasioned such joy. I came upon what I later learned was a fairy ring. In a glade in the woods was a perfectly round circle of grass with an outer circle of mushrooms. Again I experienced the Presence and the awe that I had felt at the tadpole pool. Now, at this moment, the image of the fairy ring is here in my head, but I can’t bring the Presence to mind, can’t recreate it, even though I remember that it was there. 

In college one night I walked out on the footbridge that spanned the Lower Lake, looked down into the shallow water illuminated by a lamp at the edge of the bridge, and saw a fish swimming. Goosebumps crept over me when the Presence emerged.

Later I could give a name to what I experienced on these occasions--numinous awe at the sudden manifestation of the mysterium tremendum.

Mysterium tremendum: The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane’, non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Here is one glass-full, the experience I began with. I remember the episode vividly, but do I remember it accurately? I grew up in West Chelmsford, a small village in eastern Massachusetts. Three houses occupied Wilson Lane: the first was my grandfather Luke’s house where my aunt Tempie, cousin Gloria, and uncle Chappy also lived. The second was the LaCourse’s with four children to be our playmates, then came “the Stones”--the house we were renting. After our house, the dirt lane led down a hill to a valley created by Stony Brook. The most enchanting part of the Stones’ farm was the pine woods where I could roam at will. I remember a stump that looked like a house, even with two doors leading underground, a home for an elf.

            One afternoon in the summer of 1941 my brother Robin, four years old, and I, just seven, went with my aunt for a walk in the woods she loved so dearly. When she was sixteen and pregnant, her father wouldn’t let her go out during the day, so she would wander these woods at night. She took Robin and me to see her secret place, a small round pool arising from a spring. The area around the pool was dark because it was surrounded by tall pines with brush coming right down to its edge. I was startled to see that the water was alive with tadpoles. A smell of dankness and another smell, like the odor before a rain storm, permeated the air. Kneeling beside the pool, I felt a Presence all around us, distinct, thick. I became suffused with it. Did I tell the others about my feeling or describe it to my mother when I got home? I wish I knew for sure, but I don’t think I did. And if I didn’t, why didn’t I? I gave the experience to a character in my novel  Samara, the Wholehearted.

A paragraph from “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, set on an island in a river, echoes my experience:

 “This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,” whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. “Here in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!”  Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror -- indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy -- but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near.   Kenneth Graham, The Wind in the Willows

Sunday, August 12, 2012


When you are philosophizing you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, CV74


For nearly 70 years I have mulled over an experience I had when I was 7. Similar experiences of a Presence outside myself followed at intervals in my life. Were these occurrences evidence of something “out there”, a presence that transcended me, or were they just part of my own inner being?  Before I die, I would like to understand what part they played in the trajectory of my life. Were they entirely within me, the result of some quirk in my brain, perhaps inherited and benefitting the survival of my ancestors? Or were they indeed responding to something out there, something or someone with a separate sacred existence?

I began to use paragraphs I had underlined in books that have meant much to me over the years to see if my personal, real experiences corresponded to the wise theories that these philosophers, theologians, artists proposed, if in carrying on a dialogue with them, I could better understand what, if anything, the occurrences meant.

Could the Presence I experienced correspond in any way to God? Could it be one aspect of the complexity that I name God? Over the years it seems to me to have been possible that these experiences were the way that God made himself known to me, the method God used to communicate with me. Could it be that God announced its reality in these ways, said in effect, I AM HERE?

Did the Presence suggest, after the fact, that I was on the right track; didn’t give me advice but afterwards murmured its approval?  I begin with a paragraph by the philosopher William Ernest Hocking, author of a book that has profoundly affected me.

An idea, it seems, is a piece of one’s mind: a piece so delimited, outlined, (découpée ),  that it can be individually used, handled, referred to. One cannot handle the ocean: but water-buckets-full, casks-full, tanks-full, taken out of the ocean can be handled well enough. Such water-bucket or other vessel, has known contents: it is a bit of the ocean, bound, measured, put under control, lifted into relief from out of the general wash of waters, and set to work. William Ernest Hocking, The Meaning of God in Human Experience

Friday, August 10, 2012


In March 2010 when I was nearing the end of my rope,  I began to write an essay entirely for myself, trying to understand what I felt in my heart, if not in the rational part of my brain, that there was something “out there”, something that had tried to communicate with me. The writing became an obsession. Every morning I could hardly wait to get to the computer and even occasionally would delay making breakfast, much to my husband’s annoyance. Even though I had other writing assignments with deadlines, I would go to the essay first and have to tear myself away from it to do that other work. I had no thought of reading it to others, but one night after many months working on it and needing something to read to my writers’ group, I tried it out on them. I told my kids what I was writing and they asked to read it and as I read it to my writer friends, I realized I would have to revise it to make it intelligible to others. I would have to regularize the tenses because I had started writing it when my husband was alive and kept at it after he died. I would have to explain things that I myself obviously didn’t need to have explained. Would my experiences have any value for others, or were they entirely personal, happening to me alone, and might even be false or falsely remembered? I do know that at the lowest point in my life, I was compelled to write this essay, that wrestling with it sustained me. I will revise it, continue to read it to my friends or give it to those who ask for it, and let it make its own way in the world.