Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Present of Presence

Bulletin Column for December 8, 2019

            Our Orthodox Jewish brothers and sisters are quite strict in keeping the Sabbath. They take God’s command to “not work on the Sabbath” quite literally. On the Sabbath, they are forbidden from using cars, looking at their iPhones, cooking, or even pressing the buttons on an elevator (an elevator in a Jewish apartment building will stop on every floor on Saturdays!).
            I have always thought this was extreme and nonsensical. Wasn’t it less work to drive your car to synagogue than to walk – often in bad weather?
            But a couple weeks ago, I got the chance to ask a rabbi about it at Congregation Agudath Shalom here in Stamford. His explanation was so insightful that I now understand why they practice such restrictions on the Sabbath.
            Rabbi Cohen explained that the point of the Sabbath is to be present to the people around you. The Sabbath should be a time of reconnecting to God and reconnecting with your family and neighbors. Cars, the Internet, and manual labor can take us away from the people around us; they can distract us from God; they can make us more concerned about things happening halfway across the state or the globe instead of in our very homes and neighborhoods.
            How true that is! How many times have we gone out to a restaurant to see a family sitting around the table, each lost in their own screens? How many times have we driven like maniacs to get somewhere while ignoring the people in the car with us?
            Presence – it is such an important, and rare, gift in today’s society. As Simone Weil put it, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” There’s a powerful scene in the new movie about Mr. Rogers (called “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) where Mr. Rogers is speaking to a reporter. The timeless children’s show host asks, “Do you know what the most important thing right now in the world to me is?” The journalist asks what it could possibly be, and Mr. Rogers replies, “Talking to you.”
            This is the season where we spend endless hours buying presents – but the best present is your presence. Personally I would rather receive an hour of someone’s time than yet another gift card to Dunkin Donuts.
            We live in the richest country in the world – then why is it that the suicide rate has gone up 20% in the last twenty years (and the second leading cause of death among teens)? Perhaps it’s because we have enough presents but not enough presence – we have everything money can buy, but not enough of what is truly valuable.
            And this is doubly true when it comes to God. Prayer was once defined as “wasting time with the Lord” (said Henri Nouwen). It is not about “doing” something for God or writing a check to the Church – He ultimately desires our presence. It is no surprise that the most intense way in which God is close to us, in the Holy Eucharist, is often called the “Real Presence” – because it is Him, present to us. He is always available, never distracted. And we should give Him that same loving attention in our prayer life.
            So, I encourage you this month to work on giving presence instead of presents. Give people your time, not your money. Give God your attention, not your frantic and distracted scraps of time. Resist the temptation that says that you “need” to buy something for “everyone on your list”. No, we don’t. We could, instead, give them the gift of time, of attention, of our very self.

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