Simple Presence, Simply Present

Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending a retreat entitled Deepening the Spiritual Life of Spiritual Leaders, offered by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. The contemplative surroundings at Bon Secours Retreat Center in Maryland provided a natural invitation to experience the Holy, a feeling of entering sacred space. But it was the invitation in our opening circle that most profoundly conveyed the deeper quality that would permeate the retreat.

Tilden Edwards, founder of Shalem, invited us to enter the silence with this question: "What is God’s hope for you for this retreat?" The question took me by surprise. As leaders and teachers and spiritual directors, we often ask participants what they are hoping to get out of an experience. But this question was different—it eliminated any need for grasping at what I wanted to happen; it made irrelevant the question of how I would know if the retreat met my expectations; and it reminded me that I was not the one in charge of this retreat experience. In the words of Hafiz: This was a time for me "to deeply compute the impossibility that there is anything but Grace."

Later that evening, one of the leaders shared some reflections on "Simple Presence," a term frequently used in Shalem retreats and programs that refers to a quality of contemplative, prayerful awareness of the Presence of God ... a simple willingness for God ... an affirmation of the Divine Presence which is ever loving and available.

We were invited to let ourselves drop into a contemplative, prayerful openness to the Presence of God. After a time in the silence, we were asked to simply notice "What tends to pull us OUT of this awareness?" Immediately, I could see that what pulls me away is a subtle, watchful, monitoring, evaluating, judging, measuring, critiquing observer. This observer is a familiar companion. A tendency to measure, evaluate, critique, and judge everything is something we all grow up with, and the critical mind is part of "making it," especially in the intellectual world.

Like the inchworm:

Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds,
You and your arithmetic, you'll probably go far ...

But our tendency to stand outside and be the critical observer, to measure everything, including our prayer life and our spiritual "progress," can deprive us of the pure joy that can come when we are simply fully present—to God and to all of life. Letting go takes a willingness to let go, a quality of surrender, an intentional giving over of control, simply opening to what is in front of us.  

Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds,
Seems to me you’d stop and see how beautiful they are ...

Like the inchworm, if we can let go of the measuring mind, it can be a doorway into Simple Presence …

Article written by Susan Murphy