On Being Invited into the Reality of Our Own Lives

Photo credit: Sandy Reich

By Holly Porter Phillips

Last fall, I attended a retreat for spiritual directors in Colorado Springs. It was led by Pádraig Ó Tuama, an Irish poet and theologian who also hosts the Poetry Unbound podcast, part of the On Being project. He brought a deep honesty and curiosity to our time together that I am continuing to unravel several months later.

During our first session, Ó Tuama opened with a question that I haven’t stopped thinking about. He asked, “Is there anything you want to share that will help you be present here?”

This simple question opened up space for the group to share about sick kids at home, back problems, a broken relationship, and a friend who had recently died by suicide.

Others spoke of their struggles with biblical language and the uncertainty of their beliefs. One attendee shared that imposter syndrome was sneaking in, wondering aloud about belonging in the group. Some of us stayed quiet, answering to ourselves a question we didn’t know needed to be asked.

Since the retreat, I’ve brought this question to classes I’ve taught and groups where I’ve participated. I asked it of a friend over dinner and I’ve asked it of myself. Richard Rohr has said, Prayer heals our split from life itself. It heals our disconnectedness….” In asking—what is standing in the way of you being truly present?—I’ve begun to realize that it’s not only a question but also a prayer.

I’m reminded of a practice from one of Katrina Kennison’s books. When you’re in a circumstance where you don’t feel present, she invites you to imagine yourself re-entering the room. In my own life, I may be thinking about what to cook for dinner while half-listening as my daughter navigates her Minecraft village, only to realize that I haven’t planned dinner or listened to my daughter. In that moment, I find a door to the room and imagine myself on the outside of it and then “walk” back in, present to the moment.

Kennison, Rohr, and Ó Tuama are each, in their own ways, inviting us into the reality of our own lives.

For years I have desired to be more present with my kids as well as other aspects of my life. I’m able, for the most part, to recognize when I’m not present in a situation—I acknowledge to myself when I’m making a to-do list, thinking about something in the past, or when the desire to be elsewhere comes up. Even in all of that, I had never asked the question of why in the moment—What is standing in the way of my being truly present?

But now, the practice of asking, followed by naming, is beginning to transform those moments. I’m beginning to see these words as the gift that they are. My hope is that you can join me in this new practice. When we start to see ourselves drifting to another place, unable to be present to the person in front of us, to God, to ourselves, we can ask: What do I need to acknowledge to be fully present in this moment? In my life? Only by answering honestly can we then open the door and enter again into the moment.

A Collect for Seeing

God who is present
and sees.
I see her curls and green eyes, but not her.
So I open the door to the room I am in.
And I see too.

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