Presence is something I cannot fully describe or understand, informing my life and experience even though it is beyond words. It is a grounding, a solace, a push and shove, a challenge to the status quo. My call to dwell in Presence makes me one of the “peculiar people” and may set me apart even from others who call themselves Quaker. Seeking or being open to Presence gives me hope – hope for self, for others, for the planet. It gives me a sense of knowing that what I see in the material world is only a part of Truth.
Practices that help me to experience the Presence go well beyond the expected weekly or daily meetings for worship, or reading of spiritual texts. I have found my sense of Presence strengthened by putting others first, mindfulness in activities, expressive gratitude, giving things away, physical work, confessing, expressing physical affection . . .
Throughout our history, Friends have based our lives in the practice of the Presence. Our faith draws much of its power from poignant accounts in early Friends’ journals describing Friends’ awareness of the Presence. Similar accounts have been found throughout our history and continue in contemporary writings.
I have been awakened to the Presence through many little glimmers and some big openings. The little glimmers are frequent: a flower, a cloud, a sunset, a rainbow, deep connection to a grandchild, oneness in sexual ecstasy, a washing over of deep peace or pure joy. I have found that the little glimmers are more possible when I offer myself a profound slowing down, when I choose to welcome the possibility of these glimmers.
The big openings seem to be fostered by times of turmoil, when I need to set my compass anew. I recall each big opening that has happened to me as though it happened yesterday. During a weeklong silent retreat in 1967, I was gifted with a profound and lasting feeling of deep peace, of knowing the oneness that connects self with all creatures of the planet. Sitting in worship in the Casa de Luz at Ben Lomond Quaker Center in 1969, I had a palpable and visual experience of Goddess over my left shoulder, accompanying me. In 1975, I felt a strong leading to take a break from my medical school curriculum to travel in the ministry with a Young Friends of North America (YFNA) caravan, speaking about feminism and sexism in the Society of Friends, and I followed that leading. The power of that experience has been instrumental in allowing me to hear and obey even small whispers since that time. As I walked the streets of Berkeley in 2010, fifteen months after my beloved Lynn died, I sensed a cloak over my shoulders, Lynn walking at my side. I felt her blessing in the calling I felt to leave the home we had shared on Whidbey Island, WA, to join my extended family in Berkeley.
In the big openings, I have felt a well of deep happiness, a sense of accompaniment and right ordering. Based on accounts I have read by Jane Fenn, Stephen Crisp, George Fox, and others, it seems clear that this transformational experience is available to all, including the young, the ignorant, and the “unimportant.” Indeed, these Friends’ accounts, confirming that anyone can access a life based in Spirit, are the very basis of our testimony of equality.
I long for the experience of Presence to be more constant in my life. I long for a measure of peace, for the assurance of being guided, challenged, pushed and pulled into a deep listening relationship with Godde.* I yearn for growth, for health in all aspects of my being, for wholeness. By dwelling in the heart of Godde, my longings can be fulfilled.
I feel joy in approaching and in glimpsing experiences of Presence. And yet I resist. To give myself over is to challenge life as I know it, and that’s frightening. Perhaps if I lived more fully in the Presence, I would fail to be a responsible person, would fail to accomplish all the myriad things on my list.
I would love to access Presence with nothing more than a snap of my fingers, a single word of reminder. Sometimes it comes to me unbidden, seemingly an act of grace. Sometimes I fail to get anywhere close to it, even during times that I set aside for worship. To “give over mine own willing” is the challenge. I want a partnership with Godde. Perhaps I need to remind myself more often: “Bring Godde to bear.”
There are practices in my daily life that seem to help me welcome Presence. Even though these practices are fairly ordinary, I think of them as spiritual because they help call me into awareness of Godde. My relatively car-free life is one of them, calling me to slow the pace of my life. I walk, I bike, I take the bus. The bus allows me to encounter a wide range of humanity and occasionally calls me to stand up to injustice, which puts me in touch with Godde.
Addressing my beloved as “thee” calls out to that of Godde in her. It is, as well, a spiritual practice for me to call forth the unique gifts of others, especially the gifts of the most challenged children in my osteopathic medical practice. Serving as an aide to my 94 year-old-mother also helps me develop the spiritual practice of patience. And my cutting edge at the moment: Trying to continually evaluate my speaking: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true?
Then there is worship – both weekly with my local meeting and more frequently with Ben Lomond Quaker Center online – which calls me to remember Godde, to listen for small whispers of faith, and to dwell in that which is Eternal.
Fruits of the practice of the Presence come in many forms. I have found myself called to share gifts of vocal ministry and gifts of the ministry of the written word. I have felt the realization rising up in me that there is no more important work to do than support one another in the practice of the Presence. By doing so, we find our callings, and through those, we heal one another and the world. ~~~
* Godde – This spelling is my best attempt to remove gender from Godde. Although many of us are willing to embrace the notion that both masculine and feminine are included in “God,” we all have grown up in a culture where the masculine dominates our thinking and our language. This new spelling is a reminder to embrace both masculine and feminine, and no gender. It is pronounced the same as “God.”
Margaret Sorrel is a member of Strawberry Creek Monthly Meeting in Berkeley, CA (PYM). She makes her home with her beloved Dinah Bachrach in Santa Rosa, CA, where she serves as clerk of the board for Friends House, a Quaker-inspired retirement center in Santa Rosa. Her spiritual exploration of the Practice of the Presence was nurtured through a wonderful program at Ben Lomond Quaker Center in Spring 2016, led by Jim Anderson, Diego Navarro, Sandy Kewman, and Kathy and Bob Runyan.