As I sat eating two perfectly poached eggs, accompanied by three of the fluffiest hotcakes ever concocted, I thought to myself, "This must be close to paradise".
Across the street, the Pacific Ocean lapped gently at the shore, while a warm island breeze ushered in the day ahead. Sharing the table with me was my best friend, and two education professors from Chicago, who were hilarious, interesting and brilliant breakfast companions. All was well.
Except, it seemed, at the table across the aisle. Here – experiencing the same food and environment – sat four girls, all in their early 20s. They were dressed for a day of exploring and relaxation at the beach and, by their proximity to one another, were clearly close friends.
Yet instead of enjoying the morning cuisine, the natural beauty of the outdoors or even the joys of face-to-face conversation each was engrossed in the screen of their smartphone. Thumbs were tapping and fingers were swiping as they engaged with a social reality far removed from their embodied existence.
I recognise there is a glut of blogs and articles raging about the impact of phone and cyber-addiction on our human relationships, and I don't plan to enter the cyclone with this one. Yet I wonder if the impact of an ever-present social media has not only transformed our understanding of our own presence, but also our engagement with the presence of God.
Loving Like Banksy & Baudrillard
British graffiti artist Banksy painted a powerful message on the transformation of presence in our society. His work titled "Mobile Lovers" depicts a stylish 21st century couple, wrapped in each other's arms in a tender embrace. Upon closer inspection, however, we see that their gaze is fixated not on the other, but on the illuminating glow of their digital devices. Although they are physical immanent and two-as-one, relationally they are separate, alone and bleak.
Later that day, as I sat on a plane cruising through the skies at 32,000 feet, surrounded by crying children and sniffling strangers, I began to think – is God here? In this speeding, metal cylinder – is God's presence here? I know that any good Sunday School student will be able to quickly parrot back the answer – "Yes, God is everywhere". But when I am sitting in a cafe, or awkwardly rammed into a 747 – what does God's presence mean? Is God present like a Banksy lover – spatially near, but for all intents and purposes – relationally absent?
Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher and social critic, first travelled to the United States in 1970 and reflected on his experience in the culture of video and technology. As he wrote about his travels, he described a collective people and nation that end up "emphasising their surface intensity and deeper meaningless". The country was full of lights, hype, utopian dreams and spectacle – but when you scratched beneath the surface, there was no deeper meaning.
The failed quest for purpose from the modern era resulted in a never-ending attempt to mask over the reality of life, with visceral distractions and continual movement. Yet upon pause and self-reflection – beneath the neon glow – there was nothing.
The Glitz and The Glam
Perhaps our understanding of God's presence is similar to Baudrillard's experience of life in America. We seek and experience God in the awe inspiring, jaw-dropping moments, often involving large collectives and euphoric experiences of music and rhetoric. Caught up in the charm, such times feel transformative and powerful – yet when we are back into our mundane existence – when the glam is gone – God's presence feels absent. As such, we rush back into the bigger and better, never expecting that a true encounter may occur from the small voice of God as we wash dishes.
The Church of the Kitchen
In contrast to our approach, a young French monk by the name of Brother Lawrence joined the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Paris in the 1630s. There, he was assigned the job of being a cook and spent the next sixty years of his life cooking food and cleaning pots. Despite the lowly nature of his role, Brother Lawrence decided to turn every moment of his day into an act for God. He turned cakes in the pan out of love for God, picked up straw and scrubbed pots as an act of worship to his king. After thirty years of practicing this, he commented, "[In the kitchen], I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees before the Blessed Sacrament."
Brother Lawrence understood that not only is God near, but he is here. He is present in a fully focused way, with his very being directed towards humanity. Only this truth could transform a lowly kitchen in a small monastery into a space of transformation that pilgrims from all around would venture to. This little cook, Brother Lawrence – described as "an awkward fellow who broke things" – became one who leaders would travel to visit, to experience what a life lived in the presence of God looked and felt like.
Deep down, most of us would admit we want to experience the full presence of another. When we are stood up – or worse, ignored by someone who is physically present with us – our heart aches. We desire focus and attention, and the reciprocity of a deep love. For most Christians, this is something they desire of God, too. We notice it in our language – we talk of God "showing up" – those moments when we encounter the presence of God in a powerful, soul-satisfying way.
But, the presence of God also seems like a lie at times. God doesn't "show up" as much as we'd like him too. He doesn't seem to be everywhere. His presence seems to be limited to camps, conferences and churches – with the odd encounter inspired by some grandiose mountain vista. We'd love him to turn up more, but we get used to the occasional grand encounter.
Hide and Seek
In Genesis, we read of Jacob, a young man fleeing from his twin brother who seeks to kill him. Jacob has been deceptive and cruel, and runs into the middle of the desert on his quest for freedom. There, with a simple rock as his pillow, he rests for the night, where he has a jaw-dropping experience of God's presence that shapes his future. Here, in the middle of a desert – devoid of life, beauty and substance – Jacob encounters God.
Yet Jacob's first words after this moment are telling, and are words we would do well to remember. Jacob does not say, "God showed up". He doesn't tweet his experience or Instagram the location.
Instead, Jacob says, "Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it". Jacob realises that God was not the one who had to show up – Jacob was. We are the ones who are hiding, who flee from presence and raw encounters with reality. Jacob realised that we turn a blind eye to the presence of God, and prefer to live in our own world.
Just as the girls at the cafe were neglecting the presence of the others who were near, do we do the same to God? Do our lives aim to cultivate an awareness of God's immanent presence in our world – or do we live only looking for him in the big and the grand?
This summer, may our lives be open to the possibility of encountering God in the small and insignificant, in the bland and mundane, in the normal and everyday – and discovering deeper relationship with a God who is not only near, but is also here.
Jeremy is a student and Innovation Consultant (www.jeremysuisted.com) who enjoys poached eggs, Scotch eggs and Crème eggs.
Jeremy Suisted's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-suisted.html