The Art of Being Present: a Simple Gift this Holiday

I’ve heard it said that couples married for decades can sit in silence and understand one another perfectly.

These were the words of essayist Rebecca Taylor in 2010 after a rare moment amidst speeding taxis, blaring horns, and phone chatter in New York.

I never imagined that sort of intimacy could be possible between two total strangers…

But it is.

We sat absolutely still, in deafening silence, exchanging energy. And just—being with each other.

Along with thousands of others, Taylor had just experienced a private, yet public, session with artist Marina Abramovic. She had waited for hours, in a hushed MOMA gallery filled with visitors.

She had waited, still and silent, to be seen.

As the holiday season begins, filled with celebrations and gifts, I’m reminded of the simple present we’re each able to give: our attention. As an art student first watching Abramovic’s performance ‘The Artist is Present,’ I realized the power of what she was doing. It had nothing to do with the impressive MOMA gallery or thousands of silent visitors: it was something much simpler. What captivated the participants was Abramovic’s ability, as she sat across the table from each person and looked at them never speaking a word, to be present with them.

As another visitor wrote in London, ‘Even as my mind raced with all these thoughts I was perfectly aware that of all the people who visited that show I was the one who most needed to be there.’

I was the one, he wrote.

I was seen.

In those words is the yearning of each person’s heart: we each crave to be intimately known. We each yearn for our existence to be acknowledged.

What Abramovich practiced with countless gallery guests is an echo of how holy men and women have interacted with those around them, outside of art gallery walls. Mother Teresa, for example, is renowned for looking through eyes of love and emanating an ineffable impression of deep, abiding care. As a British journalist and author noted of the now saint,

I was watching the faces of people - ordinary people listening to her. Every face, young and old, simple and sophisticated, was rapt with attention, hanging on her words - not because of the words themselves, which were quite ordinary – but because of her. Some quality came across over and above the words. A luminosity seemed to fill the hall, penetrating every heart and mind.
— Malcolm Muggeridge

She used more than words to communicate God to her brothers and sisters: her mere presence conveyed, 'You are loved.'

We are each created to show this love. The Christian life calls us to reflect, listen, and communicate in ways that lead us to tend to those around us. It enables us to be open to God. God, in turn, pours out many gifts to us. Among these endowments is the ability to be fully present and to fully see the person—the soul—in front of us. When we see the beauty of the other person we are seeing with the eyes of Marina Abramovic, the eyes of Mother Teresa, the eyes of John Paul II. We see with the eyes of God.

This act of consciously ‘seeing’ is something we take into our daily lives. It’s an art we can practice as we approach the holidays, encountering so many of our family members and friends. What is the greatest gift we can give them? Our attention, our presence, and our selves through:

  •  Spending time each day in meditation/mental prayer
  •  Looking into the eyes of the person who we’re spending time with
  •   Focusing on who or what is in front of us; paying attention to our senses (what we hear/smell/feel)
  •  Really listening to what a person is saying and thinking about experiences related to their words, forming questions, imagining what their scenario involved
  •  Putting away our phone—or better yet, turning it off and leaving it somewhere else
  • Responding to them through facial expressions, like smiling
  • Being honest
  • Responding to what we hear by repeating or rephrasing what was said and continuing with our own thoughts

And when the person opposite us realizes we are completely present and attentive to them, they, like Dorment, will feel a deep tug in their heart. ‘I am the one,’ they will say in their heart. ‘I am seen.’

I am.



In being present to others, we will be instruments of God’s love to each person we meet.