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Present from afar



One of the challenges posed by social distancing is how to reconcile personal presence with distance. Presence is tactile and up close. Measuring out the prescribed separation as people walk around the park in the early morning tends to turn familiars into strangers and greetings into distancings.

Woman videochatting with grandson (Getty images/Jose Luis Pelaez )

On the other hand, to overcome distance we happily draw on Zoom and other technology that allow us to be see one another’s faces. How to reconcile this interplay between distance and presence merits reflection.

My own reflection is coloured by my Catholic faith, and was prompted by the necessary closing of churches. In the Catholic tradition faith is tactile. At its heart is a God who in Jesus Christ joined our world, walked among us and had skin in our game. God is understood to be present in thingy, face to face ways — in gatherings of friends and strangers, rich and poor; in eating bread and drinking wine, teaching and listening, joking and being serious, in the pouring of water and anointing with oil, in shaking hands and hugs.

The central symbol and ritual of this understanding is the Sunday Eucharist where people gather to pray, eat and drink in the belief that Christ is really active in what they do and really present in what they eat and drink.

Seen from this perspective the closing of churches and consequent gatherings to celebrate the Eucharist is a serious business. The privileged ways in which God is present that cannot fully be replaced by other forms of presence. The expected outcome of closing churches might be the distancing of God from people’s lives.

Yet for many people this does not seem to happen. They find that the televising of Mass and other rituals and engagement with other electronic expression of faith overcomes the barriers of distance. To explore why this is so may illuminate larger questions about presence and distance in our lockdown society.


'We need to attend to the infinite complexity of the people to whom we are physically present, to the feeling of bare feet on carpet and brick, to the pockets of cool air under shaded trees on a hot day, to the quality of the red flowers and the green leaves of the geranium outside our window.'


Questions about presence, distance, reality and appearance have been central to Christian reflection on the Eucharist for a millennium. It centred on the relationship between what Christ did in his time and what Catholics do at the Eucharist. Catholics argued that Christ is present at each Eucharist both in the action which his recalled and in the bread and wine. In ultimate reality the distance between what Christ did then and now is illusory. When seen empirically, of course, the distance is great: the bread and wine remain bread and wine; Jesus lived 2,000 years ago and we meet now. But for the participants the apparent distance falls away.

This crude summary of a complex debate may illuminate the way in which distance and presence are reconciled in electronic media. When people come together on Zoom they remain empirically distant. They are not on the screen, but only images of their faces and projections of their voices. But they would be right to describe their presence to one another as a real presence, not as a distance. In human terms people really do meet one another face to face, even though an empirical account of the transmission of images might describe their relationship as one of real distance.

The quality and reality of people’s electronic presence to one another depend on the richness of their imagination. By imagination I mean the way in which we see the detailed qualities and connections of our lives and world. Our imagination can represent things and people in a blurred or homogenised way, or can catch the tactile detail and the multiplicity of facets present in our face to face contact.

The inherent risk of relying on presence at a distance is that the imagination becomes blurred by lack of refreshment, so that we see people in a stereotypical or blurred way. The lack of tangible contact can lead to our imagination not being freshened and the sense of tactile presence being weakened. Distance wins over presence.

To maintain the intensity of presence we need to enrich the imagination by a habit of attention to the tactile details of our world. We need to attend to the infinite complexity of the people to whom we are physically present, to the feeling of bare feet on carpet and brick, to the pockets of cool air under shaded trees on a hot day, to the quality of the red flowers and the green leaves of the geranium outside our window. This habitual attention and wonder will also feed sharp memories of people and events into our imagination, so strengthening the reality of presence in distance.

I leave it to others in another conversation to decide whether this line of thinking has any relevance to the Eucharist. It may suggest, however, that in a time of forced distancing for Catholics they might profitably cultivate the awareness of God’s presence in the tangible details of the world around them.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Woman videochatting with grandson (Getty images/Jose Luis Pelaez )

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, Catholic



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Existing comments

The pandemic we are currently experiencing is highlighting our reliance on technology to communicate and feel connected. When our faith is tested by not being able to sit in a church, participate in the sacraments and speak to fellow believers face-to-face, what falls away? Perhaps we are left with just ourselves and God. It leads us to ponder about what is 'church'. It leads us to ponder about what is truly important. I believe each one of us is the apple of God's eye. Wherever we are. Maybe we can zoom in on that one piece of reality.

Pam | 02 April 2020  

The last two lines say it all, Fr Andrew. Our society has long lost the recognition of God's presence that surrounds us daily in all he has created. Hopefully this pandemic with its restrictions on human self indulgence will make the world far more reflective and stimulate a new appreciation of the magnificence of God's creation. Metaphorically, the fruit has fallen from the tree of knowledge in our world - hopefully a portend of a return to Eden and Innocence.

john frawley | 02 April 2020  

Fr Andrew, could this virus be a Biblical plague akin to the 10 plagues of Egypt during the Jewish enslavement by Pharoah? And whilst those were aimed at Pharoah that Yahweh had real power at the time, they were also the trigger for freedom for the Jewish slaves. Perhaps the reigning Pharoah is Xi Jingping and the modern slaves are the Tibetans, Falangong and the Uyghurs forced to abandon their faiths and worship the materialism of Communist China. "Ongoing human rights violations in China were a significant topic of discussion at the end of 2019. The country has sought to block criticism of its policies towards Tibet, the still-ongoing Hong Kong protests, and its imprisonment of a million or more Uighurs and other ethnic minority groups in forced re-education camps. A new bombshell report from Australia indicates that the Uighurs and other minorities aren’t just being subjected to forced re-education — they’re being used as slave labor after completing their terms of “study.” World Report 2019. Of course this Covid 19 is far more complex than the simplistic plagues of Moses time but its an interesting parallel. So while Bill Gates urges us to be tattood with invisible ink to prove we are virus free, Xi is on a global mission to prove his ideology is superior to any religion or democracy. During the tenth and final plague, God passes through the land of Egypt and strikes down the firstborn of every household. But the Jews have been told to mark their doors with the blood of a lamb they’ve sacrificed — the Passover offering — and so God “passes over” their homes. The last supper commemorated this ritual. Perhaps its time to mark our lintels.

Francis Armstrong | 02 April 2020  

Thank you Andrew "It may suggest, however, that in a time of forced distancing for Catholics they might profitably cultivate the awareness of God’s presence in the tangible details of the world around them." As "the universe unfolds in God who fills it completely" Pope Francis "Laudato Si" I wonder how this impacts on our fear of and the war waged with Covid-19? The awareness of God's presence in the tangible details of the world around us surely must include our relationship with the Christ who is the image of the unseen God. The firstborn of all creation in whom all things in heaven and on earth have their being. A Mystery to be pondered and lived?

Terry Cobby | 02 April 2020  

Jesus said:''Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” John 4: 23. This is such a time.

AO | 02 April 2020  

It is interesting we felt the full force of this pandemic during Lent. Lent is the time of preparation for Easter. It is the season of the stripping of the altars, of fasting and penitence. It is also the time Jesus spent 40 days in the Wilderness preparing for his public ministry. He was also tempted by the Devil there. All incredibly meaningful to someone brought up as a Christian. Ceremonial and ritual flesh the Gospel out. It is interesting that the great Spanish mystics talk about the seeming absence of God, including what they refer to as the Dark Night of the Soul. I think many Catholics are a bit like St Thomas. They need a tactile Church. What happens when that tactile Church is not there? It is an incredibly difficult time. The Pope last Wednesday talked about purifying our hearts so we could experience the truth of the Sixth Beatitude: 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God'. (Matt.5:8) We need to press on.

Edward Fido | 02 April 2020  

Reconciling personal presence with distance is, as Fr Andrew notes, certainly a formidable test in our current pandemic circumstances, especially for elderly Catholics accustomed to the regular reception of Holy Communion in nursing homes where visiting is now severely restricted. I hope and pray that streamed access to the celebration of the Eucharist will provide a strengthening sense of participation, support, consolation, and connection with Christ and all the faithful, living and deceased, and to an immediacy and focus of encounter with Jesus and one another as the word of God is shared.

John RD | 03 April 2020  

Every wall is a door. Emerson

AO | 04 April 2020  

This is certainly going to be Lent and Easter with a difference. Catholic churches closed throughout the world. No Mass and no reception of the Holy Eucharist. I got bagged earlier on another thread when I talked of apocalyptic times. Obviously this pushed someone's button. I was speaking metaphorically. I think we can compare our current predicament to that of the Prodigal Son. Interesting that one of the COVID-19 hotspots is the Old Catholic heartland of Italy, Spain and France. Why is that? There are, I suggest, simple, current staring-you-in-the-face medical reasons which have been at least partially caused by a breakdown of the reality of their old Catholic societal culture. Porn, vile porn is so prevalent where once saints grew up. The old concepts of relationships, marriage and the family have been scotched. This has been celebrated as 'progress'. To me it is a bit like the Prodigal Son's time as a swineherd: an unthinkable fate for Jesus' Jewish audience. Interesting that, whatever horrible things are going on in the Muslim World, most of its people would heartily reject this concept of 'progress'. Perhaps this deprived Lent and bare Easter may make us think what progress really is.

Edward Fido | 06 April 2020  

It's a big test for a generation largely schooled and practised in deconstruction to be presented with a local and global project of reconstruction. With a combination of science, faith and goodwill our challenge can be met.

John RD | 06 April 2020  

It was very important and useful for those who do not know what happens to a Covid 19 patient in hospital and in ICU... Unfortunately and fortunately I know what it like to have a family member on a ventilator. And it is for this reason I have been self isolating since mid February. When a ICU patient is on a ventilator. The tube at some point must then be removed, granting the possibility to see is the patients lunges can breath without the assistance of the ventilator, which is basically keeping the patient alive during the whole process... Some die as they can't breath and some start breathing on their own, once the tube is removed. In such a straight forward scenario, where the patient does not have Covid 19, which massively complicates the whole process. Let's say their lunges collapsed and for this reason they are on the ventilator in ICU, before removing the tube the ICU Doctor is required to ask a family member the following: '' If when we remove the tube, and (let's say) your brother is unable to breath on his own. What did you wish us to do, knowing that reinserting the tube is an extremely painful process for your brother?''. In other words, the ICU doctor is asking for the permission to let your brother die, if after the removal of the tube he is not breathing on his own, or to try to keep him alive, by reinserting the tube... Yes, at that point the family member has to make a decision of life and death for his brother... Give the doctor his permission to let his brother die, if his is not breathing when the tub is removed... Or advice the ICU Doctor to reinsert the tube to try the best he can to save his brother's life, regardless of the extreme pain he could experience.

James | 07 April 2020  

A shame, Andy, that some who've responded to your gift of eloquence here, reminding us that God is to be experienced in the merest of sensuous things, have invoked Old Covenantal forebodings of doom to explain the coronaviral challenges we face at this time. I should add that, without encouraging us to breach the distantiating regulations now in force, we need to think of the example of Fr Damian off Molokai who, while not actively seeking the martyrdom of incurable leprosy in his time, went willingly to that island because he put his care of the sick and dying above his own welfare and personal protection. THAT is the finest example of courage and fortitude that we can focus on at this time, manifested in the work of our healthcare professionals and emergency service workers, who surely stand out for us as beacons amidst the gloom, rather than allusions to the smiting revenge of the God of the Passover, coy references to punitive consequences for Adam's Fall and appallingly misplaced remarks about the futility of appealing to the deconstructive process, now readily employed by fundamentalists to spread doom and gloom to extinguish the sliver of candlelight that you have struck.

Michael Furtado | 15 April 2020  

There is a deconstructive process, and it is unavoidable. Had Adam not fell, introducing sickness and mortality into, (once not feeble) mortal flesh, in the first place. There would be no Covid 19. Since Jesus Christ redeems all people from the effects of the Fall, nothing is inappropriate when speaking about the consequence of Adam's choice, as it was/is not conclusive. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” St Paul

AO | 17 April 2020  

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