January 24, 2023
The Presence by A.E. Borthwick
Recently, I moved this print from underneath the guest bed to the garret where I can see it from my desk. In previous homes it hung above a fireplace, but I never found the right spot for it in this house. I’ve missed it, however, and finally, with minor rearranging, “The Presence” is now a presence once again.
This print by Scottish artist, A.E. Borthwick, has been a presence in my family since I was four or five years old.
My father, who had a lovely singing voice, was the liturgist in our church in Albert Lea, Minnesota, and when we moved away, the church gave him this framed print. At one time there was a letter for my father taped to the back of the print and oh, how I wish I still had that. However, I am grateful the print has survived the many moves.
My parents were master of resettlement and within a couple days of each move to a new location, boxes were unpacked and our home was organized and comfortable. That included hanging pictures, and “The Presence” always had a prominent location, usually in the living room.
Many years later when I was grown and had children, my parents asked my sister, brother, and me which of their possessions we would want someday, and I said the only thing I really wanted was that print. It symbolized home for me. Soon after that conversation, my parents gave me the print, instead of waiting until they downsized.
History of “The Presence”
A. E. Borthwick (1871-1955) was a painter, stained glass artist, and printmaker born in Scarborough, Yorkshire. He studied at the Edinborough College of Art and also in Antwerp and Paris.
He painted “The Presence,” which is set in St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh, in 1910. Before WWI began he sent the painting to Munich where prints were going to be made. When war broke out the painting was sold to an American company and “lost.” It was rediscovered when it emerged to illustrate a newspaper article answering the question, “Is Religion Dead?” The answer given was “No, because of Christ’s abiding presence in his Church.”
At the end of the war an Act of Congress was passed that meant the painting would be returned to Scotland and during WWII it was preserved in the vaults of the Royal Scottish Academy. It had been presented to St Mary’s Cathedral in 1944, and there it remains.
The Changing Meaning of the Painting in My Life
The painting depicts a scene in the cathedral. Communion is being administered at the High Altar, and at the back of the cathedral Christ extends his hand toward a kneeling penitent. Christ is shown in radiant light. The light is so bright in the shadows of the cathedral that one needs to look closely to see the figure.
For most of my life I didn’t think much about the meaning of the painting, and I certainly didn’t relate to the setting. The churches my family attended were far more simple and humble than this massive cathedral. Nor did I think about what would make a person hide in a corner in grief or pain or in need of acceptance or forgiveness.
No, the presence of the painting in our homes meant we were home once more.
When I was training as a spiritual director, however, the word “presence” became more significant for me. During that two-year training, I was exposed to a variety of spiritual practices, including centering prayer. Part of that practice is to use a centering word that in the words of Thomas Keating, “expresses your intention of opening and surrendering to God…Gently place it in your awareness each time you recognize you are thinking about some other thought.” (Open Mind, Open Heart, The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel by Thomas Keating, p. 36). I tested a number of words, such as “light,” “open,” “heart,” and finally, much like receiving a word for the year, I received “presence.” I knew without a doubt that was the word.
Over time the word itself transformed in my mind into the painting itself. I felt the image, the meaning of the painting itself.
My Mantra as a Spiritual Practice
Eventually, the one word, “presence,” expanded into a mantra: “May I feel the Presence and may I be the Presence.”
I whisper these words to myself, for example,
- When I begin or end my morning meditation time,
- Before I meet with spiritual direction client,
- As I begin to write a post for this blog or work on another piece of writing,
- When I plan a new session for the church writing group I facilitate.
I find myself saying these words to myself as I move through my day, for I never know when I will need the guidance and comfort of the Presence nor do I know when I will have the opportunity to be the Presence for someone else. That can happen as easily at the grocery store or library as it does in one on one conversations at church.
The mantra is a form of prayer.
And now once again I have the physical presence of “The Presence” to support and remind me that I am beloved and I am to reflect that belovedness in the world.
Is there a word or phrase, an image or object that reminds you of the presence of God in your life? I would love to know.