In a Mirror, Dimly: Why Presence Matters

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” -1 Corinthians 13:12

About a year ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Between the crowds and the security I didn’t have much time with Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and, in truth, I could have seen it in more detail on my computer. But there was something special about walking up to the masterpiece in person and allowing the imposing canvas to draw me in, step by step.

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Art museums today stay in business precisely because a painting is more than an image; it is a material creation with a physical presence. So too is it with the human person. You are more than a spirit — you are both body and soul. Human nature cannot be understood apart from corporeality. To reject the unity of body and soul is to fall victim to what Walker Percy referred to as “angelism-bestialism.”

The only way to truly relate to another human being, then, is to accept that the other is both corporeal and spiritual. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to experience the physical presence of the other. Therein lies the power of face-to-face conversation, of the handshake, of the kiss. It’s why Dante merely fainted at seeing Beatrice in a crowd — would he have swooned at her Instagram profile?

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                    Actually, he might have. #EmotionallyUnchaste

We implicitly understand the importance of physical presence in personal relations. Despite remarkable advances in telecommunication, business executives will still fly halfway across the world to close a deal in person. Don’t get me wrong: I think social media and texting and video chats offer wonderful ways to stay in touch with friends and loved ones. Still, there is a danger in seeing them as acceptable substitutes for in-person communication. Indeed, the rise in video visitations at prisons across the United States has come at expense of in-person visits, which have been shown to reduce recidivism and aid rehabilitation. Even through glass, physical presence seems to offer unique benefits.

Just as drawing close to a painting helps us appreciate its “createdness,” physical presence in human relationships helps us see the other as a creation of God. In that sense, physical presence illuminates the humanity of the other. Moreover, it’s a wonderful thing to connect with another person in this way. A dance between two people is exhilarating because it exists on an entirely different plane of intimacy than a flirty text.

Again, texting and video chatting have their place. It’s simply not practical for me to fly home every time I want to speak to my parents. But I wonder if we don’t often fall back on these media out of convenience rather than prudence. A face-to-face conversation places demands on us: to sit down for twenty minutes; to listen intently; to endure awkward silences. These may seem daunting for a busy young American with things to do and places to be. And yet it is precisely these commitments — commitments to the other — that forge and strengthen relationships.

So please, be human. Grab a beer with a friend. Ask your Twitter crush out for coffee. Hug your grandmother. We, being made for communion with others, must approach the temple if we are to know the soul within.

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