1992 – Ralph Harper

The 1992 winner Ralph Harper, wrote an insightful and timely essay on the meaning and experience of “presence.” It is timely because, as Harper sees so clearly, ours is an age longing for deep and lasting relationships, between people and with divine transcendence.

Intuitively, we know the importance and personal significance of being present for another, being available, to share the uniqueness of someone who is, at one time, other than I am yet a self like I am. Parents, lovers, teachers, and good friends experience the mysterious fullness of presence in human relationships in which whole is offered to whole, where one human being is fully present and openly engaged with another. In our splintered, individualistic, often superficial occasions for human interaction in our society the rare and rewarding experience of complete availability of one person to another is life-giving mystery, and in Harper’s view, an authentic instance of transcendent presence.

Harper’s careful, complex, articulate reflection of this experience of presence promises to help bring that experience closer for the reader, in order to invite our own participation. Harper urges us to see transcendent presence in the experience of availability to another. His book itself becomes an experience through which he makes himself and a variety of important philosophical and literary contributors to understanding presence available to his readers and, thus, in a fresh new way to our time.

“On Presence” invites us to see the transcendent and religious dimensions of ordinary, everyday reality. Harper observes, “There are ordinary mysteries in everyday life” (p. 48). Using the literature of Proust to reflect the present experience of presence, he writes, “No fiction is more sensuous than Proust’s, or more physical. Instead of pretending that transient reality only reflects timeless reality, as Plato would, he rejoices in his discovery that the real and the ideal can be one and the same. The true world and the real self turn out to be the very world that traditional metaphysics is thought to be in a hurry to get beyond. For Proust, universals and particulars are not opposed; they turn out to be the same” (p. 64).

Thus Harper offers us an opportunity to overcome the otherworldliness of some religious straining for presence and, simultaneously, the isolation of philosophical despair that abandons any effort to experience Being itself. Harper’s work is hopeful , believing that “Human beings really do have some talent for surprising and exceeding themselves” (p. 127). A promising place to begin again is with these meditative chapters on presence.

“Presence” is finally a well-known and longed-for experience with God, which is simultaneously difficult to capture in words. Let the final word here be the author’s: “What do I mean by presence? I can say this. When I am moved by a painting or by music, by clouds passing in a clear night sky, by the soughing of pines in early spring, I feel the distance between me and art and nature dissolve to some degree, and I feel at ease. I then feel that there is, briefly, no past and no future, and I am content… And when I think of someone I really care for, I feel an exchange of understanding and acceptance that is the measure of love. This is how the saints feel about God. . .” (p. 6).