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Eva Witesman: What if what we’re really missing in isolation is spiritual presence?

by | Aug. 20, 2020

Makes You Think

The most important lesson I have learned from COVID-19 is the tangible reality of spiritual presence and the deep loneliness of spiritual absence.

Like so many others, I miss being in the same room with other people. Sure, I’m a full-grown adult, but I still miss hugging my dad and snuggling with my mom. I miss handshakes and high fives with ward members and colleagues. I miss lounging on my friend’s couch and having easy social gatherings in my living room. I miss the physical presence of all the people in my life.

But I miss their spiritual presence more.

These days, I probably spend more time communicating with people than I did in the time before the pandemic. I talk on the phone, email, text, and video conference almost constantly. I’ve downloaded a half dozen new apps just to stay in touch with people in my life who prefer different flavors of social media.

Not only has the breadth of my social interactions increased but their depth has as well. It feels like we all know that connecting personally matters more now than it ever did. So when I talk to my mom, it’s not just about the latest goings-on at the community garden or her progress accomplishing home improvement projects—on every call, we get really honest about how we feel. When I text my friends, I’m not only asking for updates on each of their loved ones or asking if they’ve read any good books lately, I’m also checking in on their mental and physical well-being in a more direct way than I might have otherwise.

And all of that feels good. It feels socially connected. On the surface, it seems that the physical distancing required by COVID-19 is actually improving my relationships with others.

And yet, I used to feel an undercurrent of loneliness every day.

When I first felt this sense of sadness—this sense of loss—I held my children closer. I reached out to people I hadn’t talked to in a while. I used social media to cast a broader net. I did everything I could think of to do more social things. But the sadness persisted.

And it wasn’t just me. My children hungered for more contact too. They video chatted, texted, and held conversations on the phone just like me. But they still wept most days, and most days they told me it was because they missed their friends. After spending hours on video chat with someone, they would hang up and say they missed that same person. It seemed illogical and impossible. No matter how much we talked, texted, or chatted by video, we could not beat the feelings of isolation.

It took me a while to realize that the nagging sadness and loss I felt was loneliness. When I realized this, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I was experiencing such emptiness even though it seemed that there had been so little disruption to my relationship with others.

What is different, I wondered, about having visits, meetings, and playdates in the same room rather than electronically?

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At first, I wondered if there were differences in our communication—if maybe somehow the lack of body language or other nonverbal messages were missing. But really, video conferencing catches a lot of nonverbal interaction. I can hear others sigh and chuckle and gasp—all of the normal things. In some ways, these online meetings seemed even more intimate than ordinary gatherings. I was invited into people’s living rooms and basements—even people who weren’t necessarily family or friends. I felt like I was seeing and hearing everything I needed in order to counteract loneliness. But it persisted.

Ultimately, I realized that feeling disconnected from others wasn’t due to what I could see or hear. It was due to what I could feel.

For a while, I thought the loneliness was from lack of touch. And it is certainly true that one of the things I miss most, especially about not being able to physically be with members of my family, is not being able to hug them, lean on their shoulders, or hold their hands.

But I don’t hug my coworkers all that often—or ever. So why did even work meetings end with a sense of loss or loneliness?

What was different?

And then it hit me. I couldn’t feel their spiritual presence through the screen.

When that thought occurred to me, it felt deeply true, keenly resonant, and like such an obvious truth, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realized it before.

I felt lonely because I was cut off from the spiritual presence of my family, friends, and coworkers. I could see them and hear them—connect socially and intellectually with them—but it wasn’t as easy to connect with them spiritually. Suddenly it made sense that the scriptures describe the importance of “meet[ing] together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of [our] souls” (Moroni 6:5) and of “the privilege of assembling themselves together” (Alma 6:6). Recently, Elder David A. Bednar said “Gathering, in short, is at the core of faith and religion. ”Personally, I have come to believe that gathering is at the core of faith and religion in part because physical presence strengthens our ability to feel each other’s spiritual presence. When we gather, we can achieve a powerful form of spiritual unity.

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Spiritual things can only be spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14). President Boyd K. Packer has been quoted as saying, “If all you know is what you see with your natural eyes and hear with your natural ears, then you will not know very much.” By extension, it might be said that if we only connect with others through our eyes and ears—and not with our spirits—perhaps our connections are not as strong as we think they are. The Guide to the Scriptures describes the gift of discernment as the ability “to understand or know something through the power of the Spirit . . . It includes perceiving the true character of people and the source and meaning of spiritual manifestations.” Elder Bednar wrote: “The gift of discernment opens to us vistas that stretch far beyond what can be seen with natural eyes or heard with natural ears. Discerning is seeing with spiritual eyes and feeling with the heart.”

Our spirits are real in a material sense, just as light waves are real and atoms, molecules, and other seemingly invisible truths are real. The Prophet Joseph Smith explained this in Doctrine and Covenants 131:7–8 when he revealed, “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.”

Just as I can feel sunlight without comprehending how light waves share characteristics of both waves and particles, I have witnessed the truth of human spiritual presence without fully understanding it.

One Sunday several years ago, I was on the stand facing the choir seats behind the podium. I was the ward Young Women president at the time, and we had prepared a program for sacrament meeting that day. Our small group of young sisters was huddled together giving each other final words of encouragement, engrossed in our preparation, when I felt—not saw or heard, but felt—someone enter the room. I turned around and looked in the direction of the feeling and saw that President Henry B. Eyring had just walked into the room. Why did I feel him enter the room and not all the other people who had trickled in before the meeting? I don’t know. But I did.

There are other times when I have felt spiritual presence too. During graduate school, a dear friend of mine faced her final bout with cancer. I consider it one of the sweetest gifts of my life that I was invited into her home during those final days. I sat with her, rubbed lotion on her hands, and talked to her while she lay mostly still in bed. I experienced spiritual presence and spiritual absence as she passed back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness. It felt somehow—and I do not understand the physics of it—like she was passing back and forth between the veil. Like she was beginning her work on the other side even as she was completing her work here.

And when my eldest daughter was born, I felt very strongly that she was attended by angels. I felt them, for a short time, tiptoeing through my home. I tried to feel them at the births of my other children too, but I found it too difficult to discern them from the ever-present warmth of the nurses and other medical personnel who attended to me at those births. It didn’t occur to me at the time that rather than feeling the absence of heavenly messengers, I could have focused on feeling the spiritual presence of earthly ones.

Really, the witness of both spiritual presence and spiritual absence bears testimony of the reality of both human spirits and the Holy Ghost. I hadn’t realized so powerfully that I could feel the spiritual presence of others until I felt the cold loneliness that comes from their absence. And this presence and absence of spiritual closeness can be thought of as a type and shadow for the ultimate spiritual presence and absence—our connection with our Father in Heaven and Jesus Christ through the gift of the Holy Ghost.

The Light of Christ radiates, the scriptures say, and “proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:12). Every one of us has this Light of Christ, and it connects us to the very presence of the Savior and our Father in Heaven—and to each other.

The Holy Ghost magnifies our ability to sense spiritual connectedness. Strengthening my ability to discern spiritual presence helps me to bridge the separation between my earth life and my heavenly home and has an effect on my daily life and well-being. Through the gift of the Holy Ghost, each of us can feel the spiritual presence of Father in Heaven and Jesus Christ, despite our physical distance from them. If not for the Holy Ghost, we would perpetually be in a state of lonely mourning because of our physical distance from our heavenly home. Our spirits long to be with our heavenly family and to be reunited with our Heavenly Parents. In her poetic hymn “O My Father,” Eliza R. Snow expresses this longing beautifully:

  • “O my Father, thou that dwellest
  • In the high and glorious place,
  • When shall I regain thy presence
  • And again behold thy face?”

My new understanding of spiritual presence gives me greater confidence for when I get to be physically near my Savior again. I will feel his presence with such surety, such familiarity, that I will not need to see His face or hear His words, because I will feel the bond of the Atonement in His very being. I can imagine the thrill of spiritual closeness that each of us will experience when Christ speaks and, though we have never before heard it in the flesh, we will “know his voice.” (John 10:4). This provides deep comfort as I ponder and look forward to the fulfillment of Elder Bednar’s promise that being “‘encircled about eternally in the arms of his love’ (2 Nephi 1:15) will be a real and not a virtual experience.”

How then, as we await the opportunity to hug and hold and be present with our friends and family—and as we await the opportunity to do so with our Savior and Father in Heaven again—do we regain our sense of spiritual closeness? How do we spiritually connect with friends, family, and the heavens? Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf suggested the remedy: “Through prayer, we can be spiritually and socially close to Heavenly Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and to our families and friends wherever we are and whatever the circumstances may be.”

During this time of separation, I have begun to focus not only on social and physical connectedness with others, but spiritual connectedness as well. I have found that as I seek this gift, I am more able to sense the Light of Christ that is in and around all of us, binding us together. I still feel lonely sometimes, and I still feel more connected when I can be in physical proximity with others. But just knowing that there is another, deeper, more powerful way of being connected—more powerful than any cell phone connection or social media thread—has helped me to deepen the spiritual power of my relationships with others, including my Savior and Father in Heaven.

Featured image: Courtesy of Eva Witesman
Eva witesman bio photo

Eva Witesman

After receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah in 2002, Eva Witesman wanted to continue on to graduate school but was torn between her desires to further her education and to focus on motherhood. Following a prompting, she continued her education and received her MPA from Indiana University in 2004. After a hiatus—during which her husband, Owen, interned in Finland—she continued her education at IU and received her PhD in public management and policy analysis.


Witesman, an expert in evidence-based innovation and strategy, became a full-time professor of public management at the BYU Marriott School of Business in 2009. She teaches graduate classes and coordinates student-driven projects like GoodMeasure - program assessment and evaluation for dozens of local nonprofits, and Creating the Virtuous Organization - a series of classes, ongoing qualitative research, and community conversations based on how companies can be good, not just do good. Eva and Owen Witesman have four children, who, she says, are “individually and collectively the central joy of my life.”

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