Learning about Presence

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems.

My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”

– Henri Nouwen

In the last month, God has been teaching me a valuable lesson on Presence. The lesson must have begun a long time ago, but I first noticed it during the Confirmation Retreat weekend of March 9 – 11. I had felt somehow that I should stay the entire weekend with the confirmands and the service team even though I was a very late addition to the team, and even though I had initially planned to sleep at home and drive to CAYC early in the morning.

Why did I decide to stay over?

1. There was an inner voice that prompted me to be fully present at the retreat which I would not be able to do if I drove back and forth from home.

2. After an intense spiritual preparatory session with the other sessionists on the Tuesday before the retreat, I realized how important it was that we were a real team instead of 6 individuals who were giving sessions at the retreat. I knew that choosing to stay the weekend with them would enhance the sense that we were a team.

3. It was a really young service team that was running the retreat this year. I felt a sense of responsibility that I should be there to represent the parish (since I am staff) and simply to be an adult presence among them.

So I stayed the weekend. But quite quickly, desolation set in. For the most part, I felt like I didn’t know what my role was at the retreat. Was I simply a sessionist? Or was I also there as the Director of the Youth & Young Adults Office? If I was there as both, what was the role of the Director at this retreat? Perhaps it would not have been so confusing if I had taken up the invitation months earlier to coordinate and direct this retreat. But I had turned it down because I did not feel called to do it. And now, the young leaders of the retreat were doing such an outstanding job without my help, I began to feel quite redundant and useless.

I didn’t have to facilitate anything. Nobody consulted me on anything – they all knew exactly what they had to do. Even when I saw some loopholes, I felt torn as to whether or not to offer my help or whether I should just keep quiet and let them handle it (I often chose the latter). All along I knew this entire retreat was a learning opportunity for the young adults and a chance for them to really take ownership of their mission. That conviction kept me in the background even though I was dying from a lack of clear purpose and from the sense that I was not really needed at all. I began to wonder why I stayed overnight with them instead of driving in from home because I couldn’t see what difference staying over made for anyone. I really had very little to do!

That weekend, God showed me just how much I still needed to feel needed by others; how much I needed to feel useful; how much I still needed to know “the plan” and my role in it. I’m so used to being clear and in control, I felt insecure and unimportant because I didn’t have a clear role.

Nevertheless, I surrendered to God’s pruning. I knew that God was liberating me from within so that I can be more ready to serve him wherever and whenever he called. I mourned my uselessness (which seemed to be confirmed when I did not receive any acknowledgement or affirmation after the retreat), accepted my feelings, and moved on with God. And it was only after I had moved on that God sent people to tell me what my purpose had been at the retreat. And the answer is: PRESENCE.

I was taken aback when I was told that my staying over with everyone made a big difference – just that act of staying over, of choosing to be with them throughout the retreat. I was told that because I was there, they felt that everything was going to be OK, and that this feeling of assurance made them feel more confident and free to do their jobs. Just yesterday, one of the young leaders said that my presence was like that of a lifeguard at a swimming pool or beach. Although the lifeguard isn’t swimming and seems to be just ‘looking cool’ with his shades, the swimmers feel protected and assured by his presence because they know that should they encounter problems, he would be there to save them. The lifeguard’s presence made the swimmers freer and bolder to swim. Suddenly, I realized that I was there at the retreat not just as sessionist or Director, but as Ann – and all that being Ann means to them. I realized that simply by being fully present and available to them, and by being there to take in the overview (much like a lifeguard), I was playing a very significant role!

I feel like God is teaching me something of great beauty and significance. I have always had the intellectual knowledge that presence was important. But it’s more than an intellectual understanding now. I am more aware that God wants to be present to others through my presence. Sometimes it’s not a matter of whether I have anything to ‘do’ at a certain event. Just being there could be the greatest thing I can offer them.

But the most important lesson of all for me in all of this is not about Presence. The main lesson still remains simply, “Be faithful.” Though I had not known the importance that my presence would serve at the retreat, I stayed because I discerned that I should. Growth in awareness and understanding of how to serve God is important, but that is still not as important as listening to Christ and doing whatever he tells me.

May I always be faithful to Your voice, beloved Master. Help me to obey simply and immediately as soon as I recognize Your voice. Let me be as You wish me to be. Amen.

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