Spiritual Reflections

The Ministry of Presence

Sister John Michele Southwick explores having a ministry of presence.

Who is Jesus for you? What do you think was important to him? He didn’t have a job after he left home, and he didn’t even have a home. I think what was important to him was “being present” to those around him. What a difference it would make if we all could “be present” to those around us.

“Presence, no matter how it is achieved, is an act that requires self-awareness, choice, discipline, and other-centeredness. Presence is the only act required for deepening a relationship­—a relationship with God, with others, with nature, with self.”

I’m sure all of you have had the experience of speaking to persons whom you know are not really listening. They are hearing you speak but have no sense of what you are really saying. Their eyes wander, they are looking at things going on around them, looking at their watch or phone, and their body language suggests they want to exit. What is the feeling you have when they walk away? Being ignored, unimportant, not taken seriously, invisible?

I remember the painful experience of the death of my best friend. I found myself just standing in the Marian Convent community room and staring out the window. A sister who lived there came to me, didn’t say a word, but just stood near me. I didn’t know this sister very well, only by name. Her choice to be present at that moment of grief and pain was consoling to me. This silent act of kindness meant the world to me. She was like an angel sent to me by God.

I think often of our late Sister Maria Rose Kelly. She was a master in the ministry of presence. At her funeral so many spoke of Maria Rose’s gift of presence. When with Maria Rose, YOU were the only one and the only thing that mattered. You were her focus and she brought you into her presence. She always said, “everyone needs a good listening to.”

I looked up the word “presence” in the dictionary and the words that stood out to me were “attending to.” 

Ministry of presence is important to the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. While the number of our members is dwindling and we’re not staffing as many missions as we once did, the importance of our presence—wherever we are and whatever we’re doing—is vital to fulfilling to our mission.  Our IHM Charism states, “We joyfully participate in the redeeming love of Jesus which impels us to proclaim the good news of God’s unconditional love for all.” In my mind, it’s possible to proclaim God’s love only when I am present to those I meet—in the hallway, the grocery store, church, a meeting. Being the presence of God is no small task. You might ask, how can I possibly be present to everyone when I have a job to do, a family to care for, my own health and well-being to take care of? Presence is about awareness. I am aware of you. I attend to you in the moment. I take you in.   

Being present isn’t just a choice motivated by religious life. It’s a human and relational choice. A recent headline in the New York Times, March 2, 2024, by Melissa Kirsch, read, “We know that happiness is to be found in taking our time and being present. How can we slow down and stop rushing our way through life?” The author goes on to explore the bad mood and anxiety that are created when we are rushing to the next thing, the next appointment, passing people as if they are unplanned obstacles to reaching the next goal.

Today we are experiencing a sociological phenomenon that began long before Covid isolation; Covid simply exacerbated our need to communicate electronically. So many of us have become addicted to this other type of presence—Internet presence. We place viewing the most recent post/video/news as more important than the person sitting across from us at the dinner table. Our obsession with online information has become a substitute for relating to others in physical form with language and expression. We’ve become shallow in our communication truncating complex issues, experiences and feelings into a few superficial words.

This is not to say that presence isn’t possible through the use of our phones, the Internet, and social media. Presence, no matter how it is achieved, is an act that requires self-awareness, choice, discipline, and other-centeredness. Presence is the only act required for deepening a relationship­—a relationship with God, with others, with nature, with self.

 I’ve been blessed throughout my lifetime with ministries of presence.  I have received countless notes from students about the difference I’ve made in their lives. Wow! I don’t even remember what I might have said to these students that could have made such a difference. I look back and think that it is not what I’ve said or what I’ve done for them but rather how I made them feel. If by my presence I made them feel seen, valued, respected, loved, then that’s the positive result of my ministry of presence.

Can I be free enough to be like Jesus whose whole earthly ministry was simply being present?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *