This fall my mentor, Amy, and I walk on the trails nearing a waterfall at Starved Rock State Park in southern Illinois. The trees are painted in the colors of pears and moonlight and homemade stew.The paths are muddy from recent storms. At precarious stretches we’re forced to walk grassy edges to keep our boots clean. We’re at a chaplain’s day retreat. During a long break in the afternoon; we decide to take this walk.
She – a supervisor of chaplains – tells stories to me, something she’s crazily good at. I’m rapt, nearly entranced, by her tales of level one traumas, the soul-deep transformations of her students, and the inviting way she theologizes around all of life’s losses and sometimes difficult surprises. We get to the overlook bridge by the falls. Amy says, “Presence is an elusive thing.” I say, “Yes. It’s impossibly slippery.” We stand in a rare moment of speechlessness hearing only the crashing of the water on mossy rocks in the river beneath the waterfall. “What does the ministry of presence really mean, anyway?” I ask her.
She looks at me, and smiles. “You know what it means, Sal,” she says.I smile back at her. But I do not know.
For centuries people have been trying to see God, to experience the presence of God. Moses, in the book of Exodus, tells God, “Now show me your glory.” As if trying to prove to Moses that divine presence is not limited to a certain shrine, sanctuary, or other spot, God says, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence . . . But, you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then, God shows Moses his back. God will not be restricted to showing his face the way we hope or expect or demand. God – through the trickiness of paradox – can simultaneously be hidden and revealed, absent and accessible . . . exposed and elusive. Through years of being a chaplain, I have realized, that God sometimes shows up in a hospital room disguised beneath the tears of a crying sister, inside the hugs of a worried father, or in the care of a monitor checking nurse . . . and sometimes, God shows up in someone like you, or even a middle aged mom like me.
One of my favorite poets, John O’Donohue – in a poem titled ‘absence’ – writes, “may you know that absence is full of tender presence and that nothing is ever lost or forgotten . . . may the absences in your life be full of eternal echo.” He takes a swing at my dualistic mindset in which I believe feelings of absence or abandonment mean that God isn’t with me. Later in the poem, he invites the reader, he invites you and me, to be embraced by God ‘in whom dawn and twilight are one.’ This is hard to imagine. Yet, I want to believe, especially because …
This June, Amy died after a long and arduous journey with cancer. At the hospital, in Spiritual Care meetings, on chaplain retreats, I miss her terribly. Her absence from this place of healing leaves me bereft of her mischievous laughter, her perspicacious insights, absent of her presence. Today I found her writing on some didactics for students. Her teaching and mentoring and challenges are all over the paperwork that clutters my desk. Seeing proof of her presence simultaneously stings and heals. Without her supportive and companioning bodily presence I sometimes feel alone and afraid.
In so many ways she is absent. Yet, I hear her saying to me, again, “You know what presence is, Sal.” And, I wonder if maybe, just maybe I do know. Because of Amy, I know that presence is honoring someone right where they are. It’s being in the mucky muck of life with someone. It’s releasing assumptions and agendas and erroneous first impressions. It’s asking a good question and being okay if there’s no answer . . . yet. It’s staying connected but not getting sucked into a drama. It’s opening our eyes to God, however God chooses to be present in each moment, in each cry, in each breath. And, it’s knowing that presence is more, so much more than seeing the face of God or the face of a friend. Amy’s absence reminds me of Jesus’ words to his closest friends after rising from the dead and just before he ascends into Heaven, “Surely, I’m with you always even to the end of the age.” As I think about his words, I think about the ways Amy has taught me to be present; and I know that the eternal echo of her will always be with me.
CONNECTIONS: Living Presence
If, like me, you’re hoping to be more present to God, yourself and others, consider experimenting with the following contemplative, playful and creative exercises:
- Draw a line down a piece of paper or a blank canvas. On the left side of the paper, paint a picture or scribble a doodle portraying what it looks like when God is present in your life. On the right side, portray what it looks like when God is absent. Let the artwork rest for a day or two, or even a week. Then, add lines and shapes and images that connect both sides of the painting.
- Take a long walk. Just walk with no agenda. Take your time. Don’t rush. As you walk be present to yourself. Notice your feelings, take an inventory of your thoughts. Be kind to yourself and compassionate. When you get home, take time to journal about the experience.
- Remember a time when God, a friend, or family member was with you, truly present to you. Imagine the smells, sights, emotions, sounds, feelings relating to that moment. Dwell in it. Remember what it is like to be surrounded in presence. Offer a prayer of gratitude for this moment. Then, when you’re ready, offer that kind of presence to someone else who needs it