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The gift of genuine presence

First slide

January is waning and I’ve slogged along through these winter days long enough to lose the fresh sense of optimism that came with the resolutions of the new year. Sometimes, as I walk outdoors, paying careful attention to the sidewalk so that I don’t slip on ice patches, it’s easy to get lost in my own musings, constantly self-assessing and internalizing. This combination of looking downward and focusing inward is a sure way to turn January doldrums into February gloom. This year, the liturgical calendar is such that I can do all of that just in time for Lent.


What will forestall February gloom? What will infuse hope and joy even as I anticipate Lenten sacrifices? A shift in gaze, from downward and inward to forward and onto others. The best way to shake the melancholy is to intentionally lean into life and ask how I can add value to the stories of the people I encounter every day.


How can I bring light and energy to someone else’s February gloom? How can I be truly present in the face of suffering? The older I get, the more I notice: everyone is suffering. Everyone. If, for Lent, I give up looking out for myself and look into someone else’s eyes every single time there is a face in front of me, I am absolutely certain that the Lord will offer me ample opportunities to practice the art of being present and gracious.


When I give to someone else the rare gift of genuine presence, I give them the essence of Christian compassion. Compassion calls us to suffer with someone, to enter into whatever it is that causes pain. Sometimes, compassion is as simple as walking away from a sink full of dishes to find a bandaid and favorite blanket. We know in that moment that the call is really for a mother to be still and fully focused, more than it is for first aid or insulation. Presence is the gift we give when we put aside the quick fix or the overused cliché and just sit still and listen to the end of someone’s sad story. Presence allows for tender silence and calls it holy.


The gift of compassionate presence is what we give when we know that we are all walking around with broken places in our hearts. We are all the sum of the ways we’ve been wounded. Nothing will heal the wounds. No one can fix all the brokenness. To minister to one another, we acknowledge first that God is the only one who can make all things new, and that He doesn’t always heal us right away. He doesn’t always heal us in this life. The mystery of sanctifying suffering is that sometimes — often, even — we are the walking wounded, and He lets us continue to suffer for our collective good and His glory.


It is in our ministry to one another, our willingness to be present in the wounded places, that we are made holy like the Great Physician is holy. Lift your eyes from the concentrated gaze on your own steps. Do you see someone who is weighted by a cross of sorrow, of sickness, of doubt, of discouragement? Can you hear someone who is suffering silently?


Show up in the life of someone else. Offer a meal or a shared table in a warm coffee shop on a cold, gray day. Be generous with a hug or even a well-timed and well-intentioned smile. Send a text message. Make a phone call. Give the gift of an afternoon of your attention devoted to carrying the cross of someone else.


I know that even as the fog of melancholy begins to gather in my own head, it is the call of the Spirit to clearly see the people who suffer in my small circle of influence. I know that as I begin to hunker down and gather winter around me like a cloak, He asks me to unfurl and offer consolation to someone else. And when I do, we are both warmed in the presence of the Holy Comforter.


Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018