Friday, March 25, 2022

Everyday Annunciations

As we mark the Solemnity of the Annunciation, my latest column for the Global Sisters Report reminds us that God is always reaching out, trying to get our attention. These everyday annunciations can transform our hearts time and again if we take the time to listen. I hope this day that you pay attention to where the light is trying to break in or at least remember the annunciations of your life that remind you that God has spoken and will continue to speak to you. Enjoy!

 

For years, I would buy a ticket to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for one thing and one thing only: "The Annunciation."

Ticket in hand, I would wind my way down the art-lined hallways of the museum to a gallery deep in the bowels of the American art wing. At times, it felt like I was making my way to the center of the earth, past presidential china and countless still life paintings, quilts and western landscapes, until I turned the corner into a gallery with raised ceilings and a few flat wooden benches.

And there it was: Henry Ossawa Tanner's "The Annunciation."

Sitting on the bench directly in front of the massive painting (over 6 feet tall and 7 feet wide), I would simply gaze on the glimmering canvas. On it, an adolescent girl in the humble dress of a peasant sits reservedly among the crumpled sheets of her bed. Clasping her hands, she looks at the beam of light before her. Her eyes reflect its glow, which illuminates the whole room with a gentle warmth. She has no halo, no shoes and, seemingly, no fear. This young Mary sits and looks intently. Her eyes are fixed on the light that we come to realize is Gabriel. The moment is sacred and still, speaking volumes.

From my seat on the bench, I would scan every inch of the painting. What, God, are you trying to say? What must she have felt, said, heard? Instinctively my hands would come together like Mary's, my fingers intertwining with hers in prayer. Were you scared or startled? Had you known all along there was something more meant for you? Was Gabriel's voice familiar like one you had heard a thousand times before? The light and its glow, a gentle reminder of the God who filled every day of your young life?

Shifting my focus from the light to Mary and back again, the minutes would fade into hours as my prayers filled the sanctuary of the gallery. Before I became a sister, this sacred space could hold the questions of "what if," and after I had entered into the process, there was a clandestine comfort in being hidden away in the cloister of culture the art museum provided. The what ifs continued and, in time, transformed. "What if this is what I'm being called to?" I would think as I looked at the shimmering canvas. The "this" was not just religious life but encounter with God. What if that call to encounter could be found in this moment? What if the annunciation was not a past occurrence or a beautiful work of art but a daily experience of living?

For, as comforting as that gallery was, I knew that the true annunciations of life took place out on the street level. There amidst the pressing demands of work and the noise of every conceivable need in the world, God was speaking to my heart. I just needed to stop long enough to let myself listen.  

So often, that is the case. We rush from place to place, moment to moment, person to person, without pausing to recognize the light right in front of us. The temptation is to assign meaning to our doing rather than our being. I need to help one more person, encounter one more thing, accomplish one more task before the day is complete … I don't need to stop and listen. I already know what God is saying.

Or, perhaps consciously or unconsciously, we think : If I don't stop, I won't have to listen to what God might be trying to say. If I flood my day with news and noise, I can be concerned about that rather than truly bringing those things and my heart to prayer. Then when I pray, I will clasp my hands and eyes as well as my ears and heart, keeping the light at bay and holding on to control.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), that's not how annunciations work. God never shuts up and any crack can let the light in. Thinking of Mary poised on her messy bed I think of the image Beth Knobbe offers in her book Finding My Voice as she talks about not trying to hide anything from God. "God is like the girlfriend who stops by unexpectedly when my apartment is a mess," she writes. "Whether I am ready for company or not, she really doesn't mind." We don’t need to make a perfect setting, Knobbe insists. God will come in anyway. "God is the one who comes over and sits on the bed, while I rush around picking up clothes … she is more concerned about the conversation at hand than the dirty dishes in the sink."

This is the God who offers us everyday annunciations. Even if we are unresponsive or preoccupied, God continues the conversation at hand, be it through the people we encounter, the words we hear ourselves say, the nagging thoughts or feelings we return to, or the sense of unease that invites us to stop and sit for a little while.

From time to time as I sat before "The Annunciation," a tour group would make its way into the gallery. "Here we have one of the greatest American paintings ever," the tour guide would declare. Drawing my attention from the painting, the tour guide would motion toward a painting directly behind me: "The Gross Clinic" by Thomas Eakins.

Soon the tour group would surround me on my bench, their backs turned on the magical realism of "The Annunciation" to take in the gruesome testament to medical history and artistic realism the tour guide pointed out. Sitting with my hands folded, I wanted to shout: "Do you see what you're missing?!" — but I couldn't. Annunciations beg our attention on their own. Like shafts of light breaking into the gruesome reality of life, they invite us to something more. They invite us to recognize that, indeed, we are on holy ground, called and blessed, met by God in this very moment, messy as it may be... Finishing reading the column now

 

Friday, January 21, 2022

Dr. King's call and ours.

This past Monday, we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States. As I searched for inspiration, a short statement by Dr. King caught my eye and stirred my heart. Here's my reflection on Dr. King's call, as well as our own, from the Global Sisters Report.

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Every Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I am bombarded by quotes from the late civil rights icon. On that day, I can't scroll farther than a few posts on social media without encountering the warm sepia tones of photographs showing Dr. King in the middle of an impassioned speech, looking out over a sea of people on the Washington Mall, or linked arm-in-arm with public, civil and religious figures marching in protest for justice.

Every year I am amazed by the pieces of speeches and writings that organizations and individuals share to commemorate Dr. King's life and legacy. There are those that are to be expected — sanitized snippets of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, variations of love lifted up over the burdensome weight of hate, and the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice. These are quotes that make me feel good, that warm the heart and stir the soul in comforting challenge.

Then there are the deeper cuts, the more unexpected or unfamiliar offerings. There was the labor union that pointed that Dr. King, who was assassinated in Memphis, went to the city specifically to help sanitation workers on strike. There were quotes from King's 1967 "The Other America" speech pointing out the racial disparities in the United States, the racism at the root of poverty and economic injustice, and the struggle faced by people of color then and now.

This is the side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that is perhaps easier to forget or harder to sum up in simple phrases. These quotes and facts confront popular, rose-colored remembrances of Dr. King and give living color to the nonviolent, Gospel-based pleas (and actions) for justice for which he lived and, ultimately, died.

Reflecting this past week on that disturbing reality, I came across a quote from Dr. King that I had never before encountered. "My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular," the brief statement written in 1959 for an American Baptist Convention pamphlet begins. What follows is witness to and reminder of how one's call is cultivated and what the challenge of ministry truly entails.

Befitting the brevity of a leaflet, King's "My Call to the Ministry" is all of 11 sentences and yet in that space, King speaks volumes. His call, like many of ours, was not miraculous. He did not encounter "some blinding light" or have "some miraculous vision." It wasn't sudden, spectacular, or even dramatic. It was, as he writes, "a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me." This urge, at its core, was "a desire to serve God and humanity." Beyond any mystical experience or prophetic consecration, Dr. King — like any and all believers — experienced the baptismal call to service.

As remarkably unremarkable as it would seem, this was a call that, in King's response, would echo throughout the generations to come.

This call to serve God and others was an urge that wouldn't leave him. It remained as an undying demand on his being, an urge that offered an invitation both of challenge and pilgrimage. That invitation is what lies at the heart of each of our calls to discipleship. We are called to the gradual engagement and witness to God's grace … to the pilgrimage of life. Walking the Way, we discover that some steps are more challenging than others; some realizations and truths demand deeper engagement than we might be comfortable with. These challenges may be to our own views of the world, our own egos, or to the culture that surrounds us.

For King, "the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry" was what prompted the full investment of his being. Committed to faith, he couldn't help but call forth justice. Thus, what organically emerged in the urges of his soul resulted in the prophetic responsibility to cry for God's transformative justice in this land of the free and the home of the brave.

With such courage of conviction, Martin Luther King Jr. followed the urging of the Spirit into ministry and the pages of history. His clarion call for justice and equity is still ringing out if we unclog the ears of our hearts to hear it. It is in the impassioned speeches made for voting rights in and outside of the halls of government. It is in the questions we raise about just wages, safe working conditions, and adequate and equitable housing for all. It is in the commitment we make to create in our church synodal space so that all people's voices are heard and all people are treated as the beloved children of God that they are.

Our call then today is to be attentive to the action the Gospel calls forth in our world and ourselves. We have been called, not by some miracle or accident, but by the grace of God. That call requires action not just remembrance. Just as Dr. King answered the call in his own way and time, now is our moment to respond in-kind, to remember the fervor of our call and to embody the Gospel message in our very lives.

Thus, God's urge for justice comes alive in us and among us and our action gives life to our remembrance. Revealing that the call we answer is a continual act, not just a singular day of the year. For, in the words of Dr. King... Read the rest of the reflection here

Friday, December 17, 2021

How to be a Supporting Character this Christmas

In these Advent days, as we anticipate the coming joy of Christmas, I have been reflecting on the characters in the Christmas story who stand on the margins. Their story is intertwined with Christ's coming and their way of being has something to teach us about our own role in life and connection to Jesus's coming into this world. Join me in reflecting in my latest column for Global Sisters Report. Wishing you all blessings and grace in this holy season; may we each embrace the Light and find what it can illumine in our lives and our world.

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For weeks, I have been waiting on a set of Christmas cards to arrive at my local card shop. They're not covered in glittering trees and they don't feature the holy family. No, there's no sign of Christmas on them at all... unless you know what you're looking at. Each card has a few simple shepherds gathered in a field, above them a star shines and around them sheep graze. Little lines of gold provide a flourish and lead the eye toward a town in the distance.

Fittingly, the cards have taken their time arriving, much like many things this year. And as I anxiously await their arrival, these shepherds have reminded me that we each have a part to play in the Christmas story.

Advent is a season of waiting and of anticipation. We hear John the Baptist signal what is to come and hear stories of dreams and visions that anticipate the future. In the midst of all of this, I find myself waiting on Christmas cards and wondering about the stories these ancillary characters have to tell us.

What would the Christmas story look like through their eyes? How would shepherds recount what they found? How did Joseph make sense of his long journey? What were the wise men thinking as they traveled to and from Bethlehem?

As the old saying goes, we are all the stars of our own story. Everything that happens, in our point of view, revolves around us. The people we know, the relationships we build, the troubles we face, the tales we tell — they all, in one way or another, revolve around us.

This is how we make sense of our lives. We relate interpersonally and intrapersonally and at the center of each of those ways of relating is our very self. More often than not, we are the hero of the tales we tell. Even when we aren't, when we admit wrongdoing or are the butt of the joke, the story still revolves around us. This is why it can feel so revelatory when we see things from someone else's perspective, when we realize that their reaction has nothing to do with us or worse, that their reaction has everything to do with us, but not a part of ourselves that we readily recognize.

In that vulnerable position, when we are shaken from the center of the universe — with the world revolving around us — we recognize that there's more to the story than we can see. We recognize that, in other people's lives, we are the supporting players in a cast of characters; we've been cast in a role we never auditioned for.

This realization brings with it a certain mix of liberty and humility. Whatever part we're playing, we can't really control how it's received. It's also a reminder that even while our story is unfolding, we're a part of a thousand other narratives around us. Perhaps the best way forward then, is to be the best version of ourselves we can be.

The same might be said of the Christmas story.

The main character in that story is God, precisely in the person of Jesus Christ. The story we tell about Christmas revolves around Christ's birth, the joining of heaven and earth, as God became one with us in a very real way. There in Bethlehem amid the hubbub of the census, a baby was born. That birth changed the world and in the story of it, we stand in awe, recognizing our place and relationship to it all.

We may not be shepherds or innkeepers or expectant parents or people who turn to the stars for guidance, but we are still there in that moment, our lives intertwined with theirs. As we reflect on the story of Christmas and prepare ourselves for Christ's coming in that moment (and so many other everyday moments of our lives), it's a good reminder that we are not the main character. We are not the Light. Jesus is. We, rather, reflect the Light of Christ to the world.

Our call as disciples — as real people living lives of faith in the real world — is to play our part in the story of Christmas to the best of our ability. We may not have auditioned for the role that we have, but in our lived belief, we have surely accepted our part in this play. Like Mary offering her fiat or the shepherds following the command of the angels, we witness Christ's coming into the world and are offered the grace of accompanying that incarnation.

Thinking in such a way is not to make ourselves the center of the story of Christ's coming but to acknowledge that that coming is integral to our own story. We are called to be in relationship with this One who became human. One like us ... and like the shepherds ... and like the wise men. We are not meant to be messiahs, but we can herald the coming of the reign of God. We do so in the way we live and the story we tell with our lives.

In so doing, we become supporting characters in the Christmas story, characters with our own story, a story that can be revelatory of God's union with humanity if we only let it. Accepting this role is a liberating and humbling experience, one that embraces the joy of God's love and works so that that Love is evident in every situation. It may not always be a glamorous or triumphant call but it is ours, as messy as a manger and as inspired as a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Supporting characters rarely get the glory of the whole story. They are not the focus. Yet we, like them, garner something much greater by embracing our part. Like shepherds on a hillside, following the Spirit in the darkness, we stumble into a story much bigger than our own... Finish reading the column here

Monday, November 22, 2021

Imagine Advent

This Advent I'll be taking part in (and offering my own reflection to) "Imagine Advent," a daily reflection program from the Jesuits of the United States and Canada. Looking at where we can find God in the stories we tell- be it in film, books, poetry, art, or elsewhere- this program promises new insight during this sacred season as we prepare for Immanuel, God with Us. I invite you to join me by signing-up for daily e-mails at jesuits.org/advent 

See below for more information and blessings as we journey together during these Advent days!


From The Jesuits: "Advent is a season of waiting — waiting to encounter our God who enters into the human story through the Incarnation. Through this period of prayerful waiting, we discern how Christ is entering into our own stories in a new way in this moment.

God’s desire to enter into the story of creation is not limited to a stable in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. “God has become personally woven into our humanity,” Pope Francis reminds us, “and so has given us a new way of weaving our stories.” St. Ignatius taught that God is to be found in all things — and God can be found speaking to us in and through countless stories.

Join members of the Ignatian family during these next 25 days as they share with you stories through which they encounter God. This Advent, as we wait to welcome Christ anew into our story, let us make a 25-day pilgrimage through multimedia storytelling, encountering God’s Holy Spirit speaking to us in even the most unlikely of places."

Friday, November 5, 2021

The grace to pray for the grace I need

My latest column for the Global Sisters Report explores the way we pray and the graces that we pray for. Sometimes what we desire is different than what we need. The dialogue of prayer can bring these distinctions to light and invite us to see the glimmers of grace that God is offering if we are aware and courageous enough to embrace them. Enjoy!

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Calm your body. For a moment, take a deep breath. Go ahead. I can wait.

Sink deep. Deeper than one breath can take you. Deeper still to the place where your shoulders release and your muscles unfurl. Keep breathing with no other intention than to breathe.

Ease down to the bedrock of your being. You'll know when you get there. Close your eyes, if need be, stare into space or reread the above. Maybe some more slow breaths might help before you come to the still space of beginning. When you get there (or even if you can't quite make it) ask yourself: What is the grace I need?

Here. In this moment. As everything else swirls around, what is the grace I would pray for myself? For the world? For this moment?

Hold that grace for the moment, so that it can take hold. Give it space to take up residence, to set up shop and prop open the door. This grace, if given the space, might never leave. Maybe it'll even invite its friends in. How about that?

Sitting in prayer a few weeks ago, my mind raced as I sorted through a conflict the day before. Had I said the right thing? Had I been firm enough? Should I apologize? What was there to apologize about?

Rerunning the situation in my head, my heart raced, revisiting the adrenaline-filled moment. In the end, the voice of one of my first spiritual directors echoed in my ear. Name the grace, I could hear her whispering. Name the grace you need, you want, you're afraid of.

Breathing for a moment, I came to that ground floor of my being, clearing the space of the adrenaline haze and the many voices of fight and flight. What I needed and wanted was peace.

Naming the grace we most desire is at the heart of a fruitful prayer life. Sometimes what we name is perfectly aligned with God's desire; other times what we name might come out sideways or take on a different meaning in the movement of the Spirit. In some moments, we don't exactly know what we want or need and at other times, what we name is not exactly what God knows would serve us better. Yet to intentionally name a grace is to introduce into prayerful dialogue a desire for deeper understanding and resolution in our lives and relationship with God.

The process of naming such an intention in prayer — a desired outcome, if you will — draws us into direct conversation with God. We are planting the seed we hope to cultivate with God and what grows in our time together is a fruit of that intention. Like any good conversation, prayer takes that intention and forms it through mutual engagement. I may want peace, but I need to listen to what God wants for me and how God thinks might be the best way to come to that end.

Here we come to realize that the naming of a grace is not just wishful thinking or projected wish fulfillment. God is not a genie. It is not as if we name a grace and then, it just so happens that when our prayer is complete, the grace has magically come to be. Likewise, in praying for a specific grace, we are not subliminally determining where our prayer will end up.

Prayer of this sort, wrapped up in pretty little packages, should raise suspicions. If anything, the grace of prayer is unwrapping the gift God is offering us through ongoing dialogue. We are sharing with God and, as such, we also need to be prepared to receive whatever grace/gift God offers us in return. What is revealed may be far more complex or gratifying than we ever could have imagined. Thus, prayer becomes a process of growth, discovery and surrender.

We also need to recognize that maybe the grace we want is deeper than what we are willing or able to name. In that case, part of the invitation of prayer is to listen to what God is trying to illuminate within our lives. The invitation then is to ask God what we need and to discover together what the answer might be.

For some, not knowing what you want or need in a specific moment can be a scary prospect. If I can't tell God what I need, how can we proceed? Or, better yet, how will I know when I get it? The answer to both these questions is essential and essentially the same: trust.

Like sinking into the silence, we know when we have arrived. We trust the moment and know it when we feel it. The only way to get there though is to trust the One with whom we journey.

What scares some in this prospect, enlivens others. Not knowing exactly what grace is needed frees us to imagine God's grace in new and different ways. Perhaps a broken relationship or betrayed trust is what I bring to prayer. Unable to clear the cloudiness of anger and hurt, I could settle for cheap grace, or I could ask God what might be best in this moment. The answer — maybe to pray for the peace and success of the other — might surprise me and call me to examine my own motivations and prompt deeper trust in God's will and reliance on God's ways.

The grace that we name, then, may or may not be the grace we receive. We trust, though, that by entering into prayer with our full being, God will guide us to what we need. If we don't find ourselves where we intended or where we thought we would be, it would be best to talk about that with God, too.

Ultimately, as with any relationship, what matters is our showing up... Finish up the column on GSR. 


Friday, September 24, 2021

Where Everyone is Neighbor

As some of you know, I recently left my ministry at the SSJ Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey to pursue graduate studies at the Boston College School of Theology & Ministry. Before my departure, I wrote a piece about the Center in honor of the Year of St. Joseph, which has just been published in the Catholic Star Herald.
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Even after 120 years of service in Camden, the Sisters of Saint Joseph were the new kids on the block when they arrived in 2017 in the Cramer Hill section of the city. Sent by their congregation, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia, a group of sisters set out to establish a new, sponsored ministry in the city: the Sisters of Saint Joseph Neighborhood Center.

“For all our ministry in the city of Camden, we as a congregation decided that to continue our commitment to those who are materially poor and marginalized, it was important we establish a physical place for ministry,” explains Sister Bonnie McMenamin, SSJ, the SSJ Neighborhood Center’s founding director. “As Sisters of Saint Joseph, we are called to love God and to love our neighbors without distinction. That means encountering Jesus in every neighbor we meet and seeking to foster a sense of community in and among the neighbors and neighborhoods we serve.”

Over the last four years, that is exactly what the SSJ Neighborhood Center has done. With programming that ranges from a food pantry and prayer groups to English as a Second Language classes and sewing and crocheting lessons, the center is focused on bringing people together to provide opportunities for connection, enrichment and empowerment. Serving primarily adults and families, the center provides a safe space for neighbors to learn and grow together.

“This is a place where all are welcome,” Sister Clarisa Vázquez, SSJ, outreach coordinator at the center, says. “Our neighbors come from various cultural backgrounds that wouldn’t normally mix. With a common goal of learning English or a sewing project, they grow together, they help one another and they develop relationships far beyond the classes they share.”

This was evident when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the center’s classes in spring 2020. “We moved the classes we could online,” Sister Bonnie recalls. “Our neighbors wanted to be together, even if that meant learning how to do so virtually!”

For many, that meant learning how to use a laptop computer. For volunteer teachers, that meant adapting lessons to a digital format. “The pandemic put all of us to the test,” says Sister Colleen Gibson, SSJ, coordinator of services. “Yet, God provided in every instance. Students and teachers adapted and learned together. Demand on our food pantry expanded, but so did the generosity of our neighbors near and far.”

The center’s monthly food distribution has grown exponentially since 2017. What began as a pantry that fed 14 families on a monthly distribution day now feeds more than 200 families every third Wednesday of the month. The pantry distributes food provided by the Food Bank of South Jersey as well as donations from parishes, religious education programs, community groups, and individuals from throughout the Camden and Philadelphia areas.

“We could never do what we do on our own,” Sister Mary Berryman, SSJ, coordinator of the food pantry, explains. The center is reliant on volunteers to help serve neighbors, teach classes and provide goods for distribution. Beyond the food pantry, donors help provide diapers and baby clothing for families in need, new and used household goods for the center’s “sharing markets,” and financial assistance for those seeking rent and utility assistance.

“Our mission is to unite ‘neighbor to neighbor and neighborhood to neighborhood,’” Sister Colleen adds. “We see that come alive when a neighborhood teenager strikes up a conversation with a student volunteering from Camden Catholic High School, or a neighborhood family gives gardening tips to the family from Philadelphia who shares a plot next to them in our community garden.”

“Here, everyone is a neighbor,” Sister Bonnie says as she reflects on the center’s roots and mission. “Our love of God draws us into union with all people.”

In this Year of Saint Joseph, Sister Bonnie takes solace in the example of Saint Joseph that is lived out at the SSJ Neighborhood Center. “Like Joseph, our service is humble and often hidden. We give ourselves in the service of God’s love. We create a space where no one is turned away, where there is always ‘room at the inn.’”

Together with their neighbors, the sisters are helping to create a space where all are welcome. They, after all, know how it feels to be new to a neighborhood and hope they can make room for each neighbor to flourish in the fullness of God’s love in community.

To See & Be Seen: Embracing Presence as a Ministry of Learning

My latest piece for Global Sisters Report is a reflection on the depth and complexity of a ministry of presence. This practice lies at the heart of good relational ministry. Doing it well means being present not only to the person in front of us but God at work in our midst. May we each be blessed to see and be seen in our encounters.

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One of the first lessons of ministry is the importance of presence. If we are to be engaged with others, to win hearts and souls, and to find God in it all, we need to be actively present to the people in front of us. Our job is to hear their stories, offer respite to the weary, make space to breathe, and provide companionship, if only but for a moment, to those to whom we minister. In so doing, we walk together, share life and ultimately reveal love.

Such a prospect seems simple, right? Yet when we probe more deeply into the practice of ministry of presence, we discover that what seems to be simple is, in reality, rather complex.

This is a lesson, however, we only learn in living.

As a college freshman, I thought I knew what ministry of presence was. That is, I thought I knew until I encountered a call to presence far more complex that I ever could have imagined.

A group of classmates and I had been sent to serve the Tuesday morning meal at a local soup kitchen. We were instructed to be fully present to the people we met there. "Listen to their stories," our guide told us, "Give the gift of your presence."

Upon arrival, my friends all garnered jobs on the front line, distributing a warm meal to those who came in off the streets. Meanwhile, I found myself relegated to a side room. My only companions were an industrial dishwasher and a small window that diners could pass their dirty dishes through for me to clean. Listening to the sounds of the dining room, I waited for people to finish their breakfast and come into sight.

Soon hands began to poke through the window, but no one stayed long enough for me to really be present to them. As dishes piled up, I forgot about the instruction to be present and instead got down to the work at hand. As I worked my way through the stacks of dishes before me, I noticed someone standing at the window. The man dressed in a dark blue flannel handed his coffee cup to me.

"Thank you," he uttered.

"Oh, you're welcome," I replied, turning to put the cup into the dishwasher rack I'd been filling. Spraying the dishes down, I turned back to see him still standing there.

"Thank you," he said, looking intently at me. His eyes, a rich chestnut color, seemed to peer deep into my soul. "Thank you," he repeated with a gentle nod of his head.

I nodded my head in return. "Thank you."

For a few still moments, we silently looked at one another, before he nodded again and walked back to the busy dining room. Staring at the now empty window, I wondered what exactly had just happened.

On the car ride home, my companions shared the stories they had gathered while serving. Each one of them buzzing with the energy of encounter. I, meanwhile, sat silently in the back seat. When asked what stories I had gathered, I sheepishly stammered that I hadn't gathered any. I had seen and been seen.

The conversation quickly turned to other things, but I remained in that space, both comfortable and uncomfortable. The look. The nod. The knowing. All Presence.

From time to time, that moment returns to me in my memory. It is a reminder that whatever I think presence might look like, there is always more to learn.

This realization is itself a lesson. A ministry of presence makes space for the other, giving them the space to be heard, to be seen, and to be loved. In that space we discover what unites us and, if we are lucky, we encounter God in the person in front of us and the act of being present. Our hope is that it does the same for the other people involved, too.

The temptation of a ministry of presence is to make it about us. If we aren't careful, it can easily devolve into a self-serving ministry; we can selfishly serve to enrich ourselves, treating presence as an avenue to self-congratulations and achievement rather than humility and openness.

Yet to truly be present is to find Divine Presence in the presence we offer and receive. As such, we recognize that a ministry of presence is, in fact, a ministry of learning. We learn that we can make space but can't force grace. We discover that curiosity is best used in the service of seeking the One who seeks us. And we realize that gratitude is the greatest response to all that Presence offers us.

If we approach our encounters with others with these grounding values — humility, openness, curiosity and gratitude — we create a space where no matter what happens we have the potential to receive it, to be taught by it, to expand our vision, and to grow in the process.

This, of course, requires us to let go of set outcomes, expectations and desires. When we meet disappointment or frustration in our encounters, it would do us well to honestly ask if we were holding too tightly to one of these factors, limiting our freedom and constricting our ability to truly be present.

Practicing such presence is a lifelong process. While we might become better at offering a ministry of presence, it is a ministry constantly developing, showing us new facets of the Divine and ourselves in relationship. Called to be students of life, we have the opportunity to learn and to grow in moments of presence expected and unexpected. In those moments, no lesson is too big, no encounter too small. For this, we should be grateful.

Years later, I still recall that moment standing face-to-face with the man with the chestnut eyes at the soup kitchen. That encounter surely wasn't what I expected my ministry of presence to look like that day. So often that is the case...Click here to finish reading this piece