As I age, I am often surprised at the “adventures” that I look back upon and how far back they actually are! But more surprising than that is the fact that the things that have actually taken up residence in my soul are as fresh as if they happened a day ago rather than ten, twenty or thirty years ago. One of those times was a privilege that I was gifted because I was the cantor and music minister for a monthly Mass that a Servite friend of mine said with regularity. It was held at one of the most beautiful basilicas in Chicago and was usually mobbed (1000 or more) by those who were hungry for the healing touch that Father Rookey would give them.
You might remember one of the more historic events of the 80’s that some say did in the second term that Jimmy Carter might have had; The Iranian Hostage Crisis. During Carter’s first term, in Tehran, Shiite Muslims took and held fifty-two American hostages for an incredible nineteen months. Try as he might, Carter could not resolve the situation. The hostages included embassy military as well as civilians. Among them was one American Servite Priest, Father Lawrence Martin Jenco. That First Saturday, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows, we were told that the staff would get to meet Father Jenco and speak with him privately after the service was over. It was a rare privilege; he had only been home for less than a year and was constantly in demand “everywhere”. News releases during the incident included gruesome details about how conditions for the prisoners in general and Fr. Jenco in particular had been horrific and included torture, poor food, lack of medical attention and isolation. The medical damage he sustained during his imprisonment eventually lead to his death a few years after he was released. He was never really well after his time in Tehran. Additional details included stories about how he forgave his guards and never uttered a word of anger or bitterness against them. Eventually he wrote a book about his experience titled: Bound to Forgive. I knew that Father Jenco was someone I really wanted to meet but had no idea of what to say, do or ask in his presence. I never had the experience of speaking with someone who was unjustly imprisoned before.
That day after Mass concluded a dozen of us gathered in a private room behind the sacristy and the experience has remained with me clearly for these many years. Father Jenco was seated at a table as we gathered around and got to greet him and thank him for coming. The most profound part of that meeting, though, was not what was spoken but what was unspoken. The gift of that meeting was apparent as soon as I entered into the room. At first I thought it was a fluke or just my imagination. I was lucky enough to find a seat right next to him as he spoke and greeted the group and it quickly became apparent that there was no need for me to speak a word. Just “being there” was more gift than I could have ever hoped for. He was soft spoken and gentle but the aura which surrounded him was the real miracle. It was quite tangible; simply being near him and around him was the most incredible peace and calm that I have ever experienced. It was like being in the safest and most secure place that ever existed. A serenity was present that simply washed over me. I knew that it had nothing to do with me and that it was something that enveloped Father Jenco. Simply sitting near him, with no words spoken between us I was immediately at rest in my soul, calm and confident that God was present at that very moment. How could that be for a man who was fresh from a place where he was so ill treated and unjustly imprisoned? This was obviously an act of Father Jenco’s will, no doubt. A real lesson on who we are in the Kingdom, simply amazing. The blessing and lesson of that day has followed me since and taught me things repeatedly.
The presence that Father Jenco brought with him that day was healing and deeply profound. It became a point of contemplation for me over and over again. Every time I meet someone new I am reminded of that lesson. Sometimes we worry about what to say or do or how we look when we come into the presence of those we have not known before. Father Jenco was an incredibly busy man. After his return from Tehran he was in mega demand for conferences, retreats, by the news media and people in general who begged to meet him. He traveled the country sharing his experience. His stop at the Basilica was a favor to his Servite brother and gift for us. We have all been “busy”. In our fast paced society I have even come to believe that we sometimes mistake busyness for self worth, a type of personal satisfaction at being so “in demand”. I have friends that never make a dinner or lunch date without a “time constraint” because they have to be somewhere else. I know priests and spiritual advisors who never sit for more than five or ten minutes anywhere because they are so anxious to make their next appointment of “ministry”. I was guilty myself before I retired and literally kept six different briefcases in the hall of my home so that I would not lose “stuff” as I moved from location to meeting to rehearsal. So we can proudly list what we are doing, but what about the critical things that we have not paid attention to?
No one was busier or more in demand that Father Jenco that year after he was released from Tehran. When you were in his presence, though, the thing that was apparent was the stillness and peace that surrounded him. Somewhere in his spirit and thinking, the only thing that was a priority for him was the Peace of the Lord. Whether he was in a location a short while or a long while, this is what he brought to people and left them with.
What about us? It is true that for our professions and volunteer work, our presence and service is a gift. But is that all there is? Being in demand does give one a sense of being needed which is basic to every human psyche. As we move from location to location, however, what are we bringing the people who we are in contact with? It is important to be very much in tune with people whom you are present to. Prayer is a good way to do this, but you also have to have a calm spirit yourself. I must admit that some of the people I have met make me want to take a tranquilizer even before they have spoken a word. I can often sense someone’s unfocused spirit simply by being next to a person. This is often the case with some of the busier people I have known.
As we do our work and move through our days there are more responsibilities than simply showing up on time and being present. How do we represent the face of Christ in the world? More than what we say or do our demeanor affects people and leaves a lasting impression. How in tune are you with the “spiritual presence” that is left after you have departed a location? If we are who we claim to be in Christ, our presence in a location should be an obvious reminder that there are things in life which are more important than how many appointments we have in one day. Remember that for people like Christ, John the Baptist and Father Jenco, the impression that was left after they departed remained with people and vexed them in a way that they couldn’t explain. Even Herod couldn’t resist listening to The Baptist because there was just “something” about the way he spoke. We have that same opportunity every time we are present with a group of people.
It is much too easy to direct our energy and concentration to what seems immediately important; are we going to be late, traffic is an aggravation, will these people like me, will I say the right thing, and so on. More important, though, is the impression you leave behind. Did your presence bless the situation? Were they able to say that because you were there things were a little calmer, a little more peaceful, a little more focused? After you are gone do people wonder about your prayer life and why you never seem agitated, no matter how busy you are? Does your presence give people a reason to re-think their own prayer life and spirituality? These are gifts that you can bring with you no matter how busy you are. They are of more value than if you had a million places to be and were so busy that you had to fly all over the country to meet people’s demands on you. Rethink your presence, it’s the real heart of the matter, not how stacked your schedule is.
Copyright ©2010, Kathryn M. Cunningham, All Rights Reserved
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Check out more about the way Kathryn views “presence”: www.atravelersview.org
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