Presence: You gotta be there

by Karen Jean Zielinski


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Franciscan spirituality is relational and our presence to each other a Gospel value.

You gotta be there.

It was a typical Saturday in Sylvania, Ohio. I had two major community events going on at the same time: a strategic planning meeting that happens every four months on a Saturday, and an associates and sister companion weekend retreat. I attended the strategic planning meeting, and when we broke for lunch, rushed to the retreat and had lunch with some of our associates and sisters. Then I went back to my strategic planning meeting. When the meeting ended early, I attended one of the retreat conferences.

Franciscan Fr. Dan Havron, from the Cincinnati province (and now deceased), once shared some words that hit me right in the heart.

He commented, "If a visitor came to your 89-acre grounds and asked directions to a building, a Franciscan way of responding to the question is to just accompany the visitor to the spot. That is a relational, Franciscan way of living."

The gift of presence

Just like the Gospel message — simple but hard to live out — our presence to others is fundamental, but often difficult to do. So many times a sister might present a lecture or a recital, or have a fundraiser she is involved in, and we are asked for our support. Usually that means attendance at an event. We are often tired after a day of ministry, or not feeling too well. The weather might be cold or rainy and we just want to put our feet up and stay home.

But we go to the talk or lecture. And we are glad we did once we get there. We give our gift of presence.

Prayer is the ultimate gift of God's presence. We have to be there with God, to receive that presence, to talk with our Creator.

Countercultural presence

St. Francis' presence to people guides me. In his Second Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano tells this story: "Francis once took a certain sick brother, who he knew had a longing for grapes, into the vineyard, and sitting down under the vine, he first ate to give the other courage to eat." Francis sat down with the brother and ate. He did not just send the brother the grapes or send a representative.

It is a true gift of self when we sign up to help at a parish festival, attend a choir concert or commit to attending anything that is not necessarily work- or ministry-related. Presence is a gift of attention and support, an opening of the mind to be receptive to the other person.

In society today, people often feel relieved to simply write a check, make a donation or find a reason not to attend. Presence is a gift of time, that precious part of our daily lives that we guard for things that are important. There is nothing like being at an event, present in all our humanity to the other person. Being there is important.

The gift of our presence is simple. We all can remember times when we accompanied a family member or friend to a medical test. I remember having to go through an MRI test, a test that I dislike but need for my overall health care. A friend simply accompanied me to the test and sat there with me. It meant the world to me. She was just there beside me, being my friend.

Being there for our brothers and sisters is parallel to the same type of energy and spiritual "high" when we attend a live concert, a sports event, or go out to dinner. With so much television and insulation in our homes, presence takes a good deal of energy. It is energy that makes us move out of our comfort zone and reach out to others.

Although a telephone call is not the same as being there, it can be a much warmer presence than communication by email. My mother used to ask me if I talked to my sister Judy. I'd tell her I did, since I email her often. When my mother asked, "How does she sound? How is her cold?", I realized that I was not too present to my sister. Email is so convenient! Maybe I could try to make my emails more "present" to my sister, too.

Open to everyone

Being there is not restricted to those who are Franciscans, but to any person who has a Franciscan heart.

A friend of mine works for the Detroit Tigers baseball team and gave me four tickets to a game. I went to the stadium with three other sisters. We got to our seats, and since I pulled my back out the week before, I simply stayed in the handicapped section and advised my three sisters who had never been at Comerica Park, the stadium, to go down to the closer seats. As I watched the game in the top row, someone called to me.

"You all alone? Where are your girlfriends?"

The African American man had one leg, and wore a green jogging suit with the words "Turkey Man" on the back of his jacket. I had seen him 20 minutes earlier in the clubhouse. He was the team's caterer for that game and had just unloaded pounds of freshly roasted turkey, mashed potatoes and rolls.

"I told them to go down to watch the game. My back is on the mend," I said to Turkey Man.

Turkey Man came over to me and asked where I was from. I told him we were Franciscan sisters from Ohio and wanted to see a game.

"You should not be alone! I will bring you a Coke."

Turkey Man got me a Coke, and shared a Franciscan presence with me. One of the sisters came up later and sat with me, but I was touched by Turkey Man.

Much is said today about the art of being present. Francis and Clare were highly skilled at this. Clare had a profound sense of God's abiding presence. She never felt abandoned by God and felt his presence at all times. Being there is actually quite simple, and attractive. Presence to our brothers and sisters flows from our presence to God.

You gotta be there!

[Karen Jean Zielinski is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio. Her first book, Hope and Help for Living With Illness, deals with health and spirituality. She is co-director of associates and director of Canticle Studio, a creative office of products that focus on spirituality and health.]