It is no small and unholy thing to stay.
I don’t know about you but I sow my wild oats in the wee hours of my soul’s nights. I rebel from my heart, not my body. In my deviance, I move through my own life as a visitor, a reluctant tourist, as though my connecting flight was delayed and I flirt with fantasies of departure. Mentally, emotionally. I wish to be impenetrable. I think that it, that my presence, makes no difference.
In the morning, when dawn starts and I feel the relief of new mercy, I relearn that becoming absent is not the answer, but rather full presence is the promise. Compartmentalizing is not often our strength as nurturers; integration is. On the other side of my leave, I resolve that one of the most powerful and transcendent things I can offer my own health, my Lord, and my family community, is the posture of staying. I pray for the faith that suggests that God is for me here, with my longings and fears. I believe that God is for them—the children, the friends, the others—here, so we can all stay and I can be present to whatever this holds.
Professional chaplains finesse the art of this ministry of presence. Their work relies on the theology that the Diety indwells the humane and in one another’s company, we draw nearer to God. Whether visiting a person in a coma, or incarcerated, a premature infant in NICU, or a chatty outpatient, the chaplain offers their presence to the pain, and enters the space having been honest with their own condition and capacity that day. Their effectiveness is not often measurable; it must be undergirded with a sound theology of Immanuel. So too is ours.
We do not wear badges, nor chart our visits, but mothers and wives and women are full time practitioners of the ministry of presence, the discipline of staying, and it is a powerful cadence in the milieu of constant updates, upgrades and uprooting.
As missional women, the fire in our spirits and the thrust in our activism can lead us to a restlessness that bankrupts our confidence. Because the rubric of the empire, which American Christianity has often adopted, involves fame and fortune, statistics and stages, we itch. We measure our success on a faulty scale and despair, when all the while, our steadfast presence, our dwelling here and with, is the salve to our want, and the world’s searching. It is resistance and it is confounding. It is growing up and it is an anchor to the tossing.
Sharing reflections from the transformative community of Benedictine life, Joan Chittister speaks straight to me in the middle of my sticky linoleum: There comes a time in life when everyone else’s family seems to have been better than my own. There comes a moment when having everything seems to be the only way to squeeze even a little out of life. There comes a day when this job, this home, this town, this family all seem irritating and deficient beyond the bearable. There comes a period in life when I regret every major decision I’ve ever made. That is precisely the time when the spirituality of stability offers its greatest gift. Stability enables me to outlast the dark, cold places of life until the thaw comes and I can see new life in this uninhabitable place again. But for that to happen, I must learn to wait through the winters of my life (Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, p. 151).
We know this irritation and this wait. And we also know, when by God’s grace we’ve approached Him with our misgivings, and sat with ourselves and each other, warding off both the guilt and the flight, that the ministry of presence is disarming in all the right ways. We know, for when we receive someone’s full attention or we feel the Lord’s pleasure after the full arc of a day alongside a child’s wonder, that the ministry of presence is healing. Renewing. Soothing.
As a chaplain of communities such as the family, the church, the school, the neighborhood, the mother figure announces God’s goodness and steadfastness even as she relies on it herself. As a person vulnerable to other people, she demonstrates the invitation of the triune God. As a person rejecting the chains of perfection, consumerism, and control, she presents herself as an approachable companion to others. As she sits without judgment with an overwhelmed new mom, quietly occupies an overtired child in a hospital waiting room, or listens to a child’s unreasonable plans for a birthday for the tenth time, she suggests a Love and a Grace we only learn from one another. She resembles a weeping Savior, a cooking Messiah, present, stayed in the smallest and deepest of ways.
Even when it costs. Even when the night before she took a little trip through the weeds of want and the rushes of regret. She is present not because she does not have any other options or distractions or because it is easy; she is present because God is present to and in her, and this station is a conduit of the calling, not its culmination.
And so, my sisters, I see your choice to stay and I raise my glass. I applaud your outstanding grit to remain present over the years that you cannot speed nor slow, the surprise visits, the illnesses, the chores, that bleed into each other, that step on the heels of the next, and on the toes of your own securities. May the meaning of the moments neither pass us by nor overwhelm us to despair. We are here, together, injecting the daily with the divine. Thank you for staying.