by Sister Karen Zielinski, O.S.F.
It was a typical Saturday in Sylvania, Ohio, home of my community, the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio. I had two major community events going on at the same time: a meeting and a weekend retreat. I attended the meeting and when we broke for lunch, I rushed to the retreat. Then I went back to my meeting. When the meeting ended early, I attended one of the retreat conferences. A friar there shared some words that hit me right in the heart:
“If a visitor came to your 89-acre campus and asked directions to a building, a Franciscan way of responding to the question is for the person to just accompany the visitor to the spot. That is a relational, Franciscan way of living.”
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 once we get there, we are glad we did.
Of course all beauty is God’s, and when we rest in prayer, we rest in the presence and beauty of God. Prayer is the ultimate gift of God’s presence. We have to be there to receive that presence as well.
Saint Francis of Assisi’s presence to people guides me. “Francis once took a certain sick brother, whom he knew had a longing for grapes, into a vineyard, and sitting down under the vine, he first ate to give the other courage to eat.” He did not only send the brother the grapes, or send a representative.
Presence is a gift of attention and an opening of the mind to be receptive to the other person. In society today people often feel relieved simply to 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 which 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 very simple. We all can remember the times when we accompanied a family member or friend to a medical test. I remember having to go through an MRI test—something 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.
Although a telephone call is not the same as being there, it can be a much warmer presence than email. So often my mother asks me if I have talked to my sister Judy. I tell her I have, because I email my sister often. When my mother asks, “How does she sound? How is her cold?” I realize that I have not been very present to my sister. But email is so convenient! Maybe I can try to make even my email message more “present” to my sister, too—more open to everyone.
Being there is not restricted to Franciscans but to anyone who has a Franciscan heart. A friend of mine who works for the Detroit Tigers baseball team gave me four tickets to a recent game. I went to the stadium with three other sisters. We got to our seats and because I had pulled my back out the week before I simply stayed in the handicapped section and advised my three sisters to go down to the better seats. While 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 had come to see the game.
“You should not be alone! I will bring you a Coke.” So Turkey Man got me a Coke and shared “Franciscan presence” with me. Oh, one of the sisters came up later and sat with me, but I was most touched by Turkey Man.
Much is said today about the art of being present. Saints Francis and Clare were highly skilled at that. Clare had a profound sense of God’s abiding presence. She never felt abandoned by God; she felt his presence at all times. Being there is actually quite simple: presence to our brothers and sisters flows from our presence to God. You gotta be there!