The Ministry of Presence

Brother Charles in TamanrassetBrother Charles in Tamanrasset“But what do you do?” is such a frequently asked question – and in the case of my sojourn in Northern Ireland (or indeed in my life in a semi-enclosed convent) it is pretty hard to answer. I can go into the details of the part-time jobs I had or the convent’s timetable, but that doesn’t really get at the point. I wonder how Br Charles would have answered that question at Tammenraset? The heart of his life (and ours in Northern Ireland) was Adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Thinking of my title, the Ministry of Presence, one could ask “who is being present to whom?” Am I being present to Jesus or is it more about Jesus being present? I think it is both, the primary presence is Jesus and my presence before His is simply a response. That “pattern” seems to be the basis of the life I shared with the Little Sisters in the Fraternity at Bishopscourt, being present to Jesus who is present everywhere in everyone.

Jocelyne, Caroline, Helene and JudithJocelyne, Caroline, Helene and Judith
The little house on the neglected ex-RAF base among those who were rather on the edge of things was simply a presence. Our neighbours were our friends and we shared in their joys and sorrows and they in ours. They taught me, for example, how to read the local weather, the art of gleaning fields (which I had only read about in the Bible being a city girl), they taught me about friendship – being friends with the stranger, even the old “enemy” in their midst. For me it was a mark of that friendship and eventual trust that built up that in my last few days there one of them confided to me that the association many would have of my standard English accent was of the door being kicked down at 2am and being made to stand spread-eagled against the wall. Being present to and choosing to live in the continuing depravation of the area, hearing the “other side” of the story, being willing to bear the tension and the uncomfortable guilt of history (and the residual present reality) was for me very much part of my calling as a Sister of the Love of God, dedicated as we are to reconciliation – both of the Church and of people and history. I think the Little Sisters way of expressing that part of their charism is “unity” and “universal brotherhood”.
We were also present to each other, a diverse and international group – a common feature of Fraternities but something more novel for me – learning each other’s customs and culture, whether that be in cooking or less tangible ways contributed to the richness of life and gave a “flavour” to “presence”.

Bishopscourt ChapelBishopscourt Chapel
The heart of the life was Adoration and a daily breaking of the bread of the Word of the Gospel together – those two pillars united us in Jesus and from that unity it became possible to live the tensions of our diversity. We were each present to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and I can only speak for myself, but I found myself being given Jesus by the thoughts, words and prayers shared as we reflected on the Gospel. Did that make Jesus “present” to those around us? Who can tell?

Mat Talbot groupMat Talbot group
But the Fraternity was a place people knew they could come and would be accepted and welcomed. Our gentle learning of each other and each other’s ways of worship over the two years moved from the occasional service to a more regular experience and that the Sisters attended services with me spread to some friends coming too. Perhaps the most moving occasion for me was the service I regularly attended at the Cathedral which I went to the day I flew back to England. Getting wind of the fact that there was going to be a service at which the Anglican congregation would say “Farewell” several of our friends asked if they too could attend. In the end the congregation was double its normal size and about equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics – and we even had some traditional Irish fiddle music at the Offertory as someone requested I play and Ernie who taught me was also present, so we played together. That little vignette encapsulates for me “Presence”. It couldn’t have been planned as a goal and I suspect it would not have happened without many aspects of two years of simple presence. It was a remarkable service both in my life but also in the lives of those who attended, for some it was their first experience of an Anglican Eucharist.
Were you to ask a worm “But what do you do?” I suspect it would reply “I sleep, I eat, I move around searching for food – in short I live an ordinary life like any other creature, I am just there” but the worm’s ordinary life in the soil, it’s “just thereness” aerates the soil for all the creatures and plants that live in it. Maybe the “ministry of presence” works like that too – just living an ordinary life by choice in a particular place? I should own that I owe the phrase “ministry of presence” to the Cathedral clergy who prayed each week for “Sister Judith and the Little Sisters in their ministry of presence in Ballyhornan” and continue to do so in my absence. That again was another gift from the Cathedral congregation who about a month after my arrival went to the clergy and requested that the Fraternity be prayed for as they already prayed for the Brothers at Rostrevor which has historical links with the Cathedral, surely they should be praying for the sisters living on their doorstep? Now in my absence the sisters have continued to attend the Thursday morning service on occasions and the congregation appreciate that and have become the sisters friends in a different way – an outward expression of Brother Charles’ universal brotherhood in a still divided society (albeit that Downpatrick is known for its good community relations).