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The voice of illness, part 2: Presence and listening

December 26, 2011
Yesterday we looked at suffering as the ‘voice of illness.’ This is the voice inside all of us that cries out, ‘where is God?’
When faced with suffering, it is my tendency (and I believe part of our human nature) to comfort and to take away the pain. This is my first struggle as I meditate on the 'voice of illness.' How do I answer to people’s 'where is God?'
It is very clear to me that an important part of any pastoral formation involves our understanding that as ministers we must be a listeners. This notion has been emphasised to us numerous times at the Seminary and in our small group meetings: The deacon must be a good listener; not someone who comes in with an agenda, or someone who fixes problems. In the majority of cases, we’ve been told, the ministry is done by merely listening and being present. In fact, when we produced the Toronto Archdiocese’s Promotional Video for the Permanent Diaconate, we titled it, ‘A Ministry of Presence.’ The message is clear: A deacon needs to be present. That’s it. But not just deacons; all people who are involved in pastoral work.
And I understand that and agree. However, I am reminded of Mary and Martha. Perhaps this is not the best analogy, but I am reminded of that story from Luke 10:38-42. Jesus is at the home of two sisters. Martha is busy with the serving, while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to him. When Martha complains, Jesus says to her that she is too worried about many things and that Mary has chosen the better part. Again, let me reiterate that I don’t think this story is a great analogy for pastoral work, per se, but I am reminded of it because of the tension between 'doing' and 'being.' Jesus says that the better part is the listening, but he never says that the serving is not necessary. I have always understood this story to show that both are necessary. We just need to not be anxious and worried, and when Jesus is present, we must let Him be present and allow Him to touch us. If we are too busy and worried about all the things that we must do, then we are not allowing Him to be present to us. And as a deacons or pastoral workers we must always be aware that unless Jesus is present, our work is useless. If I am too busy 'doing' and solving problems and not letting Jesus in to help, then I am probably not helping. I am sure that the emphasis during our diaconal formation on 'listening' and 'being present' and not in 'doing' has to do with the fact that, in the face of the work deacons do and the suffering they see, it is easy for deacons to forget that we are not the ones who fix anything: God alone is God.
This does not mean that all we can do is pray with and read scriptures to those to whom we minister. On the contrary; being present means letting those to whom we minister set the agenda and letting Christ enter. But it doesn’t mean that we mustn’t do anything else. Let’s be clear: we must pray, but maybe not necessarily in the presence of the one to whom we minister. In the words of Deacon Gary Johnson, “the most important prayer of a deacon is the one he says before he enters the hospital room.” In the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “preach the Gospel at all times; use words only if necessary.”
I see this very clearly when I get together with friends and relatives over the holidays. We have the full spectrum of belief and skepticism. There are some who are religious and others who merely call themselves 'spiritual.' There are the apathetic and the so-called agnnostics - but the issue of religion always seems to come up during Christmas (go figure!).  There may be differences in spirtual beliefs, but at the core of everyone's questions, complaints and even attacks, is the 'voice of illness,' the 'voice of brokenness' and suffering. We must listen and be present to them.
The question is how we can be the presence of Christ to the one who is crying out 'where is God?' Is it only by listening and being present?
Read all the posts of The voice of illness: part onepart three, part four, part five, part six, part seven.
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Credit: CNS photo

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