The Ministry of Presence

Browsing a lovely bookstore in Kalamazoo, MI, I came across The Road to Character by David Brooks, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and an instructor at Yale. In this 2016 publication, Brooks encourages us to “rethink our priorities and strive to build rich inner lives marked by humility and moral depth.” He accomplishes that mission by sharing inspiring stories of those who have gone before us, stories of Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, and more.

Throughout the volume, the author, while displaying a commanding use of the English language, sprinkles some practical and applicable paragraphs. Many jumped out at me. They spoke to me in my life and ministry. Here is one that may speak to you.

Brooks tells the story of how the American social activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980) spent many years living on Staten Island with a woman named Nanette. When Nanette contracted cancer, Day spent committed much of each day to her care. “Day did what sensitive people do when other people are in trauma. We are all called at certain moments to comfort people who are enduring some trauma. Many of us don’t know how to react in such situations, but others do” (100).

Dorothy Day

Here is what people like Day did and do.

First, “they just show up. They provide a ministry of presence.”

Second, “they don’t compare.” They understand that each person’s trauma is unique and should not be compared to that of anyone else.

Third, “they do practical things—making lunch, dusting the room, washing the towels.”

Fourth, “they don’t try to minimize what is going on.” Brooks’ commentary on the final point merits reprinting here:

They don’t attempt to reassure with false, saccharine sentiments. They don’t say that the pain is all for the best. They don’t search for silver linings. They do what wise souls do in the presence of tragedy and trauma. They practice a passive activism. They don’t bustle about trying to solve something that cannot be solved. The sensitive person grants the sufferer the dignity of her own process. She lets the sufferer define the meaning of what is going on. She just sits simply through the nights of pain and darkness, being practical, human, simple, and direct (101).

So did Dorothy Day minister to Nanette. So may we to those in our lives suffering trauma. And when our day of suffering comes, and it will, may we be so blessed.

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