Monasteries of the Heart

Little Blog for Beginners: Some Thoughts on Presence

The other day, my friend Sister Val asked me if I wanted to help her bake the Eucharistic bread. Sometimes I like to tell myself that I’m embracing a kind of a post-modern, interfaith brand of spirituality, but when it comes to Communion, I slip pretty easily into the swoony, flowery intensity of a thirteenth-century nun. So of course I said I’d help bake the bread. And of course I felt incredibly lucky, shockingly lucky, to stand with Val in the late sunlight of a June evening, pounding the thick, wet dough on the countertops of the monastery’s kitchen, following the recipe written out for us by another sister in precise, Palmer method script, and laughing, chatting, dusting our hands with flour as we shaped what will become the Body of Christ for our community. So sacred. So ordinary.

You know, I went to seminary. For three years, I took the required classes on sacraments, on doctrines, on the competing ideas about how and why and in what manner God comes to us in the Eucharist. Even with my love for the sacraments, with my earnest belief in the real presence, I didn’t think those classes were all that interesting.

We can’t possibly summarize the manner in which God is present to us in a few lines, or a few thousand pages, of doctrine. So all the arguments about technicalities seemed dry and pointless to me.

But of course, it’s the real presence itself that makes a difference.

We’re finishing out our two-week-long Joan Chittister Institute for Contemporary Spirituality, a program for young female theology students to study with Sister Joan and each other. Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll move back to my apartment, out of the monastery, where I’ve been staying for the course of the Institute so that I could be with the participants in case of problems or questions that arose for them. So that I could be present to them.

I am, by nature, very introverted, and the thought of spending two weeks constantly being attentive to eight strangers–all of them excited and eager to make new friends–was, let’s say, daunting. And despite how lovely and engaging the women were, and how supportive and encouraging the other staff members were, and how kind and welcoming the Benedictine Sisters were, the reality is that these weeks of spending so much time with people was not easy for me. (Last Saturday, we had a free day, and I took an unplanned four-hour-long nap.)

It can be taxing to really connect with people, to feel their pain and joy, and to listen to their stories and ideas. To enter into their lives. To offer them loving attention, even if only for a little while. That’s true of my experience with the women at the Institute, and it’s even more true–at least for me–in the really difficult situations that surround us. There's so much destruction. So much suffering. So much poverty. So many tiny seeds of hope and possibility that are always needing to be tended. It’s overwhelming, sometimes. 

Something else happened in the middle of the Institute that made me think about presence. I happened to be in a position to watch police arrest some young Black children–twelve, thirteen years old–and briefly handcuff one who was only eight. The police were not too pleased that I was watching, and they were not too pleased that I had my phone out to record what was happening. As for the children–the children were beside themselves with fear. After the police left, the eight year old who’d been handcuffed held onto me and sobbed.

Did it make a difference that I was present? I don’t know.

Little children got arrested for a petty, non-violent crime, right in front of me. I didn't, couldn't, stop it.

But maybe the police had a greater sense of accountability because I was there. And that little boy got a hug because I was there.

Later that night, when it was all over, I told one of the Sisters that I don’t know how people can bear to live their whole lives caring so much, in the face of such senseless grief. I admitted that I worry about burning out, about growing apathetic. It wasn’t that I was feeling myself start to go numb, but that it was almost tempting to imagine it. She handed me a beer, let me talk for about two hours, and gave me just a little bit of advice. Mostly, she gave me presence. And that did make a difference. 

Tomorrow morning, I have a brunch date with another Sister, to mark one full year that I’ve lived here in Erie. A year ago, she was just a week and a half away from the beginning of a terrible illness that almost killed her, but she still seems to find this little anniversary of mine to be worth celebrating. And that makes a difference, too.

Whenever my energy wore thin during the Institute, I found new strength in remembering the moment just before the course began, when an older Sister, who knew that I was nervous about coordinating the program, came up to me and whispered, “You will do this work with great ability, great understanding, and great love.” Her kindness, her presence made a difference.

So, back to the Eucharist. That belief I maintain in the Real Presence is kind of archaic, I know. It’s the kind of doctrine that gives rise to an intellectualizing of God’s workings, or else inspires a sentimental flavor of spirituality. But I’ve experienced presence, on both ends, enough to know that it takes real effort, and real compassion. Even from God. It's not a small gift, that presence, and it requires greater love than we can really articulate. It may not make an obvious difference in the circumstances of our lives, but I do believe that it can give us a little extra courage, a little extra joy. And I am so grateful to be part of a tradition that finds an especially holy presence in sacred, ordinary grains and grapes, in bodies and blood, in something warm and filling that you can create in the company of friends.

As Bernadette Farrell wrote: "May we who eat, be bread for others/May we who drink pour out our love."

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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.