Somehow in my years of formation as a young adult Catholic preparing to “change the world,” I missed the part about the power of presence.
As a student at a Catholic university, I was skilled at social analysis, advocacy and activism rooted in Catholic Social Teaching. I was busy. In an environment bent on creating young adult leaders, busy meant productive, and being productive felt much more important than being present.
It wasn’t until leaving my comfort zone that I could slow down enough to get myself on a different path — a path, I now realize, that would eventually teach me about the power of presence.
As part of a Jesuit study abroad program, I left my university in Chicago in 2011 for four months of sharing life with families in San Salvador, El Salvador. My classroom became a kitchen, and I didn’t know how to cook. I was no longer the honors student leader but an awkward gringa trying, unsuccessfully, to fit into my new environment.
If I couldn’t peel a potato, my resume was of no interest. My compulsive, hyper productivity, so applauded on my university campus, became a barrier to connection. Suddenly presence was far more important than productivity. I was out of my element.
In those four short months, my spiritual life turned upside down. I had been thrown into a brutal reckoning with my own futility. My activism and advocacy skills were useless amid the real pain and suffering I was witnessing in communities overwhelmed by the traumatic memories of civil war and the everyday reality of gang violence in El Salvador.
I was left to reckon with my own humble presence which felt wholly inadequate next to the enormity of their suffering. It was a humiliating experience for my pumped-up ego, so accustomed to solving problems with paper and pen.
I felt demoralized and deflated. It took me a year of wrestling with that humiliation to recognize that it was an invitation to spiritual growth.
So I changed course and chose to become a Franciscan lay missioner, a ministry deeply rooted in presence, and moved to Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2013. It was a leap of faith. What had started as four months of spiritual transformation became four years of spiritual struggle and a daily, personal committment to unlearning the hyper productivity so characteristic of my Western capitalist culture in the United States.
Every morning I woke up ready to “work” only to find, over and over again, that the real work was in being present. In a busy world plagued by desolation, isolation and fear, choosing to be present meant setting aside my to-do list and choosing instead to listen, really listen, and hold space without trying in vain to fix the complex struggles of those in my community. It meant choosing humility too, reminding myself that in the face of my own feelings of futility, my presence alone could still be a gift to those around me. I was being invited to mature beyond my desire to be all knowing and in control. Unbeknownst to me, I was also preparing for motherhood.
Just six months ago, my first daughter was born, and I realized quickly that what she needed, above and beyond anything else, was my presence. She didn’t care about my degree or my work. She needed me to slow down, stay close and tune in to her. She needed me to be present.
The temptation to shame myself for being “unproductive” in the first few months of motherhood was real and, every day, still is. Ten years of unlearning my internalized capitalist value structure apparently wasn’t enough to liberate me from the constant daily pressures to “get back to work” as a new mother.
But this time, I know better. I now know how to respond to the pressure, as real as it is, to devalue the power of presence. I have personally experienced the healing power in being heard, held and known in relationship. I value that power, even if our capitalist society does not.
When my infant daughter cried, I stayed close, trusting in what I had learned about a ministry of presence. I knew I could not take away the distress of being newly out of the womb, but I could be present with her in that distress. I could offer warmth and tender care so she knew, at least, that she was not alone.
Every day now, she makes clear her human need to be witnessed, seen, heard, held and loved. And I think to myself, Isn’t that what we all need? To be seen, heard, held and loved? But we are too busy, too overworked and too overwhelmed to witness one another, much less to know this need in ourselves.
In a culture that says “time is money” and the great majority of us never have enough of either, a ministry of presence is a radical act. It takes us back to the root of our societal ills, tending to our fundamental needs, present and powerful. It begs the questions, What relationships in your life are calling for greater presence? How might you incorporate a ministry of presence into your life?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Annemarie Barrett grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of Indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.