During the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training for my seminary degree, a story was told of a new chaplain entering an extremely anxiety-producing hospital scene. The family he was to visit had just experienced the tragic loss of a loved one in an accident. The novice chaplain was at a loss to know what to do or what to say to be a pastoral presence to a family in deep shock and grief.
He entered the room filled with relatives of the victim, and the scene was chaotic to say the least. People were coming in and out of the room as nurses and doctors finished up their heroic efforts to save the life and the family was discussing funeral arrangements. Not knowing how to respond in a helpful way, the chaplain introduced himself and sat down in a corner of the room a bit removed from the mayhem. He left the encounter feeling a complete failure.
Several weeks later he received a note from the family. “Thank you for your presence during our stressful time,” they wrote. “We don’t know how we would have made it without you.”
Although not as dramatic as the hospital story, life is full of many anxiety-producing events, and we think we have to “fix” the situation some way or another. Our first response is often to use words, so we babble on and on, trying to find the right phrase, thinking of something profound to say, or quoting a Bible verse or two. But like in the hospital story, words are not the answer. Presence is; a non-anxious presence.
Many of our encounters at work, at home, or at church can be filled with anxiety. Conflicts in relationships, heavy-laden agendas for meetings, stress from too much to do in too little time all cause anxiety. We are also anxious because we want to protect our fragile egos, and we want to keep up our good appearances. We are plagued with questions like, How will I come off? Will my views, my person be accepted? Will people like me?
According to Anthony de Mello, anxiety and fear are the root of all maladies in our culture. Richard Rohr claims that “do not be afraid” appears 365 times in the Bible. Apparently fear, worry, and anxiety have been around a long time, affecting both moderns and ancients.
Amidst all this anxiety, there is a need for a non-anxious presence. A presence that calmly listens, makes eye contact, breathes in deeply and prays silently. A presence that is able to recognize the existence of everyone in the room without drawing undue attention to him/herself. A presence that is not afraid to touch someone exuding anxiety. This kind of presence exemplifies the adage attributed to St. Francis’: “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”
The chaplain didn’t need to tell the family about the love and comfort available in Jesus. His presence embodied it. Would that I could learn to be a non-anxious presence in my encounters with others.