This Sunday, Christians celebrate Pentecost, marking the moment when the 12 apostles were empowered by the Holy Spirit to go forth and proclaim the good news. The apostles moved from a moment of fear and trembling to a lifetime of becoming emboldened messengers of the Gospel.
Pope Francis, prior to his election in 2013, spoke to his brother cardinals of the need in the Church for a renewed sense of parrhesia, apostolic courage to go forth and witness the good news of Christ to the “peripheries.”
Pope Francis was not speaking solely of geographical peripheries but also of the peripheries of sin and suffering, of pain, injustice and ignorance, to name a few.
During our retreats and other encounters that we have with our retreatants or visitors, we often come face to face with these marginal and uncomfortable places. Think of those times when we receive the terrible news that a loved one or the loved one of a friend is diagnosed with cancer. Think of the moment when we are told that a couple we know who appear to have a thriving marriage are now planning to divorce. We meet these peripheries every day, and we feel woefully inadequate in our responses.
What I have discovered in my 40 years of ministry is that the most powerful balm we can offer when given such news is our very presence. Our body language, our gestures, our willingness to invite the other person to continue to share or to continue to emote can speak more powerfully than any platitude or trite expression. We think that we should have some magic words that will wipe away the pain and the anguish of those we love, but no such words exist.
Don’t get me wrong, words of encouragement or words that inspire may certainly be welcome, but I think that our attentive, listening presence to another may be a greater act of love than the pat answers that abound in our media.
In the 2014 film “Still Alice,” central character Alice Howland, played by Julianne Moore, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The only character in the film who is willing to talk to Alice about her Alzheimer’s is her youngest daughter, Lydia, played by Kristen Stewart. “What’s it like?” Lydia asks.
After Alice describes to Lydia some of what she is going through, the audience clearly sees Alice’s relief. Lydia’s risk in asking her mother a simple question and her willingness to listen provide her mother a world of comfort.
Perhaps we can all take a similar risk as we go forth in our daily encounters.