Today’s find: The Gift of Presence

We had breakfast with a nun from Hanoi this morning.

Yeah, I know: It’s not what I was expecting either. But that’s one of the benefits of having a son who’s a Jesuit – he frequently introduces us to folks we’d otherwise never have the opportunity to meet. People like Sister Thu, who’s hitching a ride with Chris and a fellow scholastic as they travel from Missouri to Louisiana to meet up with other members of their religious communities in the coming days.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the impromptu feast was the answer to a prayer I’d made a bit earlier in the day. I’d begun the morning at Mass, listening to the story of the church’s first martyr. It’s always a bit of jolt to mark the feast of St. Stephen on December 26: Almost as if the church is saying, ‘How about a brutal execution, just in case you need a little something to rouse you from that Christmas daze you’re in?’

Soon enough, though, I realized today’s responsorial psalm did in fact match my mood: ‘Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’ (Ps 31) I was more than willing to commend my sagging spirit to the Lord this morning – precisely because I knew Chris’ visit would be ending soon, and that our ‘holiday’ time with our other adult children had already come to a close.

‘Parting is such sweet sorrow,’ wrote the Bard. But frankly, I was only feeling the second half of that equation when I got out of bed today. While I was deeply grateful for the time we’d been able to spend with our loved ones over the past few days, I was also conscious of my desire to extend our togetherness, at least for a little while.

Which makes me like a lot of parents, I suppose. We never quite get used to the pain of parting. So that’s pretty much what I was offering up to the Lord as I repeated the words of Psalm 31 midway through Mass. Paraphrasing here: ‘Quite honestly, I’m in a lousy mood at the moment, Big Guy. And I commend that mood to You.’

It was about then – out of the blue, and into my blue mood – that God penetrated this father’s aching heart with a welcome nugget of empathy. ‘Yes, John: I know how you feel,’ The Holy One seemed to say. ‘I just sent my Son on a trip, too…so that he could dwell among you. Sure, it hurts to know he’ll be so far away for a time. But trust Me on this: Sometimes separation can prepare the way for good things to happen. Exciting things. Unexpected things.’

I suppose that’s part of what makes God’s Christmas gift to us – the gift of Presence – so amazing. Clearly, it doesn’t make the pains in our lives go away. But it can reassure us that God understands where we’re coming from. As America magazine’s Kevin Clarke recently put it, we can be confident that

‘Mercy will be shown us because God as man has felt the deep pang of needing the mercy of others. God is gifted with our humanness; it is a gift, in turn, shared bountifully.’

I realize now that I got a taste of God’s bounty this morning, as we shared a simple breakfast with a nun from Hanoi. She provided proof – in joyful flesh and blood – that the Good News can flower and grow, even in war-torn lands. And more: She showed me that we can be confident God is with us – Emmanuel – even when we’re far from home, or separated from those we love.

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