Jesus and the Art of Presence

A poignant article rippled through my social media sphere three weeks ago. In “The Art of Presence,” David Brooks describes a family’s lessons on how to support those who grieve or, as he says, “how those of us outside the zone of trauma might better communicate with those inside the zone.” Brooks calls for “a sort of passive activism. We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness … But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation.”

In short, Brooks commends faithful companionship to the grieving and condemns shallow platitudes and quick-fix meddling, framing his version of this refrain with the weighty voices of traumatized parents. The public response which briefly pinned his link to my every wall, page, and feed spoke a cry of common agreement, a universal reminiscence of “I’ve been there and have ached for such presence too.” Brooks, however, is hardly the first to articulate this counsel, which echoes works as recent as Rabbi Kueshner’s When Good Things Happen to Bad People (1981) and as ancient as the biblical book Job. But if these sentiments have pervaded human experience, why do we share wounds from moments devoid of their expression? Furthermore, why have I caused some of these wounds?

To borrow C.S. Lewis’s turn of phrase, perhaps everyone thinks faithful companionship is a lovely idea until he is the companion. Brooks may claim that our “achievement-oriented culture” is to blame, but I would argue that the culprit is found closer to home. To enter into another’s zone of trauma requires me to leave my own. To be present in another’s grief asks me to leave mine at the door, to recognize that whether it’s the smallest circumstantial inconvenience or the largest personal bereavement, it is in this moment secondary to the grief of the one I’m facing. Yet the Apostle Paul’s seemingly obvious urge to “Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn” often becomes clouded by my internal defense of “Why can’t they stop thinking of themselves for a moment and talk about my life?” I am too civilized perhaps to admit such impatience in the face of great loss (e.g., death), but is not the same spirit demonstrated in my hasty attempts at comfort? My trite offerings of “God works all things together for good” or “You’ll be so much stronger for going through this” convey little more than, “Please figure this out quickly so we can move on to other things, preferably those that involve me.” Brooks rightly acknowledges that such placations circumvent the grieving process and isolate those in pain from the comfort we can provide – simple shared presence in day-to-day life. I certainly have no hope to provide answers or purpose for sorrow. Such objects are mysteries hidden in God’s will, revealed in his timing, sometimes only in Heaven.

But I have no farther to look than Christ for what it means to lay aside my agenda in another’s grief and provide comfort. He is the perfect companion, and he knows what kind of faithful presence our grief needs.

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple,”Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-27)

Here, in the midst of the greatest suffering of all eternity, Jesus turns in compassion to the grief of his beloved mother and disciple John. The simple act of seeing them during his torturous death is astounding, for human grief is often blind. Equally wondrous is his action. Laboring through his last breaths, Jesus does not offer Mary and John the consolation that he will return in three days. He does not remind them that he has repeatedly predicted his death over the last three years of ministry. He does not tell them to seek revenge on the Pharisees nor reassure them that their present sorrow precedes the accomplishment of their eternal salvation. Jesus’s act of compassion at the hour of his death is to unite Mary and John, to offer them shared presence in their grief and to provide them with significance, both deep and mundane (as family is), to another. Christ invites them to relationship with each other as he is in the act of inviting all mankind to relationship with God. In the midst of God’s deepest grief, he reaches out to comfort what Mary and John will soon discover to be but a momentary loss and an eternal joy, and he comforts them through the gift of committed relationship. Brook’s article tugs on my heart as he deftly voices the acute human need for companionship in our grief. But the demonstration of Jesus’ compassion for Mary and John in his death transforms my impatient understanding of grief and the art of faithful presence.

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The Curse of Calling and the Myth of Creativity
Apocalypse Now and Then: America, Rome, and The City of God
About Caitlin Edgar

Caitlin Edgar graduated from Dartmouth in 2013 with her M.S. in clinical and health services research following her B.S. in biochemistry at Washington and Lee ('12). She now works for a strategy and technology consulting firm in the DC metro area.

  • Jose Mena

    The only bit I’d add is this – I think I have a tendency in my life to close myself off to other people; to deny my friends and even my wife the opportunity to share in my burdens and trials. I think this is another species of error, separate from the one you draw out. Those who grieve or suffer or whatever must be able to open themselves to this notion of presence – first to that of Christ – and then, through that, to those who bear His love.

    • Caitlin

      Jose, this is a great point that could use further discussion, especially in, as Brooks says, “our achievement-oriented society.” Why do you think we aren’t open to receiving this notion of presence? Is it cultural? American individualism? Is it individual? an obsession with wanting to present myself like I can handle anything on my own? Is it a misguided sense of altruisum, wanting to protect others from my burdens? I like the way you point out the refusal first to be open to Christ’s presence…I’ve never thought about that as a root cause for being closed to others’ presence.

      • Jose Mena

        It’s not clear to me exactly why this happens, though I think you are right to cast the problem as multifaceted. I would add that an astonishing preponderance of my social interactions are conditioned by spaces (the workplace, the university) where the admission of weakness is frowned upon as deleterious to the social order; everyone’s always got to be “doing fine, thanks”. Where is it, exactly, that I am un-learning that training? It’s not like our country has particularly strong cultures built around marriage and friendship, and our feeble attempts to counteract that don’t necessarily yield perfect results.

        There’s this concept that I detest, that “it’s nothing personal; it’s only business.” If you spend all day learning to treat people as, well, not-people, how are you going to be receptive to and giving of properly personal love when you get home at night?

        • Caitlin

          The environments of the workplace and the university definitely condition us to perform (says the girl missing academia and deep in corporate). :) Do you think it’s a reflection, or perhaps a sum, of the individual hearts? An institutionalization of self-promotion, if you will, either in the name of “learning” or “the bottom line.” Remove the gospel as the underpinnings of any heart, group, or environment and suddenly appearances again become everything because my worth and salvation depend upon my performance. As such I have to be proving myself or earning my way.

          You ask, “Where is it exactly that I am un-learning that training?” I am most grieved (no pun intended) that few of our churches are those teachers, that the crippling self-help platitudes castigated in Brooks’ “Art of Presence” are echoed in so many sermons and homilies. Isn’t it the church’s privilege and responsibility to proclaim freedom to the self-bound captives, freedom that comes from the vulnerability and humility of owning our broken, fallen humanity and the joy and grace of depending upon the saving presence of Christ in our life? I can’t imagine such a message of humility being taught robustly in any secular institution without it becoming again some kind of self-righteousness.

          • Jose Mena

            Yes, of course, this is the Church’s role in society, but it has failed desperately on this count in our society over the past several decades. So we are left with the scattered detritus of barely-there memories of how things ought to be, and this is no bulwark against the forces of our time.

            I think that individual hearts are shaped by, and to a lesser degree shape, the institutions they participate in. So I don’t think the spiritual poverty in the orientation of whatever institution is purely due to deficiencies in the individuals participating in them; there’s very clearly a “culture” about workplaces and universities and other associations that you become indoctrinated in so as to participate in them. I do think that the right set of hearts can change an institutional culture, but that there’s an inertia about these things that makes it relatively difficult to agitate for change.

            Can you elaborate on the opposition you’re placing between the Christian message and “secular” (here, worldly) institutions a bit? I would rather study at a school that affirms its mission of securing and safeguarding wisdom under the aegis of Christ’s eternal Kingship than one that’s ordered to getting as many students into Goldman Sachs as possible; I would rather work someplace that robustly understands itself as fulfilling the Genesis commission to “fill the earth and subdue it”, rather than one that’s purely driven by avarice and the pursuit of profit.

            I understand that there’s a natural tension between the demands of the secular and the mission of the Church, and that having “confessional” universities, businesses, etc. introduces its own set of problems. Still, I cannot help but think it preferable to the current situation. Maybe I’ve misread you, though.

          • Caitlin

            A simple clarification between perspectives should suffice. I was focusing my comment as things as they are, not things as they should (or as I want them to) be. Our preferences for study and work align, although I’m not sure how to reconcile that with my belief in being faithfully present in the day-to-day life of our broader communities, walking with and for Christ in his work of redemption. I would also submit (and suspect you agree?) that current confessional institutions are no stronger as bulwarks against the forces of our time, as you frame it, and that the church, the body of Christ, is instituted and supported by Him to protect and proclaim the gospel. Hence my emphasis on seeking to serve the church, although she is flawed and broken, just like her members, which is all the more opportunity for Christ’s saving love and power to be glorified in our weakness. There’s more to flesh out here, but I have a hunch that our supposed differences are mostly due to my lack of clarity. My apologies! :)

  • carl12311

    Hi Caitlin, great post! I had a bit of a Catholic thought for you. What if Christ was not merely joining Mary and John in communion under the cross, but joining the entire communion of saints together, symbolized by these two saints. The communion we see in the cross would therefore have three levels: the perfect communion of love within the Trinity (shown by Christ’s union of charity with the Father to the end), the communion of Christ and the Church (the labor pains of which constitute the suffering of Christ), and the communion of the saints (most perfectly manifested by Christ’s giving of His mother to the beloved disciple, that is, all the faithful). Indeed, each of these levels is the cause of the one below it, or rather, each level participates in the level above it. The communion of the saints exists through participation in Christ’s communion with His Church, which exists through a participation with the divine communion, the life of the Trinity. And to bring all this back to your point, we might point out that the moment that so perfectly shows forth the Communion within God, which He draws His Church into, is also the moment of incomprehensible physical and spiritual pain (the sorrow of God – an infinitely worse pain). In a fallen world, to love is to suffer. The only way to love someone is to enter into their sorrow, as Christ did ours. This may not always be the most comforting experience, but comfort is not the greatest good. We should not necessarily seek to comfort, but to love, which sometimes, will be comforting, and sometimes not.

    • Caitlin

      Carl, I’m so glad you read this and shared your thoughts! Almost as good as Orthodoxy on tape on the summer porch! Your Catholic perspective may lend you to drawing out the symbolism (I’m thankful for it), and I’d love to share that beautiful thought of the levels of communion (or relationship) ecumenically. :) I agree with you that each of those is present at the cross. And from a human perspective, both our relationship with God and our relationships with others (especially the church) are redeemed at the cross through the suffering of Christ on our behalf, out of the love of the Trinity.

      I’d love to hear you elaborate on the second point you make. I think I see Christ saving us from the worst pain we could experience (separation from God and yes, infinitely less than the Trinity’s sorrow at its separation), rather than inviting us into his incomprehensible sorrow. We are invited to love as Christ loves us, which may often invite us to share in his sufferings, but I don’t think suffering is a necessary component of every expression of love (which i think is the point you also arrive at at the end). Perhaps the distinction here is between suffering and sacrifice, where love is necessarily sacrificial?

      • carl12311

        Hey thanks for the reply! I would say that love is suffering insofar as love is sacrifice, and in sacrifice, something is always destroyed. We see this physically in the Old Testament sacrifices, but we see it also in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the sacrifice of Christians through Christ (bearing our cross, dying through baptism, etc). Sometimes, if we are loving the poor, this may result in the “destruction” of our material goods. The destruction is not the main point, here, only the inevitable effect of loving the poor. Just as on the cross, Christ’s suffering is not the main point, but rather His charity, which led Him to suffer in such a way. Usually, however, the destruction associated with charity is not in terms of external goods, but rather, a part of our soul (that is, the part still attached to sin.) As Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” This destruction entails some degree of suffering because it entails the mortification of our desires. It hurts to bring our mind and will in line with God’s knowledge and will, much more than merely finding animals to sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. So I would say charity is fundamentally sacrificial (primarily to God, secondarily to others), and sacrifice always entails some form of destruction, and therefore, suffering. Does this sound right? And to bring this back to your article, I would say that true compassion is going to be grounded in charity, and therefore, will be manifested in a participation in the suffering of the other. In fact, that’s what com-passion means: suffer with!


        • Caitlin

          What a fantastic explanation of love requiring suffering because it requires us “putting to death” or sacrificing our own selfish will and desires for the cherished preference of Christ’s will and desires. In perhaps a small way, this is what we go through when we put aside our agendas and concerns to be faithfully present in another’s grief. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my question and for drawing out your point! I especially like how you used the Solzhenitsyn quote.

  • Sarah Thornsberry

    Caitlin, thank you so much for sharing this post with us! I was particularly struck by the fact you pointed out that Jesus knew the victorious end to this story – and that their grief would be turned to inexpressible joy – and still he comforted. I had never made this connection before and walk away challenged by it. Thank you! :)

    • Caitlin

      Thank you for reading and sharing Sarah! I was struck by the same observation as I was writing and am still perplexed, challenged and awestruck by Christ’s example. :) His perfect priorities are just so different from mine. I seek gratifying conclusions and quick results. He seeks transformative relationship in love. Whoaaaa. Mind. blown.

  • Ragamuffin

    cf Henri Nouwen’s “Reaching Out”; ‘free and open space’.

  • Tana Jordan

    What a beautifully written piece, with charming self reflections, all to which I relate personally, as well.
    Additionally relating to (by virtue of experiencing it) the longing for someone to allow me to be in their presence during times of grief, I pray that I may remember two things:
    1. The gaping need for practicing this art by being present –and nothing more — with someone in need. (Actually doing it.)
    2. The awareness of what to guard against as I encounter the inherent selfish deterrents to doing so. (It won’t come naturally.)

    • Caitlin

      Thank you for reading and being open with your reflections! I’m encouraged to share in your takeaways as we look to the example of Christ.

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