Practicing the presence of people

Practicing the presence of people November 21, 2012

Yesterday I returned from a trip to Rome with my father, who had invited me to join him as he traveled there to speak at a scientific conference. It was a grace-filled experience on many levels (more on that in a future post or two), but one of the most meaningful parts of it was not what I saw in the Eternal City, but, rather, what I saw on the way there and back. I was deeply moved at the sensitive way my father interacted with the airport staff, customs officials, and others we encountered on our journey.

One of the joys of being a grown-up is noticing admirable things about your parents that you had taken for granted as a child. I had always known that my father had an unusual capacity to inspire friendliness in people, but it is only as an adult that I have come to see that his gift is more than simple charm. My father’s true gift is for affirmation—what Evangelical author Mike Mason calls (in the spirit of the Brother Lawrence classic Practicing the Presence of God), “practicing the presence of people”.

I witnessed my father’s gift the moment we arrived at the United Airlines international ticket kiosk at Dulles Airport at the start of our outbound journey, when my father cheerfully greeted the employee who had come out to assist us. He remembered her from his last time there—which must have been months if not years ago—and joked good-naturedly with her as though they were old friends.

I witnessed my father’s gift as we passed through the Frankfurt airport to switch planes on our way home, when we had to have our passport checked at the gate. He was impressed that the passport agent knew that English speakers understand the word “shlep. There ensued a lively conversation about other “sh-” words that have made their way into English (not all of them ready for prime time).

The passport agent informed me that I had a “cool dad.” I said I knew it, and then she lifted up a rope and told us to pass through. We found ourselves standing near the airline agent by the gate’s boarding door, with all the great crowd of our fellow passengers waiting behind us. It was clear to me what had happened, but my father did not realize it until the agent explained to him that she wanted to let us wait at the head of the line to board the plane.

My father looked at me with an expression of joyful wonder. “People do things like that for me all the time,” he observed. “I don’t know why.”

And I witnessed my father’s gift at the end of our journey, when we arrived back at Dulles. Our plane was early, giving Dad hope of being home in time to see his visiting three-year-old granddaughter before her bedtime. But then we had to wait in line for a half-hour at passport control, only to find another line awaiting us at customs. There were two customs agents, one fast and one slow, and we had made the mistake of getting on the slow line. We could hear the people behind us complaining to one another about the agent’s snail-like pace and vowing to file complaints about him.

Another half-hour later, my father and I reached the agent’s podium, where the following conversation took place:

Dad [smiling genuinely]: Good evening.

Me [attempting a fake-it-’til-I-make-it smile]: Good evening.

Agent [taking our passports and landing cards]: Good evening. How are you.

Dad [laughing wryly]: Tired!

Agent [smiling and handing back our passports with record speed]: That’s funny, you don’t look tired. You look like a couple of movie stars.

Dad [happily, to me, as we walk through the exit]: What do you think of that? He said we look like movie stars!

What do I think, Dad? I think I want to be like you, that’s what I think.

Image: Dance of the angels and saints, from Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment.

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