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Deacon-structing the voice of illness, part 2

Deacon Pedro

Monday, November 30, 2020

Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash
Last week we looked at suffering as the "voice of illness". This is the voice inside all of us that cries out, "Where is God?"
When faced with suffering, it is my tendency (and I believe part of our human nature) to comfort and to take away the pain. This is my first struggle as I meditate on the "voice of illness": How do I respond to people’s "Where is God?"
It is very clear to me that an important part of any pastoral formation involves our understanding that as ministers we must first be listeners. This notion was emphasized to us numerous times at the seminary: The deacon must be a good listener; not someone who comes in with an agenda, or someone who fixes problems. In the majority of cases, we’ve been told, the ministry is done by merely listening and being present. In fact, when Salt + Light produced the Toronto Archdiocese’s promotional video for the permanent diaconate, we titled it, A Ministry of Presence. The message is clear: A deacon needs to be present. That’s it.
But not just deacons; all people who are involved in pastoral work.
I understand that and agree. However, I am reminded of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus is at the home of two sisters. Martha is busy with the serving, while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to him. When Martha complains, Jesus says to her that she is too worried about many things and that Mary has chosen the better part. Perhaps this is not the best analogy for pastoral work, per se, but I am reminded of it because of the tension between "doing" and "being". Jesus says that the better part is the listening, but he never says that the serving is not necessary. I have always understood this story to show that both are necessary. We just need to not be anxious and worried, and when Jesus is present, we must let Him be present and allow Him to touch us. If we are too busy and worried about all the things that we must do, then we are not allowing Him to be present to us. And as deacons or pastoral workers, we must always be aware that unless Jesus is present, our work is useless. If I am too busy "doing" and solving problems and not letting Jesus in to help, then I am probably not helping. I am sure that the emphasis during our diaconal formation on "listening" and "being present" and not in "doing" has to do with the fact that, in the face of the work deacons do and the suffering they see, it is easy for deacons to forget that we are not the ones who fix anything: God alone is God.
This does not mean that all we can do is pray with and read Scriptures to those to whom we minister. On the contrary, being present means letting those to whom we minister set the agenda and letting Christ enter. But it doesn’t mean that we mustn’t do anything else. Let’s be clear: We must pray, but maybe not necessarily in the presence of the one to whom we minister (although that is good, too). I’ll always remember what Deacon Gary Johnson told me once: “The most important prayer of a deacon is the one he says before he enters the hospital room.”
I see this very clearly when I get together with friends and relatives over the holidays. We have the full spectrum between belief and skepticism. There are some who are religious and others who merely call themselves "spiritual". There are the apathetic and the so-called agnostics – but the issue of religion always seems to come up during Christmas. I wonder how different our Christmas gatherings will be this year. What woes and complaints will be heard around the Christmas dinner table?
Maybe for some there will be no Christmas dinner.
In the midst of all that, we are called to be the presence of Christ. There may be differences in spiritual beliefs, but at the core of everyone's questions, complaints, and even attacks, is the "voice of illness", the voice of brokenness and suffering. We must listen and be present to them.
Next Sunday, the Second Sunday in Advent, we will hear the prophet Isaiah telling us to “Comfort, give comfort to my people” (Isaiah 40:1). How do we give comfort? Do we tell the person that is suffering that “everything will be OK”, or do we sit with them in silence, listening, holding their hand and acknowledging their pain? Do we try to fix their problems, or do we try to be present to them? Also next Sunday, the Apostle Peter will tell us that for God one day is like a thousand years (2 Peter 3:8-14). When we comfort others, we also have to remember that God does not see as we see. We may be thinking in linear, temporal, physical ways; God sees in the eternal. It is likely that our little solution to this problem is not God’s solution.
Let God enter and be present.
The question then is: How can we be the presence of Christ to the one who is crying out, "Where is God?" Is it only by listening and being present? Come back next week as we continue our reflection.

pedroEvery week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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