As a priest and psychotherapist I often have the honor to be a part of a person’s healing process. Walking with someone as they heal from a loss or trauma is a sacred privilege. This process of walking with someone as they work through a loss has been best described as a “ministry of presence.” This ministry of presence is not just something offered by priests and therapists, but is something we all offer our friends and loved ones when we are present to them as they are going through a difficult time. Last week I had the honor of being the recipient of the ministry of presence in a most surprising way.
I spent last week riding my bike through Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and a small part of New York for seven days. Thankfully, I was accompanied by twenty-one other riders, most of whom I had never met before. This trip is an annual adventure for this group of Episcopalians, and my wife and I were fortunate to be invited to tag along. Loving to ride I saw this chance to ride 385 miles with a group of avid cyclists as a dream come true. I was right. This turned out to be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Little did I know though that this ride would also remind me of one of the toughest experiences I ever had in my life.
The tough experience I am referring to is when I was hit by a car while riding my bike seven years ago. It took me quite a while to physically recover so that I could get back on my bike comfortably. I soon discovered though that while I could ride again physically, I was psychologically not able to ride if there were too many cars around as I would experience anxiety any time a car came near me. In order to avoid the memories and fears associated with my accident, I have ridden primarily on bike paths and remote country roads since then, intentionally avoiding roads with much regular car traffic.
I don’t know what I was thinking when I signed up for this bike trip. Did I really think I would be able to ride for seven days, through four states and never have to ride near cars? From the very first day, there were several times each day when we were riding surrounded by plenty of cars. Physically, I was in decent shape and felt strong for the trip. Emotionally, though, I felt vulnerable when cars came near me, flashing back to memories of my accident.
It was during those times, when I was most vulnerable, that I was able to experience the ministry of presence offered to me by my fellow bike riders. I made sure that whenever cars were around that that I was surrounded by other cyclists. Their presence calmed my anxiety and helped me to feel safe, allowing me to ride through my fears and arrive safely at my destination at the end of each day. And then, each night as we talked about what we experienced out on the road that day, I was able to talk through my fears with everyone and share with them how very much their presence meant to me. I am eternally grateful now for my fellow riders and for the healing that took place for me last week. That healing could not have happened without them.
All of us know someone who is in a vulnerable place because they have experienced some kind of hurt or loss. And all of us are that person at times. People often ask me what they can do for someone they know who is hurting. I always say the same thing, “Just be present to them. Stay close to them. Don’t worry about what to say or do, just focus on being present and in time, healing will happen.” As I learned last week, healing always happens best in the context of community, in the context of someone being present to us.
Extending the ministry of presence to another needs to be as unique as the person being cared for. It can be as simple as cooking a meal, making a visit, writing a note, making a phone call, cutting someone’s lawn, running an errand or simply letting someone know that you are praying for them. And… now I know that the ministry of presence can also be as simple as riding your bike with someone at twenty miles an hour on a busy road in Vermont.