Doubtless I am one of many readers surprised and moved by a guest commentator who appeared in Maureen Dowd’s Op-Ed column the day after Christmas in the New York Times. Dowd introduced Father Kevin O’Neil as a family friend and priest with a rare gift: the ability to “lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them.” Given the devastating recent killings of innocent children, benevolent teachers and first-responders, it was an inspired decision by Dowd to pass the editorial baton to someone who could offer a “meditation” on what she refers to as our “tear-soaked Christmas.”
Father Kevin’s meditation is no lofty homily on why evil exists or why bad things happen to good people. He claims to have nothing useful to say to the bereaved and the dying, nothing that would convince them of God’s all-encompassing power and wisdom when they are faced with senseless violence and death.
But he does have something useful to say. Just not on those matters.
Though he cannot answer “Why?” let alone “Why, God?” he admits to staying with the dying and the bereaved, praying with them for hours to let them know they are not alone in their suffering and grief. Sometimes he talks with them, sometimes he just shares their miserable silence.
Undignified as it seems, I dare to whisper: You can also bet he does not steal a few minutes to check his tweets, e-mails, or text messages. What does that boil down to?
The highest quality attention, that’s all. Just sitting with someone in pain. No distractions. Nothing much to say. No brilliant insights. No philosophical, theological, sociological, or psychological explanations. Why is that so great?
Imagine you are a quantum of so-called “dark energy,” that invisible force that comprises most of the universe, far more than the physical matter (a mere 4%) in it. Just being there for someone who’s grieving or otherwise suffering has the power to get them through a most difficult time.
Think back to those unclaimed babies in the far corner of the maternity ward, missing the one thing they needed to live. (See Introduction/Welcome.) We don’t have to be a gifted priest, let alone a religious person, to do the simple thing that sustains another. All this priest did was to be fully present, without answers but with willingness to show up…suppressing any compulsion to multitask.
With or without belief in God, we might agree on a more basic truth, that attention is necessary for survival. On the most essential level it is simply being there, giving someone our attention, no answers required.
And if quantum physics has any validity, we can be there for someone at a distance.