A Ministry of Presence

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A few years ago when called from my monastic lifestyle I  found the Lord leading me in an unfamiliar direction that demanded learning a new ministry.  Here is the story of how, one early autumn day, that calling began; to sit in the presence of another as a silent member in the Body of Christ:

Exiting my car at the women’s care facility, I saw there were plastic grocery bags sitting atop a picnic table, in the shady end of the lot. Within them were dozens of perennials that had been dug from someone’s garden. The bags were crumpled, the cardboard boxes were warped, and the plants they contained were wilted; the soil dried. I looked around the grounds for evidence of a new garden, but nowhere was there fresh turned soil, waiting to be planted.

It was a kind and thoughtful gesture of someone, to bring flowers to the facility and so enhance the lives of women who resided there. But it appeared to be an incomplete act and not thought through. Many of these women were not physically or mentally capable of planting a garden on their own. The facility was too poor for an activities director, let alone a horticultural therapist.

The blooms on a few clumps of bright yellow daisies had wilted and flopped over the edge of the table. In a way their sad droops reflected my feelings at the moment: an external, bright and cheery demeanor, withering from an incomplete transplant after an uprooting.

I am very much out of my element when interacting one on one with the poor, preferring to be anonymous and hidden. Taking telephone calls as a St. Vincent DePaul Angel is more to my liking.

And yet, here I was.

I had answered a calling — sensed on my way home from Adoration — to stop here and offer myself as a pray-er with these women. I have since been asked to companion a Catholic woman my age (let’s call her Annie), who struggles with schizophrenia. As I crossed the parking lot to the brown brick building, I mentally prepared for the hour ahead.

Annie is a large and petulant woman who has lived in group homes most of her life. She is well aware of her mental disabilities and limitations, and I am made aware of them as well. She is filled with fears – multiple — always anxious, and obsessed with all things Jesus. When I visit her she rocks resolutely in her chair, and prattles loudly and non-stop for the duration.

One day, I knocked on the side of her open door, stepped in, and found her sitting naked on the bed. She yelled and slapped a t-shirt against her thigh; she was having trouble getting the shirt over her head, and it made her angry. She was frightened that men would come in, and force her to have intercourse. I turned my back and leaned against the door frame, assuring her repeatedly, and in a low voice, that I would keep “the men” from entering while she dressed.

Eventually, her yelling lessened. When she had dressed, she asked if I would please come into her room and see how she had “made it nice” by putting up pictures

She had. Scotch taped to the tan walls were prayer cards, magazine pages, and old creased and worn prints. On the window sill were two identical six-day glass religious candles, four miniature statues, and several small kitschy objects. All of them, every single item, depicted the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

If one was to have an obsession, I thought, this was a good one!

Sitting across from her as she rocked and prattled on, I realized how ill equipped I was to be anything to this woman. In the presence of over thirty sets of Jesus’ eyes, I felt ridiculous and useless. I didn’t have what it takes to feed a soul like hers.

I felt small in the enormity of her challenging life: schizophrenic, developmentally halted, adopted and sexually abused, and finally abandoned to government assisted living.

Against that broad misery, how narrow my life felt! The charity of my heart, the sacrificial offerings, and the prayers for those in need – these actions had, for the most part, taken place in seclusion. This episode with Annie made me realize how limited my heart has been, and why God may have called me here.

What I am learning is the practice of a Ministry of Presence, and I expect to be stretched to my limit. Like the fading flowers I had seen in the parking lot, I have been uprooted from the shady, safe soil. I am in mid-transplant – slightly shocked and longing for what is familiar, but willing to wait for the Master’s planting schedule.

Image by Eak K. from Pixabay .

A Sacred and Immaculate Hearts Garden

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The Saturday following the Corpus Christi is the memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the Friday preceding it dedicated to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. It’s hard to imagine all that Mary’s heart contained. What would Mary have thought and felt as the holy child grew in her womb, as her child marked by God grew into an independent adolescent, as her son walked away from her into the desert? Mary kept the word of God in her heart by thought and by obedience, and she allowed that word to transform her life. There is an unmistakable re-sounding between the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, one that that echoes through our lives as well.

I am fond of painting—as a beginner—those two hearts and the Chaste Heart of Joseph, and have included in those paintings plant symbolism from Christina art (Botanical Sacred Hearts).

Creating a garden dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and/or Immaculate Heart of Mary could include plants with symbolic meanings, or any plants of red, yellow, and orange flowers—annuals or perennials—to represent the burning flame of love that existed in both Mary and Jesus’ hearts. Be sure to choose plants by the USDA Hardiness Zone where you live[i].

Here are a few plant selections to get you started, from my book A Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac:

Bleeding Heart, Pixabay.com, CCO, creative Commons

Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis; eternal love: Grow in moist, humusy soil in part shade. Beautiful in a border or woodland garden. Spring-early summer interest. Can take full sun in reliably moist soil. Prefers neutral or slightly alkaline pH. Protect from wind. Foliage generally goes dormant in summer’s heat, so be sure to choose companion plants so there isn’t an empty space left in the garden. USDA Zones 3-9.

Vinca Minor, Pixabay.com, CCO creative Common

Myrtle, Vinca minor; symbolic of love (and Hebrew symbol for marriage!): Ground cover with glossy evergreen leaves and small periwinkle flowers with a white throat, blooming in early summer. A perennial in USDA Zones 4-8, tolerates full sun to part shade, average soil, and average moisture. Don’t use this, or for that matter most groundcovers in a small, groomed garden space. Myrtle is lovely in a wide, contained edging leading to a garden, or the edge of a tree line.

Fuchsia begonia, Begonia fuchsioides rosea; Mary’s heart, Jesus’ heart: Considered an annual for most of us, it is USDA Zones 9-11, grows in sun to light shade, and repeats blooming uniquely branched drooping pink flowers all summer. Grow it in a container surrounded by Vinca minor, with an icon of the Hearts and your prayer garden is done! (I couldn’t locate an image that wasn’t copyrighted, but it’s easy enough to find  a picture by searching the web.)

Iris sp., Pixabay.com, CCO, Creative Commons

Iris, Iris spp., Mary’s sword of sorrows: Iris is a genus of about 300 species, so you’re sure to find one suited to your climate! Its name comes from the Greek word for rainbow—and when you look at the variations in bloom color you’ll know why. This was the first flower I fell in love with as a six-year-old, and when I retired from volunteering as a gardener at a retreat center they gave me a gift of a watercolor painting—unbeknownst to them—of the same irises from sixty-some years ago.

Harebell, Pixabay.com, CCO Creative Commons

Harebell, Campanula rotundiflolia; strongly associated with grief and connected to the fourth station of the cross when Jesus meets his mother, and the flame of love burns eternal: You can use any of the blue bell-shaped Campanula sp. interchangeably, here. The Harebell is a native wildflower in many Zones, which translates to, it will spread.

There are two things that must always be meditated on together in the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: Christ’s heart of flesh and Christ’s love for us.

Feature image of Reiger begonia Valentino Pink, by Jürgen Köditz from Pixabay

[i] USDA Hardiness Zone is defined as a geographically designated area in which a plant is capable of growing, as defined by climatic conditions, including its ability to withstand the minimum temperatures with a 50% kill-off and continue to grow the following season.