An Archways Days of Hope Exclusive

The Yes of Presence: An Advent Meditation

Sr. Mary Catherine Redmond, PBVM

In March of this year, Archways published a conversation with Sr. Mary Catherine Redmond, PBVM, a Presentation Sister working as a physician assistant  at a small Bronx hospital at the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak. In her account of that tragic, horrifying time, her courage, compassion and wisdom shone through the grief to bring inspiration and hope to many readers.

At the beginning of the Advent season, we caught up with Sr. Mary Catherine again when we attended a talk she gave (via Zoom) to parents at Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx. Again, we were struck by her insights and comforted by her deep faith. She was kind enough to let us publish her remarks here. – Michael S. Cain, Managing Editor, Archways

Thank you for the invitation to be with you this evening. . . . First, let me explain why I chose the title, “The Yes of Presence.”

This year has offered a profound invitation to examine and ponder what is in my heart. Covid-19, the overwhelming racial injustice that has been silent for too long, the polarization of our church, our country – all of these are the realities in which we live, in the midst of our deep desire for human touch, to be with those we love, to be together again, to feel safe. The “yes of presence” invites me to reflect on where I stand.  Where do I stand, and what is the cost of where I stand?

As I thought about the yes of presence, I thought about my time in high school.  I remember very clearly – and I am sure this has never happened at Fordham Prep – that my simple presence at an act that violated the school’s conduct code, even if I had no part in committing the act, meant that I was also guilty and liable to discipline.

I later learned in college as a residence director what the phrase aiding and abetting meant – and that those who aided and abetted could be subject to the same punishment as those who actually committed an act – an illegal party, destruction of property, et cetera.  Each person present was responsible for their presence – their yes.  Where they stood, quite literally, was their yes.

Which invites us to consider: Where do we stand?  Where is our yes?  

I don’t know about you, but it wasn’t until this year that I really considered where I stood. There have been little reflections along the way that brought me to where I stand now. Twenty years ago, I stepped away from my ministry as senior audiologist at NYU Medical Center and went back to school to become a physician assistant, eventually finding a home in the Emergency Department at a city hospital in one of the poorest zip codes in the Bronx.  It was my daily passing the people from the men’s shelter on 30th Street in Manhattan, my personal prayer, my experiences as a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the example of my sisters that invited me to look at my yes.

Where do we stand?  Where do I stand?  Where do you stand?  Where is your yes?  My yes?

There is a great cost with yes. There is sacrifice, self-reflection (sometimes revealing parts of ourselves we try hard to hide), facing who we are, what we represent, and sitting with our understandings, our revelations, our deepest insights. 

And so, if this year is unprecedented, a year like no other in our lifetimes, let’s continue to accept the invitation this Advent and reflect in prayer on who we are. Let us reflect on our yes. Let us reflect on where we stand.

The scripture of this season is rich with examples of what we are invited to.   

In Luke we read about Zechariah and Elizabeth – a couple advanced in age and barren – dedicated to service of others and God. When Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense (the whole assembly was gathered outside), the angel of the Lord appeared to him.  Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and the angel said, “Do not be afraid. Your prayer has been heard and your wife will bear a son. You shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” Zechariah questioned, “How shall I know this? I am an old man, and my wife Elizabeth is advanced in years.” And Gabriel said, “I was sent to you to announce the good news but now you will be speechless until the day these things take place.” (Luke 1:10-20)

God has been present to us this year. The angels might look different.  I do not know about you, but I, like Zechariah, have been rendered speechless. 

Amid so much death during the initial breakout of Covid-19, I was speechless.  Often what I experienced was too profound to talk about. A lifesaving gift to me was the ability to write about the experience. The number of people I stood with as they died.  People who died without their family with them – but nestled in the care and compassion of medical professionals who desired to know each person’s story so they could know the person they were taking care of, not just the patient. The number of bodies. The families I walked to the morgue so they would see their loved ones one more time.  Hearing their anguish and the things they wanted to say that had been held in during their quarantine. I was speechless.

The words “I can’t breathe,” which caused medical professionals to run and risk everything to save every single patient’s life.  The pain when we could not.  Only to see on the news a man, George Floyd, lie on the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds saying “I can’t breathe” while others stood by.  I was speechless.

In my prayer, which was the most profound it has been in my life, I was called to stand in the pain. I was called to stand in the healing.  My yes was in the belief that there is a God who holds all in the arms of His mercy.

I played the song “In the Arms of Your Mercy,” by Janet Sullivan Whitaker, each night before I got into bed and prayed for my own safety, the safety of my family, the sisters I live with, those I work with – the safety of all.  A song that says, “You change my grief into hope of today. Every night let me rest in the arms of Your mercy. Wake me up tomorrow even stronger than before.” My yes invited me to stand as a servant of God in the presence of death and in the lives of those left behind, some of whom I am still in touch with.

Later in the Gospel, Zechariah asks for a tablet and clearly writes, “His name is John.”  At that point, he is able to speak again.  Completing the call, Zechariah was able to talk. 

Where do we stand?  Where do I stand?  Where do you stand?   Where is your yes?  My yes?

Later in Luke, Chapter 1, we read: “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph.  The virgin’s name was Mary.  Coming to her the angel said, ‘Hail favored one! The Lord is with you.’  And Mary was greatly troubled.  The angel said, ‘Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God, Mary.  You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.  He will be great and be the son of the Most High.’”  Mary said, “How can this be?”  The angel assured her that she would be blessed by the Holy Spirit. “’The child to born will be the son of God.  Elizabeth, your kinswoman, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible with God.’” (Luke 1:26-38)

Mary, in her very presence with the angel, said yes when she said, “May it be done to me according to your word.” 

In these Gospel accounts, Mary and Zechariah stood in the presence of God. Both were afraid.  Both were troubled. Both were confused by what was being asked of them – and they said yes.  Both accepted the call of God and brought life to the world. Both brought the life of Christ to our world – one in preparation, one in actuality. Both brought the light of Christ to our world.

Where do we stand? Where do I stand? Where do you stand? Where is your yes? My yes?

A gift of Ignatian spirituality is the daily Examen, an invitation each day to express gratitude to God, to recount the day, to look deeply at the parts of the day. The places I have stood. To reflect on them and then to ask God’s presence and grace to go into the next day. I would not be able to sit here with you tonight and speak the words I am able to share if it were not for my prayer each day, sometimes simply sitting in the silence and at other times in deep conversation with Jesus – questioning, pleading, speechless, even being angry and then listening to the words that are spoken in my heart. 

Trust that those are words of God in your heart.

Zechariah and Mary were able to say yes because they had that relationship with God. They knew where they stood. Although afraid, they knew and trusted in their yes. And they were rewarded in their yes with the presence of God. And the world was blessed as well.

Where do we stand? Where do I stand? Where do you stand? Where is your yes? My yes?

I know I stand on the margins – with the poor, the outcast. The foundress of our order, Nano Nagel, urged us as a congregation to “spend ourselves for the poor.” Who I am today is the result of a simple woman who continually listened to God and said yes

For the past 21 years I have ministered to and with the poor in medicine. I have been changed by where I stand. My experiences have caused me to be uncomfortable and to have a different view of our world. A very different view from the one I had  growing up in Upstate New York.  The stories I have heard have caused me to stand on the margins. I have been speechless. I have risked my own comfort for the comfort of others. I have been afraid – and still am each day I go into work with a second wave of the virus beginning. 

I have been unpopular with friends and have made others uncomfortable by the stories I tell. I have been in painful situations with my own family, all of whom I love, but who see things differently than I do. We are blessed to be able to have conversations and learn from each other, trying always to understand. I have questioned God, screamed at God, pleaded with God, cried with God, listened to God in my heart and have never doubted God’s presence even when I feel alone.

That is my story. The grace of life is that each of you has a story, too. How would you write it?   Where are the places you have stood and where do you stand now?  Where have you said yes – even those embarrassing yeses that might have gotten you into trouble. Where have you said yes, and where to do say yes today?

This Advent, like everything else in this year, is an invitation like no other. We initially thought 2020 was the year of vision – a chance to see things clearly. This Advent, accept the invitation to write your story. 

Your story is important. Your story reveals the presence of God. And in those places where it does not reveal God’s presence, what must change? Trust in your story. Reflect on where you stand – the conversations you have, the places you are, the people you associate with and the people you avoid. Write your story about where you stand. For where you stand is where you say yes.

Sr. Mary Catherine Redmond, PBVM, is Chief Physician Assistant for a NYC HHC hospital in the Bronx.