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Presence: Presence and Justice, Too

Ries.Carol-040108Every month, there’s a special gathering of women in the Washington, D.C. area. They pray together, socialize, and listen carefully to one another. The gathering, which may seem at first glance to be commonplace, is evidence of an uncommon commitment to people who live on the margins of society.

Carol Ries, SNJM participates in this ministry of presence for women residing in shelters and going through substance recovery programs. In addition to the monthly gatherings, she accompanies participants on a three-day spiritual retreat that’s offered four times a year.

About seven years ago, Sr. Carol found a way to introduce her students in the spiritual direction program at Washington Theological Union to the experience of helping people who lack the financial resources to hire a spiritual director. “I observed that those in the academic arena may have a lot of book knowledge, but not so much experience outside of that arena,” she says. “I wanted my students to have both knowledge and service to women on the margins.”

Sr. Carol’s approach had two goals: to let her students become more aware of people on the margins, and to allow people who would otherwise be unlikely to seek spiritual direction to receive it. Her students began working alongside her in a Jesuit-run program with shelter residents. “It must have worked, because several students are still involved in the prayer and retreats,” she says. Abundant evidence that the approach is fulfilling a genuine spiritual hunger also comes from those who attend: “The women say again and again they are so grateful for it.”

Presence is a theme in other aspects of Sr. Carol’s life as well. Her regular ministry is spiritual direction with women and men who are seeking a deeper relationship to their God. A key part of her work is “to hear their stories with supportive listening. Sometimes a listening presence is all they seek.” No one is turned away because of inability to pay.

In a 2007 book review published by the New Theology Review, Sr. Carol wrote, “During these fearful times of natural disasters, global challenges and injustices, and unleashed evil in the form of violence, we ache for hope and wonder how to encourage our directees to be hopeful as well.” Her ministry among women who have few other sources of hope is a response to that need. “It’s presence,” she says, “and justice, too.”