MOST OF THE TIME when we say people are charismatic, we mean simply that they have presence. Bill Cosby, Charles Manson, the Princess of Wales, Dr. Ruth Westheimer all have it in varying degrees and forms. So did Benito Mussolini and Mae West. You don't have to be famous to have it either. You come across it in children and nobodies. Even if you don't see such people enter a room, you can feel them enter. They shimmer the air like a hot asphalt road. Without so much as raising a finger, they make you sit up and take notice.
On the other hand, if you took Mother Teresa, or Francis of Assisi, or Mahatma Gandhi, or the man who risked his neck smuggling Jews out of Nazi Germany, and dressed them up to look like everybody else, nobody would probably notice them any more than they would the woman who can make your day just by dropping by to borrow your steam iron, or the high school commencement speaker who without any eloquence or special intelligence can bring tears to your eyes, or the people who can quiet an hysterical child or stop somebody's cracking headache just by touching them with their hands. These are the true charismatics, from the Greek word charis meaning 'grace'. According to Saint Paul, out of sheer graciousness God gives certain men and women extraordinary gifts or charismata such as the ability to heal, to teach, to perform acts of mercy, to work miracles.
These people are not apt to have presence, and you don't feel any special vibrations when they enter a room. But they are all in their own ways miracle-workers, and even if you don't believe in the God who made them that way, you believe in them.
- Originally published in Whistling in the Dark