On Thanksgiving I was approached by a friend with a particular question. She knows that I’ve been volunteering as a chaplain and that I’m in seminary. She asked if I would be willing to visit a friend of hers who was in hospice. He has stage four cancer and doesn’t have much time left. And while he was not a religious man, his mind had been turning toward both the past and the future. She felt that he would benefit from having someone to talk to; perhaps I could offer a presence that would help his transition between life and death.
I explained that I wasn’t an ordained minister. I’ve only been volunteering as a chaplain for a short time and that was with youth who are incarcerated. She said that was probably for the best; her friend was a devout agnostic with secular Buddhist leanings. He didn’t want credentials or conversion. She felt he just needed someone who knew how to talk about spirituality. So I said yes; that I’d be happy to sit with her friend.
So last night I sat.
For a little more than an hour I listened to his story. He didn’t have any questions and not many concerns. His story always hovered on the edge of faith but never crossed the threshold. For a man with perhaps only weeks to live he seemed accepting of his reality. And yet he acknowledged that he probably hadn’t really accepted that he was going to die soon. But until then he wanted to read St. John of the Cross and Thomas Merton. He said that they seemed the most accessible for an agnostic who was looking for possibilities without being sold a bill of goods.
Our conversation wasn’t hard. But it was difficult to walk the tightrope between detachment and empathy that the active listening of a chaplain has to balance. I was reminded in many ways of my own grandfather at the end of his life, as well as the recent passing of my father-in-law. However, in order to be in his moment, I couldn’t be in mine. Also, in him I saw my own mortality; and it was uncomfortable and unsettling.
Which is why I believe it was also holy and sacred. In this season of “thinness,” I was able to share a space and moment with another human being as he approached his own veil. In doing so, I was an intimate part of a Spirit of mystery and miracle. In the pauses between words, there was the weight of a life. A life in which I was able to share, if only for a moment. And I am grateful.