At the end, a moment of sacred…

aloneOn 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.

Hombres de Negocios discutiendo sentados

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.

Footprints-In-The-Sand1Which 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.

Back to school.

854990I’ve successfully completed my first class at Seattle University! Huzzah! Take that all you people who… well… actually were quite supportive of this crazy idea. The class was STMM 5530: Pastoral Care Skills, which is usually ten weeks long but because it was a summer session, was compressed into five days. Ten women and one man (me!), from six different faith backgrounds and three different degree tracks, came together to help each other learn how to listen. It felt more like a retreat than a grad school class.

9398Learning how to listen may sound easy, but we tread into some deep emotional, spiritual and psychological waters. There were five required texts for the course and all needed to be read before the first day of class. Armed with theory, in class we discussed how family history, genetics, society, ethnicity, culture and religion all came together to fashion our behavior, specifically how we react in anger, fear, guilt and depression. In order to bring healing, we needed to understand brokenness; specifically, our own.

tumblr_lqeip8nsdz1qcn6k7o4_250We formed triads, and twice a day each of us had a turn at being an observer, listener and speaker. All sessions were video recorded. We were to review our listening sessions and critique our own behavior: How am I sitting? What kinds of questions am I asking? Am I looking at the speaker? How are our chairs positioned? What does my voice sound like? How am I using my facial expressions? We also had constructive feedback from peers and instructors.

105909-Black-Dynamite-now-this-is-som-gQ4KNone of the class was role play. As the speaker, we needed to respond from the heart. Some topics of discussion were: “Who are you and why are you here?” “What are your limitations and strengths?” “What aspects of your family were most difficult?” “What excuses do you use to avoid self-care?” “Where does your anger come from?” “How do you react to conflict, and why?” “How do issues of power and vulnerability affect your life?” It may seem crazy to be able to honestly speak this kind of personal truth to complete strangers.  Thankfully, I had two amazing women in my triad who made self-disclosure incredibly easy.

gif-8The goal of all this is to begin fashioning a sense of pastoral presence; a way of being fully attentive to a care-seeker in a way that affirms their worth and dignity as a human being and provides a safe environment from which to begin healing. I learned this requires an enormous amount of self-examination and self-knowledge. It demands that I be the servant-leader. I also learned there is a scary amount of power that comes with ministry. I’m thankful that I’ve chosen a school which teaches the responsibility, compassion and humility necessary to use that power in a way that respects and honors each individual person I meet.

I can’t wait for the fall semester.