I spoke not long ago with an old friend, and we talked a little bit about ministry to the sick. I haven't done all that much yet--my field parish didn't need any hospital or home visits in my time there, and so my main experience was Clinical Pastoral Training (the less-intensive version of Clinical Pastoral Education we deacons receive), which I did at at New York Presbyterian. But our conversation reminded me of ow afraid I'd been of CPT before I did it.
Not for myself, really--I was deathly afraid that I'd let down the patients that I was there to help. I doubted my own ability to bring any comfort, because my primary ways of dealing with the world--knowledge and deploying it--were useless. I knew that much.
What I didn't realize is that a willingness to plunge in, listen, and meet people where they are was really all I had to bring into the room. The rest was God and the patient. I was really there as catalyst to that conversation--a witness in some cases, in other, a proxy--someone to whom the patient could say the things they needed to say to God, but needed someone who would visibly hear it for it to have meaning. Sometimes I was there just to be a symbol that God and the Church had not abandoned the ailing person. And on one occasion, my role was to help the family by providing a liturgical framework n which to say their goodbyes.
In none of those roles did I do anything clever or special. To paraphrase David Niven, I showed up, I stood with the sick person, and I paid attention. I was mindful, I'll give myself that. And that's not nothing.
Mindfulness isn't easy--it's a personal flaw of mine that I can get so wrapped in my own thoughts that I am not aware of what's right in front of me. So the fact that I was able to get out of the way, and be there for the person I was there to serve and the God who called me to that service is a big deal for me. But this isn't ultimately about me.
No, it's about the shape of things--how there can be a beauty in the lifecycle, even with the pain that entails. I knew someone once who had fractured several relationships that were important to her. When she was diagnosed with a terminal illness, the jolt of impending mortality galvanized her into action; she used her last months to repair those relationships insofar as she could. I've never seen more meaning plucked from a tragic situation.
Sometimes I get asked--especially if I'm wearing the clerical collar--how my faith survives a world in which terrible things happen to good people on a daily basis--not in a hostile way, but in a sense of genuine curiosity. I don't have perfect answer, other than for me that's the point of the Incarnation--God isn't estranged from our sufferings, watching them afar like the gods in Lear; no, God is here in the world suffering with and for us, and helping us to draw meaning from suffering.
But why do we suffer, why do we die? Maybe we need to be finite, to have endings, to impel us to the sort of heroic reconciliation the woman I mentioned performed in her last months. Maybe we need to age and die to let go of this good Creation for whatever lies ahead. Because I don't believe that death is the end, you see. The writings of the mystics, and the weaker "peak experiences" described by Abraham Maslow, happen more often than we think. Inge wrote that the mystical facility is one which all posses, but few develop. Inge quotes his beloved Plotinus: "Nothing that truly is can ever perish." Robertson Davies agreed with him in his last novel, The Cunning Man. I don't believe it because they say so, but their testimony, and that of many others, validates my own experience and intuitions.
But this is becoming intellectual again, and that's not where I want to go. I'm not able to give you the answer why life has a shape that includes suffering, the sadness and rewards of aging and includes death. It does; that's all. But the experience of witnessing people drawing meaning and beauty from those facts has enriched me sufficiently that I don't experience these facts as undermining my faith, though they challenge me in living my own life.