Thank you for the beloved art: Richard Hooks: “Head of Jesus”
Dear Readers, It has been a long time since I wrote, as seminary has kept me busy. I promised in my introduction that some day I would share more about the experiences which shaped my way of understanding and living in the world. Here is a theological reflection I wrote following my first experience in Clinical Pastoral Education at a hospital. As we approach Easter, I thought it appropriate. It is long…. so if you are interested- get a snack and a beverage! Peace- Gina
As a former Roman Catholic and family member of several mechanical engineers, my embedded thought processes and theology flowed easily into a polarized dualism. I was either good or bad; getting A’s or anything else that was not as good; I was either pro-life or pro-death, people go to Heaven or Hell, I needed to do what other people want or I would hurt them. There were many of what John Savage refers to as “life commandments” that I have been applying to myself, others, the way the world operates, and yes, God (Savage, 117). Until CPE I was convinced that I had been doing a pretty good job of returning myself to the spiritually coveted non-dual thinking and functional self-awareness. However, I realized that CPE is the ultimate crucible for Truth; and that it, Truth that is, is beyond all definition. In its fullness, it is Mystery. There is no greater mystery or representation for me of the CPE experience than the Incarnation, the Holy AND.
The mystery of the incarnation is that God who exists outside all boundaries and yet inhabits all possible spaces, times, and circumstances loved His creation so much that he made full communication and communion possible by inhabiting our very selves and cells. Furthermore, the mystery of Christ is that this person was human and God simultaneously. Christ’s part in the Trinity connects Him with the timeless, ubiquitous presence of God. How can that apply to us at IU North? It puts a framework around all that we humans live and know. It puts the ministry of hospital chaplaincy and the evolution of our pastoral identities in a context. It informs my ministry to the point that I can say with confidence to someone in immeasurable pain that the One who is without measure is present both in that pain AND on the other side of the crippling acuity it causes at the moment I am re-iterating Christ’s promise: “I AM with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt: 28:20).
The story of the person of Jesus, flesh and blood, connects humankind so completely with God that for me it bears the power to give all human experience a holiness. The science and the hidden secrets of the biology and physiology of the body, shared by Christ are proof of God’s magnificence. Seeing people whose wish in a particular moment is as simple as breathing unobstructed, being able to control their own bowels, being able to keep all of their original body parts, etc. is an exercise in Grace and gratitude. The body simply working how it was originally designed is a miracle that I am reminded of each time I am on the medical units. This clinical setting shows me the Grace of every-day life and health; and it also reminds me of the fact that nothing in our lives is outside of God’s awareness, and empathy through Christ. The suffering, frustration, and feelings of abandonment Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane and passion encompass an extreme edge of experience that touches into some of the atrocities human kind has committed and faced. AND accompanying that suffering in his life was forgiveness of those who betrayed and tortured him, and finally transcending the ultimate alienating experience, death.
Several months before beginning CPE I attended a series of lectures on Discernment which re-introduced me to some of the language St. Ignatius of Loyola used to describe aspects of our faith journey: the terms consolation and desolation. Consolation refers to that which enflames the soul with love, increasing joy, faith, hope, charity, faith and tranquility in one’s being and a feeling of closeness and movement towards God. Whereas desolation refers to the opposites of those feelings such as turmoil, agitation, loneliness, temptation, listlessness, unhappiness and feeling generally separated from God (Martin, 308-309). That which fills the space between these two experiences with meaning and possibility is the mystery of the Incarnation, the IAM.
I AM is outside of time and without limitations, yet chooses to be with us. In John’s Gospel and Revelations, Christ defines Himself with several bold titles including alpha and omega (Rv: 22:13) using the well known “I AM” statements. Of the various proclamations Christ makes about who he is, and how he relates with us in the books by Matthew and John, the one common denominator is the “I AM.” In my Trinitarian theology, this is the same “I AM” as the One who named Himself to Moses: Ex: 3:14 “I am who I am,” and the same God who spoke in Isaiah 41:10 “Do not fear, for I am with you.” I experience an undercurrent of consolation that is steady and unwavering, when the rapids of desolation are the loudest. I have been thrown into the depths of desolation with my early verbatim subject asking “why her?” and fearing death from cancer; to the high’s of consolation with one of my last verbatim subjects being filled with joy and tranquility and stories of God’s blessings in his cancer journey. These are the AND’s made accessible through the Incarnation.
In the hospital setting and in our personal lives and global community we witness great suffering on a regular basis; AND we are privy to some of the most sacred, intimate moments of life where miracles and conversions take place and Eucharist is shared. My favorite representation of this at North is the fourth floor. There, we have peds nurses who are treating kids with terrible injuries, handicaps and disease and still choosing to get pregnant themselves. We have the sickest people in the hospital between peds and adult ICU in one wing; and just down the hall is labor and delivery. The fourth floor is the AND floor. As professional chaplains and or ministers, we are the representative AND’s in the world we live in. We must be vehicles moving with such mass and force down the highway of life that we create a draft around us strong and steady enough for people to follow when they are out of gas or have lost their ways. Also, we must be surrounded and supported by others who can get us to the next gas station and take the lead when we lose our way. We are not called to fix or change anything that is shared with us, or that we are present for, we are called only to be a witness and a presence. We are called to sit in darkness and see, if not just remember the existence of other side of feelings of darkness and separation from God.
Having the Ignatian notions of consolation and desolation named before I entered CPE has given me such normalization while I struggle to “trust the process” of all these aspects of spiritual and personal development into which I have been called during CPE, the ordination process, and discerning lay association with the Sisters of Saint Francis simultaneously. Another piece of work which was pivotal to my application of the Incarnation in accepting the process, and searching for peace within tension as it relates to CPE comes from Cynthia Bourgeault’s TheWisdom Jesus. The way Bourgeault interprets the period of Jesus’ narrative between his Death and resurrection when he descended into Hell, describes what happened there in a way that emphasizes the constructive value of what has been painful for me in CPE. She offers that Jesus just sat there among the faces of the collected false self who were the darkest, deepest, most alienated, and in the most constricted states of pained consciousness. He sat there “in the midst of all this blackness, not judging, not fixing, just letting it be in love. And in so doing, he was allowing love to go deeper, pressing all the way to the innermost ground out of which the opposites arise and holding that to the light.” A harmonizing love infiltrated the deepest darkness in a way that didn’t override them or cancel them, but gently reconnected them to the whole, (Bourgeault, 123). This sitting in non judgement, inviting people back into consolation with love and presence is the essence of supervision, peer group work, and chaplaincy. One of the most challenging parts of the peer group and supervision portion of CPE has been accepting the tension of being the one feeling tortured by my inner “constricted consciousness” and egoic tendencies, and having people witness it, care-front me in it and still love me through it. We have been Jesus to each other: the teacher, the shepherd, the brother/sister, the pastor, and Elton Trueblood’s “AND” (Savage, 105).
God is in all experiences now, because he was, as and through Jesus. I have used the Garden of Gethsemane time and again with patients to assure them that fear, doubt, abandonment and generally negative places of suffering are places God has been and is with them. The Incarnation gives us stories like this, gives us God’s first hand account of faith in times of suffering and fear, of divinity within humanity. But what about those who are not Christian? As an acknowledgement of my learning goal involving the honor and understanding of diversity and offering witness outside my chosen Christian, Trinitarian models, I offer the cycles of nature and the body as ways for us to know the movement of God without naming God. Imagine how people watching the sky seeing the moon grow and disappear over and over, and the sun rise and set day in and out felt before they knew what it was and how it was happening. We have so many tools that teach us the need for growth, movement and detachment in addition to faith. My love of contemplation in nature, and Buddhist philosophy show me that while the experiences of suffering and desolation may be inevitable parts of human life; they are not the only parts, nor are they permanent. That is a law of nature and physics to some degree, but some patients show me that that they can die scared and angry. So, I return then to my faith to comfort me and survivors of those painful deaths, that healing may not come on the earthly side of existence but that death returns us to our origins in God and to wholeness and love.
The cycles and inevitabilities of life are ever present in the hospital. Patients have a way of bringing me down and holding the light, volleying me back and forth between rooms. CPE calls me to keep going and to keep using my supervisors and peers to help get me balanced, refreshed, normalized, and safe. I came into the hospital setting with the idea that wearing a badge that said “Chaplain” communicated the very presence of the possibility of God in all places and experiences, pleasant and painful. I still believe that passionately on a good day; but honestly a lot of days I believe it more in concept. I still fight to know viscerally, with certainty that I can feel, the Truth of this. I have to choose it again and again. I want this deeply for every person I meet. I have to admit that agenda. I do not attach to one set concept of what it means to know God viscerally, but I have attached completely to its potential. CPE has challenged what I thought I knew about who I am and how to implement my calling. I have polarized so many times. I want to know it all and do it all perfectly. I want to forgo my humanness and be one with only divinity. I find myself feeling abandoned between the polarity of my egoic desires and my actual life. CPE reminds me that just as when I put a hot glass dish in cold water, it will shatter; if I try to learn and be too much too quickly I will get broken. The AND is not just to offer in ministry; it is to live as ministers. Incarnation means what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin taught us, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” It was good enough for Jesus, so I might as well keep working on it.
- The Harper Collins Study Bible: NRSV. Wayne Meeks, General Editor. Haper Collins Publishers, New York, New York, 1993.
- Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus. Shambala, Boston, 2008.
- Martin, James, SJ. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. HarperOne Publishers, New York, New York, 2010.
- Savage, John. Listening and Caring Skills. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1993.