During the last three months I have been taken up with an intensive internship as a hospital chaplain. It is part of our training and preparation for ordination in the Anglican Church of Canada, and has us situated in a clinical setting for three months ministering to those in the unit you are attached to. Weekly, the group of students meets to hone listening skills and recap our week of clinical work.
I was placed in one unit (~25 people) at a Veteran’s hospital where all of the residents were veterans of either WWII or Korea, had been in action, and were in the hospital due to terminal illnesses and functional decline. The word palliative is not thrown around a lot at the hospital, though it is the care they provide; instead their mandate and work is to provide comfort. All of the vets will die there, and most know that. Dementia in some stage or another was the common thread between all of them and was often the focus of my visits with them. My days were spent going from room to room visiting, listening, talking, sometimes praying, but overall being a presence with these people that was not there to poke, prod, feed, or clean.
The spiritual needs were vast. Most struggled with things they had seen and done during the war and that often became the topic of our conversation, others were more concerned with the afterlife and what death means for them. Only a handful were “practicing” Christians, many others were listed as having a denomination but in reality had fallen away from it long ago. This made my work as Chaplain challenging–I thought, “How will I minister to those who have no faith?” or “How will I minister to those of a different denomination than me?”
The days came and went and the weeks passed by. Some of those I met with passed away, others continued to decline, and some few defied all odds and recovered from close shaves with death. As I continued to meet with and get to know the Veterans on my unit I came to understand more about ministering directly to people.
The first thing is that we are not always going to have answers, and sometimes it’s best to make that clear.
One Vet wrestled with the fact that he had killed many people during the war and couldn’t reconcile that with the faith he was raised with, “How do you put those two together, Padre (they called me)? Killing and religion?” In the beginning I was scared of the question, I had no idea how to answer that, I hadn’t thought much about it for myself. I went in prepared one day to face the same discussion and thought, “surely he can take solace in the words of scripture,” and I talked to him about forgiveness, about remorse, about God’s love–but still the question persisted, “how can you reconcile those things? Killing and religion?”
The change occurred when I realized my own fear about that question, and saw that my answer was the same that had been given to this Vet since the day he stepped back on Canadian soil, “1 John 1:9!” some would say to him or, “Acts 3:19!” It’s not that these aren’t true, but they weren’t patching over the deep wounds this man bore, so what would? I listened to him for weeks, and again he asked that familiar question. I looked at him one day and said, “Jim. I don’t know how we can reconcile those two things, but I think that’s okay. I’ll remember you in my prayers and one day we might know the answer to that question.”
Time and again with other vets I realized that I couldn’t heal their wounds, answer their questions, stop their nightmares, or make sense of all they had seen and done, but I could sit with them. Listen to them. Empathize. Pray with or for them. And help bear some of the weight of the burdens they carry, and when I began to do this the change was palpable.
The other thing I learned is how foundational this idea of presence is to all pastoral care, no matter how sacramental in nature (confession, communion, etc) or how mundane. This I learned most clearly from those Veterans who had no faith. Prayer was not an option, talking about scripture was out, and religion was not a topic of conversation, yet that didn’t dissuade them from welcoming me each time I spoke with them.
Visitation for its own sake, especially parochially, is something which is not as understood as it once was. When I worked in a parish for three Summers and spent a good deal of time visiting I was always met with open arms by the older (and) or rural folks, while city-dwellers and younger people treated my call with a great amount of suspicion, “You want to visit? What for?” they would ask.
Like the Vets I would simply be with them, talk to them, ask them how they are doing, show them that I care about what they are saying, that I am listening. If they were upset or distressed prayer was not always appropriate, but it was something I could take with me to pray for at Evensong each night.
Too often I have heard about rural parishes whose numbers decline because the new Rector doesn’t visit as much as the old. I heard Vets gripe about past chaplaincy students because they wouldn’t come in every week. Maybe they only talked about the weather, maybe the visit lasted only 5 minutes, maybe the student only knocked on the door and was rebuffed–but the Veterans took note and remembered because the chaplain’s presence offered something unique.
Presence is not the end of pastoral care but the beginning, the foundation. I underestimated the value that sitting in a room and talking about the weather, or the sport on TV that I don’t follow, or the quality of the hospital food could have for a lonely person, but it was valued highly. Whether they knew it or not, I tried my best to lighten the burden of each of their crosses, to listen to them, share and laugh with them, and be a friend to them.
Pastoral care, just like a shepherd is with his sheep, is nothing without an abiding and comforting presence, even if that presence is simply sitting in silence together in the shade.