A Minister Cultivates Abiding
By Emily Ann Click
Ministerial artists face a challenging season during the worldwide pandemic we are living through in 2020. A bedrock principle of ministry—being physically present as a form of care—no longer forms the sole heart of ministering to the ill and dying in our communities. We once thought, and taught, that the most singularly profound expression of human solidarity and caring was to be physically with someone in need. In the time of COVID-19, restrictions have altered what is advisable and even possible. Many ministers and chaplains are currently providing care virtually via Zoom, though many would much prefer to be physically present. These circumstances have led me to reflect whether, perhaps, we might develop enriched understandings of abiding presence in response to these circumstances.
Ministerial visits to the bedside of the dying or seriously ill have long been required to care for the ill and suffering.1 For example, the Christian Protestant minister has always been expected to travel to the homes of parishioners. In 1678, Thomas Thacher, the first senior minister of Old South Church in Boston, visited someone during a devastating smallpox pandemic in Boston. He contracted the disease and died as a result. Thacher’s visit to a parishioner with smallpox would probably not be advisable under present guidelines—for we now prioritize public health, even when an individual believes their own health should be sacrificed in order to provide care. Of course, the anticipated costs of physical solidarity are not usually so dire as those Thacher and his congregation faced—or those we face now in the time of COVID. Nevertheless, a core expectation for ministers is that they will bear a representative burden for all who are concerned for the hungry, ill, poor, incarcerated.
In Harvard Divinity School’s field education program, we now have around 20 percent of our placements taking place in health-care settings. Students from every religious tradition, as well as a substantial number of students offering care out of motivations not tied to religious understandings, engage in rigorous training on how to provide the highest quality of care in these settings. Many of my field education students learning in health-care chaplaincy contexts report that, initially, requirements to only visit virtually those hospitalized (either with COVID-19 or something else) have felt like a pathetic imitation of what really counts. I had anguished conversations with students this summer, some of whom remain unequivocally dedicated to in-person visits, while practicing the highest level of precaution possible. Others accept our program’s requirement for social distancing but find themselves at a loss for how best to build bridges of care over phone and computer lines.
Chaplains most often engage their arts within the liminal space of illness or loss of a loved one. They must practice their arts in contexts where meaning is disrupted, faith is tested, and families strengthen or break apart. Many expert chaplains develop the art of simply coming to sit alongside someone, without doing more than laying a hand on the shoulder or silently offering a steaming cup of coffee fresh out of a vending machine. Because COVID-19 has upended chaplaincy arts, this time may teach us to notice what lay unquestioned before and to discover what other practices might establish bonds between those who give care and those in need.
In HDS’s Office of Ministry Studies, we often teach that chaplains must be aware of the difference between activities that involve speaking and those more accurately characterized as “being with.” Words may do little to help folks who find themselves in the middle of disorienting life circumstances. A chaplain whose work primarily takes place when life is falling apart must practice the discipline of not trying to make meaning too quickly. Great chaplains learn to minimize their sermonizing and to shift in the direction where actions, presence, and unspoken prayer communicate more effectively than words.
If chaplains usually value their presence over speaking, how do we practice the caring arts most appropriately now? How does one develop solidarity with someone whose care demands isolation, in a context where even medical caregivers with adequate personal protective equipment are putting their own lives at risk? How does a chaplain communicate their presence virtually, without overdoing meaning making, or speaking to rather than developing solidarity with? Social distancing from those suffering with the virus seems to be ensuring safety for one at the cost of exacerbating spiritual suffering for another.
What if we look at it another way? What if these are times when we might be able to explore a false binary we might not even have realized we had constructed? That false dualism, as I understand it, might be put something like this: either you are with someone physically, in which case your caring has integrity and validity, or you are absent from them and their conditions. This kind of absence either cheapens or eliminates the value of attempting to form commonality with those who suffer. In this way of thinking, you only experience true solidarity by being in the actual presence of another, sharing their conditions. Therefore, to provide authentic spiritual care, you must take whatever risks are required and go there, to be with those who suffer. We may not have recognized the hegemony of this view; it seemed to be descriptive of reality rather than prescriptive for what should be. Throughout my own ministerial career of over 35 years, I myself have cherished the view that taking on risk in order to form solidarity is necessary.2
Perhaps the social isolation descending on ministry in these times will force us to recognize the frustrations that accompany ineffective actions in ministry. In the times of COVID-19, we are learning that placing all the value on the side of physical presence might not be a trade-off we can, or should, make now, nor might it be ideal at other times, especially if what we might bring into an environment puts those we claim to be serving at risk. We might begin to explore what solidarity means and what caregiving looks like when nothing we can do might alter the outcome, the degree of suffering, the reality of despair. The current pandemic has upended our understanding of what it might mean to be caring for, serving, or present to each other in extreme conditions.
I first began thinking about this before the pandemic hit us. A few years ago, a person I am close to developed a sudden, debilitating condition of suffering that was both psychological and spiritual. Over the course of a year, they were hospitalized and cared for intensively almost every day. In this context, I learned I was operating with a binary mental map I had not previously noticed. Roughly put, I believed, without admitting it, that my words were the “good stuff” I had to offer. Further, my worth depended on alleviating, or at least not exacerbating, suffering. Usually, this led me to employ words to address the pain of someone I thought I was caring for. Effective use of words and presence were, for me, linked to “effective” ministry. This link was unconscious and unexamined, but I discovered its powerful pull in my life during that year.
As a Harvard assistant dean and a lecturer, I am paid to use words effectively. I write, I read, I practically worship words, even though officially I call myself a Christian (on most days). Yet, as I went to visit my friend day after day, and encountered a context where any words, any effort to build meaning, was impossible, I tuned anew into the rich resource of abiding presence, even though such presence could not be evaluated for its “effectiveness.” I began to learn to listen for, and sometimes even to sing, a song without words.
One day, as I went to visit my friend, we sat at the dining room table in our customary silence, gazing out the window at the traffic on the street down below. Between my friend and me sat a woman whose name I did not know, but whose graceful manners suggested a life of elegance. She was struggling to open a plastic container with a slice of lemon meringue pie inside. The pie jiggled as she tugged ineffectively at the container’s tabs. I gestured that perhaps I might give the thing a try. I quickly discerned the trick: When I handed the now-open box back to her, she courteously offered me the pie. I could see that she was a woman who made sure everyone at her table was fed and happy. Thus, it was with difficulty that I gently turned down her offer, for I knew that here, in the psychiatric unit, visitors must not eat the patients’ food. There were many reasons for this rule, but in this case my actions and refusal undermined her effort to retain or reclaim her identity as a generous hostess.
This place of suffering was one where doing things, offering things, saying things was not of much help, and sometimes unintentionally created harm. I soon realized that no matter what I might have taught about the irrelevance of business-like terms such as “effectiveness,” I had actually pursued caregiving as essentially an exercise in being effective. Using the “Right Tools” was important: one had to notice the context, and then either speak or be silent, either pray or offer to read, either socialize or sit in silence. That was the route to bonding with those who suffered.
On the day the pie was offered and refused, across from me sat my beloved friend, mute as usual. No expression passed over their face, nor did I expect them to utter anything. This was now my world: no words of consolation eased awkwardness, anger, frustration, or sorrows. My presence did nothing to alleviate or ease suffering. There was no “effective” or “right” tool I could employ.
My own confrontation with a too-easy embrace of a caregiver role that featured effectiveness led me to an entirely new place. I began to learn how to be ineffective in a context where suffering was mostly not addressable. I began to accept that I had no grasp of what to do or say, or not do or say. To describe me as incompetent would be misleading; I would claim my rising insight into the overwhelming nature of suffering as a new level of competence to care. My ineffective presence was a purer form of solidarity than I had experienced when I visited the sick and prayed with or over them. Or talked through their worries with them. Or enabled them to ask deeply spiritual questions of me. I was now operating in a world I could not understand, and within which I could not easily discern how to care for or help others. Now I knew, in a profound way, that all I could do was to be with.
Throughout my friend’s illness, encounters such as the one with the pie enriched my aptitude for humble observation. Any frustrations I would ordinarily have experienced in this kind of situation were long ago dismissed. My ordinary impulses to be the caregiver in the room had become a cause for me to reflect: Why did I think I needed to provide consolation? And how often had I engaged in simple acts of helping another that actually contributed to, rather than alleviated, their evident pain?
By this time, I had already spent a lifetime training myself, and then teaching others, how to be caregivers and “humble observers.” My courses featured the art of caring without seeking to solve another’s problems. This was my identity: I knew how important it was to “help” primarily by engaging the arts of humble inquiry. The art of chaplaincy is, at its core, a resonant sort of stillness. This art engages one fully with visible suffering, and with the gaps between what can be done and what needs to be done. Whether one serves in a military, educational, incarceration, or health-care setting, a chaplain’s art is to abide without curing, to accompany the journeyer without steering their direction. Yet I had entered a new school against my will: the school of letting go, the real-life learning curve of accompanying without treating or saving or helping or curing. Now I was discovering a new layer of meaning in that stance. I was discovering what it was to notice a world of pain where nothing you could do would “help” in any way.
Counterintuitively, I found these moments of sitting with others who were suffering from psychological and spiritual difficulties to be a location where I flourished as a human. I wept to see my friend’s suffering. I was also moved to my core to observe formerly active professionals now caressing stuffed animals as their minds reverted to earlier forms of functioning. One might think such encounters would be distasteful and perhaps even despairing. Instead, I felt like I had entered a realm where the plastic coverings were removed: now life in all of its true contours was visible, palpable, and fulgent.
My trips to visit my friend made evident other false binaries I had previously held. I was coming to understand there was no real distinction between those living in a locked ward and those of us who viewed ourselves as inhabiting the “sane” world. The less I tried to say or do, the more I saw, smelled, and noticed. My world was like a flower blossoming in spite of hurricane-force winds. I began to see how in the past, before my friend opened my eyes, I had devalued those who were “crazy” or “delusional,” too often sneering as I used those words to describe someone whose thinking I disagreed with. The gift of this season was that I spent every minute I possibly could with those whom society labeled as struggling with their sanity and found them offering me their slices of pie, their insights, their kindnesses. I discovered it was not so easy for me, anymore, to detect who was well and who was unwell.
I no longer was the caregiver in the room. I was bearing witness to suffering in the human community. And that was enough.
Once my eyes were opened to the universality of suffering, I relaxed from trying to ease it. Instead, I moved more fully into a presence characterized by abiding. This word, now so little used: “abiding” links closely to the religious tradition that most informs and grounds my practices. In Hebrew and Greek scriptures revered by Christians, God’s presence is often named as an abiding one.
Psalm 46 advises us to “be still and know that I am God.” In other words, to be in an abiding stance is to know God most deeply. The writer of that psalm does not advise: get busy, fix things, intervene, dress yourself up, and then you will know God. Instead, the advice given is that we know most fully who God is by stilling our own energies. I used to read that psalm as advising that it is difficult to notice, observe, and hear another when you are moving or speaking yourself. Now I read it differently. It is when we cease moving that our energies most closely match divine spiritual energy. Divine energy sojourns with, abiding, not in a passive way, but deeply in tune.
Perhaps this might be a season for some of us to learn what we might offer and receive from our human community. We might be able to grasp anew that we previously had the world divided in ways that make no actual sense. Did we think there was a world that was “safe” and one that was “dangerous?” And that we inhabited the former, but not the latter?3 Did we think that we could be helpful to people only when we could be physically present to them? Did we think there were two realities: a virtual world that was false, devalued, and less kind, in contrast to the nonvirtual arena which was the only authentic location where learning, caring, presence could be offered?
COVID-19’s dominance over our existence in these months, or possibly years, provides a context to learn what it means to bear witness while impotent to reverse human suffering. The distance imposed on spiritual caregivers forces a recognition that our physical presence is not what heals. For some of us, it may alert us to the ways we have burdened the arts of caring with the extraneous task of providing us with esteem and value because of our effectiveness. We are made terrified, impotent, distant by this virus. We might find spiritual nurture by recalling the many words of spiritual teachers who name just these conditions. The Gospel of Mark ends (in English translations) with the word “afraid.” Fearful, ineffective, necessarily distant, we are walking together in a sacred space, an existence to which we may offer our witness. That witness may just as well occur in new as well as old modalities. If we cultivate stillness together, that may be enough.
- This emphasis on visitation is associated with multiple religious and nonreligious traditions of care.
- Usually, I only took such risks advisedly, but I felt honored by the trust engendered when I did.
- Unless, of course, our lives had been marked by trauma or tragedy. But then we were treated, or even viewed, ourselves as exceptions to the overall pattern of guarantees and safeties.
Emily Click, assistant dean for ministry studies, director of field education, and lecturer on ministry at HDS, has directed field education programs for the past two decades. Theological field education was the focus of her doctoral research, which followed more than a decade of service as a local church pastor in California. Her other areas of scholarly interest include educational pedagogical philosophy and formation for service-based leadership.