In 2008, in my third year of Seminary at Duke Divinity School, I did an internship as a chaplain at Duke University Hospital. Many church denominations are requiring that their pastors have some experience in what is known as CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) and for good reason. It is a time of intense immersion in pastoral care as well as a time of deep and intentional self-reflection. For me it was a difficult journey in learning to be a ‘calm, non-anxious presence.’ In other words, to learn to ‘be’ and not ‘do.’ Learning the balance of the two is what I came to call the Sinatra Principle: do, be, do, be, do!
CPE requires a lot of self-reflection. It can get a bit tiresome at times—always thinking about how you feel, what you think, why you did what you did. Blah-blah-blah. It feels almost self-indulgent. But it is the most important part of this endeavor. Because it is in trying to understand our own theology, our own theodicy and our own definition of ministry that we have any hope of being able to offer anything at all to the people to whom we are called to minister.
One night in October I was doing an ‘on-call,’ which means you are at the hospital all night long, sleeping (yeah, right!) in a tiny room and (as the name implies) you are the chaplain on-call for any need. I received a call to the Emergency Department and my heart sank. A 22 year old African American man had died unexpectedly at home, his older brother had found him and come along in the ambulance. I went downstairs to the room where the older brother sat, stunned and silent in an uncomfortable chair. His name was Daniel (not his real name) and he was about 26. It struck me that my two sons were the same ages.
The boys’ mother lived outside of Durham by about 45 minutes and so we waited while hospital staff called and asked her to come. They did not tell her what had happened, just that she needed to come to the hospital. Daniel spoke to her briefly, but he found it hard not to tell her the truth, and hurried off the phone. I waited with Daniel, mostly in silence. He was in shock and I was terrified at the prospect of being with his mother when she found out that her youngest son had died.
In that paradox of time, it seemed like both an eternity and the blink of an eye and we were standing at the automatic emergency room doors as the mother and some other family (aunts and cousins, I think there were only women) came rushing in with the coolness of the fall night. A hospital staff member ushered us to a different room where we could all fit as we waited for the doctor to come. I thought, ‘at least I won’t have to deliver the news’ and I felt like a liar.
A young woman came in and introduced herself as Dr. Somebody. All I could think was, “I have shoes older than her!” and I prayed that she would be gentle and wise. The words came out, right after her introduction, like a bomb. “Your son has died.” Even I felt myself reel. I looked at the mother, and she was going down on her knees before my eyes. I held onto her, her son held onto her and we all ended up on the floor as she sobbed. What did I say? I don’t remember, just that I was so, so very sorry. And I held her and I cried too.
After what seemed an eternity, she asked where they had taken his body. She was assured that she and the family could walk down to the secluded room where he was and she could see him one last time. It was the oddest thing, but she kept her eyes closed the entire time we made our way down the hall to the curtained bed where his body lay. Her family led her by the hand. Someone pulled back the curtain and I couldn’t say if she ever opened her eyes, as her fingers traced his form under the white sheet. It profoundly affected me in ways that I am still trying to figure out.
In all my self-reflection, I have come to terms with the fact that I have absolutely nothing to offer. What can I bring to a mother whose 22 year old son died suddenly with no explanation? What can I do that would make it any easier for a mother of a newborn with profound medical and physical disabilities to accept that her child’s life may be measured in hours and not years? What can I offer a man who must face death each day as cancer drags him further from his family and into fear and despair?
I think our biggest mistake is in thinking that we might possibly have the right thing to say. Or to imagine that we can help take away someone’s sadness, anxiety, guilt, fear. The biggest lesson is to learn that we do not ‘do’ anything but that we are called to ‘be.’ Knowing that we have nothing in ourselves to offer frees us up to understand that it is not ourselves that we bring into each encounter. We are just conduits. What we are bringing is a glimpse at the kingdom of God. Our being there, caring, listening, loving, is pulling back a corner of the veil and allowing others to see the kingdom of God. Jesus explained the kingdom in parables. My parable is this; the kingdom of God is like a person who has nothing, who goes and sits with the sick and the dying and in doing so offers them everything.
Written by Susan Corley October 17, 2008
I first see you coming in through the hissing, automatic doors.
Your family gathers from different points—and NO ONE KNOWS.
Nothing has prepared you for what you are about to learn.
And my heart aches—physical pain—as I imagine your pain.
I am called to represent the Holy One in this unholy space and time.
Who is equal to such a task?
I wish I were somewhere else—can visualize myself floating up, and out the hissing doors.
I close my eyes and open them slowly, but the scene is cursedly the same.
In the overcrowded room, we all wait as the doctor walks in and lets the words escape.
Even I am shocked at their power: YOUR SON DIED.
Your family surrounds you, holds on tight, but you are going
Your knees hit the floor and I am pulled down with you by a force stronger than gravity.
Deep calls to deep—blood to blood—mother to mother.
I kneel on the cold tile floor and hold on to you as your life is ruined.
You ask the ancient question: WHERE HAVE THEY TAKEN HIM?
We make a slow and solemn pilgrimage to see your son.
We pull aside the curtain and enter the darkness of the chamber.
Sorrow has sealed your eyes like a tomb—you will not see this.
I watch in silent awe as your loved ones lead you to his side.
Your strong black hands move against the brilliant whiteness of the sheet.
Such excruciating tenderness that I must look away.
No Michelangelo sculpture can compare to the profane sacredness of this moment.
you are mary