For the past four years my father has been suffering from, and declining from, Alzheimer’s disease. And for over a year now he has been at a care facility. I try and make it every week or so to see him and admittedly I often find myself doing it more for the sake of giving my mother and sister a break, than directly for him. Perhaps that has to do with that fact that he is no longer able to remember a lot, to process information, have a conversation, etc. He can say hello, walk a bit, eat a meal, play a bit of cards, but not too much more. So, it’s just about being present in a simple and loving way, however he receives or responds to that, and for whatever it might mean to him in his condition. In my achievement driven mind, that’s a challenge for me sometimes.
And yet recently I read something in this regard about God’s love for us. Although we always struggle to not make it conditional in some way, it is absolutely freely given (grace), even beyond any response that we might, should or could give. I always loved the line of Valjean in Les Miserables, from The First Attack, when he sets Javert free after all he has done and tells him: “You are free, and there are no conditions, No bargains or petitions…”. Of course his desire was for Javert to experience the true love and freedom that he now knew, but the love was freely given and would continue to be given. There might be a time and place to encourage a response, as the honest bishop did with Valjean, but the love is given regardless and sometimes the capacity to respond or acknowledge just isn’t there, or perhaps simply not foreseeable.
This type of giving is what we all are called to do as chaplains in our essential ministry that goes beyond conducting religious services and groups and attending to those who come to us or respond well to us. Our job, and for sure our ministry, calls us to walk the tiers, the SHU, the infirmary, the cells, the units, the grounds or yards where that is possible, to visit those on watch or in isolation, etc. It is a ministry of presence, accompaniment, listening, and relationship. We give of ourselves freely… our time, our listening ear, our humor, dialogue, smile. And not just to those who anxiously wait for us and appreciate our presence, but to all. Perhaps many of us have had the experience of the man or woman who doesn’t acknowledge us, or is dismissive, or even aggressive, but who after weeks or months or even years of seeing us drop by, finally opens up to us, even just to laugh together or chat. And sometimes they might observe how our reaching out to others meant something to them. And even if they don’t, even if like with my dad there might never again come any sense of feedback, we don’t do it for ourselves and how we feel, it is a love freely given… no conditions, no bargains or petitions. What good did that visit or series of visits do? We don’t know, but it is gift.
Recently I read a book called Holy Listening, The Art of Spiritual Direction, by Margaret Guenther, an Episcopal Priest. She talks about the art of journeying with people and uses the analogy of a mid-wife by the side, being present to and yet guiding and even waiting upon birth, in this case waiting for the birth and rebirth of God in the soul. She talks about the importance of asking questions, the right questions, of helping them to share their story and to shape the story. Over time, there is space for going deeper, for healing, confrontation, acceptance, challenge, laughter, tears, silence, prayer, reflection, and together “patient and attentive waiting”. She notes the free gift we bring… “the gift of disinterested, loving attention”. This also reminded me of our ministry of going out to those who do not come to us, some who respond and some who don’t. To all we offer the gift of Holy Listening.
Finally I would say that although our ministry should be freely given, not based on receiving something in return or an expected response from us, I would say that hopefully we are open to be touched and transformed by those we minister to and by the experience of it. Recently one of my favorite faith heroes was recognized for his exemplary faith life and that was Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. He was already a good man and pastor and yet in the free giving to those who had the least to give back, and in his Holy Listening to them, he was transformed. He discovered God very close to them in their need and poverty and yet he also felt God calling him to serve them in all their needs, including speaking up for their human rights. He challenged all people to see each other as children of God and as brothers and sisters, and to walk together in greater justice, equality and peace. And as an introvert and intellectual, it was only with God’s help that he found the courage to give himself completely in this way, even to the point of martyrdom.
May we all continue to freely give of ourselves to all of those in our care, even to those who do not come to us and who return the least to us. May we always journey with them and listen to them attentively, and may God transform us and strengthen us in our service to them.
Chaplain, Patton State Hospital