-- Miguel de Unamuno, “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr”
I do not come to take away hope. I am not an angel of death. But I come to people whose hope is not the same as mine. They hope that if they pray well, or if someone prays well for them, they will get better. Or there will be a miracle and mama will improve. Or they believe in eternal life, and they think that something I can do will help them, or help a loved one, attain this thing I do not understand. How cruel God would be, I think, if they were right.
Others are as skeptical, even as Higher Critical, as I. Such people often think they do not need me. They fear I will come to convert them. It’s ironic that the more like me, the less likely a client is to seek my help.
The individual theologies of chaplains are, to say the least, various. Though some of us are conservatives, the clinical pastorate is a liberal profession. It renounces pontification. We cannot tell a client what the truth is. He must find his own way, for he can only be saved, if he is to be saved, by a way of his own. We do not presume that we can save souls, and we are not here to save souls by spreading our own good news. I could lose my job for trying. And my religion forbids it.
My job is to read the client’s story and help her, if I can, complete it. Her story. The terms and tropes may only by co-incidence resemble mine. I may not assume that my images are normal. I must not assume that I know the destination. Something in us would like to stage-manage death and make it always “peaceful,” with pain relieved, dignity restored, grievance amended, love resolved, grief compensated. Cue lights. Cue sound. Action. Cut. Again please. We want to report, like a mechanic dumping unction in the spirit’s crankcase, an “increase in spiritual well-being.” But who am I to play the poet and tell my client to go gentle? There’s plenty to rage about, plenty to mourn, plenty of pain and loss. Those who speak of Job’s patience never read the book. Job could not be domesticated. He made God bless him for his anger.
“The Lord will never send us more than we can bear.” “God is always just on time.” “Everything happens for a reason.” If saying such things helps them bear what they should not be asked to bear, then amen. But if to bear it they must complain, I give them Job, who is more to my taste. “My sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease; nor am I quiet” (3:24-5). Where they go, I follow. Where they get stuck, I stay there. That’s what I’m supposed to do.
People of my faith are made for this Traveling. We can travel because we lack, on principle, our own fixed image. Our God is not the Unmoved Mover but a Moving Motive; Sophia gropes her way with us into light, and finds her voice as we find ours. We are not at our best when we share definitions. What we share, on principle, is the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” It is written, in our Declaration of Principles. We help the Moving Motive by our labor. If we do it right it’s hard work.
Like Unamuno’s suffering Manuel, I minister to people who have no notion of my faith, which they might think a lack of faith. A free-form dialogue between us might convince them I am on the road to hell. But the only road I’m on is their road. The signage, no matter what the language, is means not goal, and that’s my heresy. Theology is the queen of sciences that never knows her place; she forgets she is metaphor and tries to rule in fact. Keeping her in place is my professional skill.
Theology, even a theology of disbelief, is homework. It should be done at home and left there. A chaplain who believes homosexuality is sin must accept with compassion the lesbian partners who on their love have staked their souls. I, who can’t imagine why God would care whether I say he exists, must accept God’s importance for some who ask me to travel with them. For them I should not speak in private babel but in language that directs them on their road.