Domine exaudi orationem meam
et clamor meus ad te veniat
-- Ps 102:1*
I've discovered that the pastoral counselor has four healing powers: to hear, to name, to bless and to travel with . . . But hearing is the first power. A person heard is a person changed, a person for whom the other powers may be deployed. I saw it happen. I saw an act of hearing.
Hearing -- listening -- giving ear. Active listening: the skill of proving by your conduct before the complainer that you are hearing. Changing expression, leaning in, mirroring in word and deed, rephrasing the complaint and sending it back for comment. Here, you see, your cry of protest is affecting me, compelling my reply; I am not unmoved. You keep the act going until the complainer relents; until the klaxon of outrage starts descending the scale.
The bigger the outrage, the bigger the hearing has to be. Job was the biggest complainer of all, and he got a big hearing. Everything taken from him by a tiny god who wasn't even wrathful, but who tortured him to settle a bet, he waited three days and then let loose. He started by cursing the day he was born, and finished by calling God into court so he could sue ("I know there is an advocate in the world, who will speak for me in court").**
Then God comes into court, though the god who bursts the doors bears little resemblance to the country cousin who bet lives as if they were poker chips. This is the bigger older brother, and his listening is the biggest, with voice of a cyclone. Okay, I heard you. I'm here, so what do you want? Can't you see I'm busy, driving the stars in their circles and keeping the seas in their place? Don't you know I've got enough to do, feeding the creatures of water earth and air, keeping watch on the monsters who escape my skill? All this beauty! so what do you expect from me, blood from a stone? you expect maybe justice?
Modern professions of counseling lay a long time in the future. We might wish that God had taken some Clinical Pastoral Education. Still, in the context of another millennium, the big hearing had its big effect. The cycle of complaint was broken. "I have spoken of great things that I did not understand," Job said (but we hope with irony). The greatest and most justified complaint in the history of humankind was moderated.
Hearing has its effect here and now, on the prosaic scale. And it isn't only I who get to do it.
I was at bedside as a woman approached death. Her nephew and the nephew's wife were there to keep her company. When I asked what I could do for them, he said "Repeal suffering." And he was serious: "Why do children get sick, and suffer? Why do good people get screwed, and lose the ones they love?"
And I said, "The problem of evil."
"If God is all-powerful, why does He let it happen? If He lets it happen, then He is not all-powerful. Or else He's Evil."
Stop this! he was saying without saying, bring her back and make her life easy.
We all understood I could not answer the question. Nor could I repeal suffering, though all around us were the signs of its mitigation. The patient lay quietly, with no sign of struggle.
I referenced Job for them, that Job had lost and suffered for no good reason, and made complaint -- so loud and deep, so beyond the range of his counselors who counseled submission, so refusing of moderation, that the cyclone heard his song from the world's bottom and came to meet him. Complain, I was saying without saying, take God to task. If God is anything, God can take it. God is big enough, or nothing. We were quiet for a while.
I asked if the team were caring well for this woman. And they said yes. "She's very peaceful now, said the nephew's wife, "and everyone we've met here has listened to us."
She pointed to a bag of fluid hanging on the IV rack. I knew what was in that bag, because I heard about it in rounds that morning. It was a bag of water, with a tiny amount of nourishment in it, flowing at a slow but measurable rate into her vein.
Frequently our advice, as organs start shutting down, is that there comes a time when feeding or hydration can do harm because the body can no longer process it. But they could not countenance the shutting off. To us the IV seemed an intervention in the natural process. To them it seemed that shutting off the IV would be the intervention: they would be killing her. They were in conflict with themselves; they understood and did not understand our advice. They wanted and did not want the fluid. So in consultation with them we made it minimal. That was the doctor's order. It was just enough and it had made the difference: the bag of water was the visible sign of our hearing. They had been listened to, and were at peace.
I went to tell the doctor how beautiful had been his intervention. He had done my work for me. Except it wasn't my work. We had all done it.
*Lord, hear my prayer
and let my cry for help reach thee (NEB)