December 28, 2011
As pastoral caregivers, we are familiar with the importance of ministering to others through our presence, especially at key moments or rites of passage. Births, baptisms, graduations, weddings, visits to the sick and funerals represent events where the pastor’s presence is required or requested. At such events, the pastor is usually expected to pray, preach a sermon and pronounce a blessing. We have a clear role and function wherein we serve God’s people through spoken words, which lend meaning to such events. But what can be said about the meaning of presence when our words cannot be understood?
In my work as a chaplain, I stand at the bedside of infants whose parents are not present and I sit across the table from Alzheimer’s patients who could not verbally communicate with me. In these circumstances, I act as a witness to the patient’s story and God gives me the opportunity to behold His work in the present moment. Through bearing witness, we as pastoral caregivers affirm the truth that all humans are created by God with dignity and beauty and are worthy of respect and compassion. Further, being attuned to this truth reminds us of our own needs and flaws which draws us deeper into God’s compassionate, parental arms.
Similarly, in the chaos of a trauma room, my words can be heard, yet not absorbed by those who are shocked by trauma. And, in the midst of the darkest and most painful moments, there are no words, only a silence filled with a mystery known only to God. A pastoral caregiver comes alongside another at times like these and in so doing “enters with [him] into the experience of weakness and powerlessness, become[s] part of uncertainty, and give[s] up control and self-determination.” (Nouwen, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, p. 14) Our presence will communicate more than our limited vocabulary can express because it is through our presence, mediated by the Holy Spirit, that others can begin to realize that they are not alone in the world. They can begin to understand that they are worthy and loved not for what they can produce but for who they are as human beings.
When I visit Ms. Johnson*, an Alzheimer’s patient, who is verbal yet rarely able to speak in complete sentences, I sit next to her and listen. I listen for the pauses where she seems to look for affirmation. I nod my head in agreement and smile. And, though she may not understand, I tell her how beautiful she looks. “You think so?”, she asks in what seems to be a moment of lucidity. I smile at her and exclaim, “Yes!” She smiles back and continues to talk in scattered phrases and I continue to nod my head in agreement, knowing that God has spoken the truth about us: We are not alone. We are worthy. We are loved.
*This name is changed to protect the identity of the patient.
Joannah Cook (M.Div., 1998) lives in Atlanta, GA and after completing her Clinical Pastoral Education at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in the summer of 2011, began her current position as chaplain and bereavement care coordinator for Journey Hospice. Joannah is seeking ordination in the Presbyterian Church, USA and desires to continue in her vocation as chaplain after ordination.