I was asked to write about my theology of pastoral care, or about how my sort-of-theological framework informs my work as a chaplain (intern), for my CPE program. This is what I wrote.
All I really have of my framework are a few core values. This is because I am, in someone else’s words, “fiercely loyal to the unvarnished truth as I see it at the given moment and constantly vigilant for self-deception.” That loyalty and vigilance once led me to God, and then it broke my heart by leading me away from God.
I do not experience belief in God at present, and I have not for several years, though I continue to value others’ experiences of God, including the experiences of my past selves.
What I value most now, after God, is people—and the world more broadly.
Throughout the first two or three years of my recovery from anorexia, I wrestled with and spoke to “God” every day. This was the God who broke through and saved me—my loyalty felt immeasurable. I never thought I would stop writing, talking, waiting for connection. It was the air I breathed.
As I worked through my theology, something that was necessary for my recovery, I began to write, and often, things like, “So what if I do love them—more?” Meaning, what if I love others, the people around me, people in general, more than I love God? Within the paradigm I was wrestling with and deconstructing, a choice had to be made between my love for myself and others, and my love for God—and I almost chose God. I distinctly remember writing about it, pledging my allegiance to God whether or not God cared about people as much as I thought God should. But those questions kept coming. I was grateful for my salvation (i.e. my progress toward recovery from anorexia), but what was my salvation without yours? I knew in my bones that my fate was intimately tied up with everyone else’s, and I wouldn’t accept any meaning or any framework that didn’t recognize that.
Over time, it became clear to me that while I loved God, this beloved being or presence I wrote to every day and whispered to every night, I didn’t love God as much as I loved my neighbor. Looking back, I see that I wrote about my neighbor, as “them” or “you,” at least as much as I wrote about God, and every thought about God led me back to humanity. God was my sounding board, and “you,” humanity, and the whole of the natural world, my true love.
I understand that these are not mutually exclusive, love of God and love of others, though there was a point when I thought they were. I understand that there are various acceptable-to-me conceptions of God where this universal, collective “you” is valued inherently and unconditionally. Did I get to them too late? I’m not sure exactly what happened. Part of it, probably, is that my loyalty eroded. I began to question the story that saved me, something that had, for a time, been off limits. My story was my center, and it didn’t hold.
The other part is that my conception of God began to change. As I thought and wrote and worked toward an adequate understanding of suffering, it became more and more clear that the God who had been presented to me was not conceivable (or acceptable, for that matter). I appreciate post-Holocaust theology, specifically the assertion that the only acceptable God is the one who wanted to intercede but could not. It made perfect sense to me that if God is, God only is through us. This still coheres with my understanding of the world, but I no longer find the God language to be meaningful. I don’t disagree with it necessarily; I just don’t need it. That’s another thing that happened: over time, I needed God less. I am at present less concerned with whether or not God is and more concerned with values and with connecting—with myself, with others, with “the world.” I could argue that I connect with God by connecting with the world, but in my everyday life, I don’t find this framing to be useful.
I am drawn to humanism at present because I want a framework that allows for periods of nonbelief in God, or a lifetime of nonbelief. I want to be able to make sense of my bone-deep knowledge that there is inherent worth and beauty in every single messy, unpredictable person even when God-language isn’t working for me. My most essential belief, my center, is that people are valuable without God, whether or not God is, and that we are all responsible for each other—to reference Dostoevsky in Brother’s Karamazov, and then to reference him again:
My brother asked the birds to forgive him: that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side—a little happier, anyway—and children and all animals, if you yourself were nobler than you are now.
It is my belief in the value of every person and in my interconnectedness with every person that propels me toward pastoral care.
My anorexia, as part of my larger spiritual journey, is central to this discussion. In the same way that ascetic withdrawal in the Christian tradition is often followed by a return to the world, anorexia can be understood as a flight followed by a return. Anorexia (completed with recovery) fundamentally changed me, not least by allowing me to choose life in a way that I couldn’t before, to live more fully and intentionally. And so it is my suffering that also propels me toward pastoral care.
My understanding of suffering, in brief, is that it is meaningless. It is not a result of “sin” or an expression of divine judgment that precedes redemption. It is not orchestrated by any God or gods. While I believe that suffering is not inherently meaningful, I do think it can be used or understood in a meaningful way. There is a difference to be noted (and, in my opinion, not forgotten) between acknowledging that suffering can lead to things like “soul-building” and believing that suffering is meant to make us better.
It was my reading of my story that saved me—the meaning I made of my own suffering. It was my belief in a powerful, loving God who had intervened, who believed in me and in the possibility of my otherwise impossible salvation that kept me fighting until my mind was my own again. Some research on recovery from anorexia suggests that simply having a story is the most important factor in recovery, regardless of the content of that story or, in my case, of how helpful that meaning ends up being when assessed post- or even mid-recovery. I am because of this open to almost any sort of meaning that a person makes of their suffering in the sense that I deeply understand the importance of it.
When I was witness to a couple’s loss of their child, the mother immediately went to meaning-making once it was clear that he was going to die. She told the room that she had always known that he wasn’t long for this world; he was always going to die young, and that was always God’s plan. I might have been skeptical of her certainty in a different situation or if I were reading her story in a book, but in this moment, I felt the sacred importance of the story she was constructing. Unless a person’s meaning-making is explicitly and directly harmful to their present wellbeing, I don’t find myself judging it—and I certainly wouldn’t want to upset the process without due cause or risk toppling anyone’s structure. Losing a structure, a theological framework, is its own kind of suffering.
When it comes to prayer and other sacraments, what I am again most concerned with is the meaning these things have for the patient or the patient’s family and friends. I never had strong theological beliefs about communion or baptism, and I still don’t, so I am open to administering either sacrament as needed and to the best of my abilities. I do not understand intercessory prayer the way that the average Christian does, but it is clear to me that this kind of prayer is important. I encountered a patient’s daughter who had a similar view; she told me she was an atheist who believed “in the power of prayer” and asked me to pray for her.
In prayer, I see myself doing a few things. First, I am telling the person or people I am with all of the things I wish for them, and maybe in some sense, inviting something to work within them toward wholeness. Second, I see it as a way of joining others in their grief or fear or discomfort, a way of caring spiritually and emotionally for them. Third, I am working on using prayer as a tool to summarize what has been shared with me, or as a way of making the other feel heard.When I pray, I do not on the whole experience myself as praying to an all- or somewhat- powerful God who may decide to intercede. But I do often feel that I have joined the patient in some sense, or I often feel their longings as I voice them in prayer, and it is in this sense that I almost do, for a moment, believe I am praying to a powerful God who may decide to intercede.
Earlier in this unit, a patient told me that she could feel something flowing between us and that this flow was decreasing her pain. She experienced it as God, and regardless of how I might attribute it at any given moment, I knew what she meant and felt what she felt. I have faith in this sort of gentle, persuasive flow. It is what pulls me toward others, what I believe enables and encourages positive connection between people, and what I believe moves within us as we process and make meaning of our lives. As there is no personal-being God to connect to in my framework, this is what I have: moments with people (and, occasionally, in nature), moments of sacredness, moments of basking in and connecting to some sort of “flow.” I move toward others who are suffering because it is my natural inclination to do so, because that is all I have wanted to do since reintegrating myself into the world, and because of this mysterious “flow” that does seem to still lead me, whatever it is or however I conceive of it.