Thinking about what to write for this paper has been particularly puzzling for me. I could easily regurgitate some of the surprising learnings from class discussion and the reading assignments. But, the root purpose of this paper is to reflect upon myself and my understanding of pastoral visitation. I found myself drawn back to a photocopied article on vocation that we were given in class. Peter Marty writes that “one’s calling is always grounded in the deep sense of knowing that our origin and destiny reside in God. We need to know where we’ve come from and where we’re going if we are to discover our vocation, relax into it, and plot meaningful moves.”
The course has taken place during a difficult and challenging time for me, and I have had more trouble focusing on the assignments and readings, than in previous classes. It’s always painful to rediscover the broken nature of our humanness, and our relationships with each other. Ultimately the darkness does not go away, but if we can manage to continue finding our way through the darkness, we can change in response to it. There is always risk for negative change. But at the same time, there is the possibility of positive change if we manage to develop a healthier coexistence with the reality of that which is darkness.
I have no choice but to find my way through my own darkness. Someone’s superficial assurance that things will get better does not give me hope, particularly when I haven’t found my own healing path. And when the experience of wandering is intensely private, it is difficult to even see the darkness as it is, let alone journey through it. If someone acknowledges the reality of my darkness, then I can name it and begin to find my healing path. They cannot necessarily usher me through it. But with God’s help that might only come through another person listening to me and caring, there is the possibility for healing and growth.
As I listened and did exercises in class, and read the textbook, Conversation as Ministry by Douglas Purnell, it has been fundamental for me to keep my own experiences and needs in mind. When I began the class, I had a preconceived notion of pastoral visitation as counseling people and inspiring hope. What I have since learned is much different, that pastoral visitation is more about joining someone to be present in their darkness, walking with them for part of their journey. Reflecting on personal experience, I can understand this concept of visitation. And within this emphasis on mutuality, I have begun to see it as a real call for any Christian, regardless of ordination.
Through this class, in the role of visitor, I found myself wanting to give the same superficial reassurances that I wouldn’t want to receive. It seems as though I’d been taught that caring is to help someone pretend everything is alright, and to move on. Or perhaps we’ve all experienced this kind of glossing from friends and clergy alike. One of my biggest learnings from the class is to acknowledge the reality of the situation of the person being visited. In class, we talked about disease as a separation from wholeness. We talked about both life and death as being a part of God’s creation. We talked about a life transition as being a movement from past to future. To bring wholeness or healing, the past and present pain or suffering must first be acknowledged. And so, in learning how to visit and to help with coping or healing, I have to learn how to be present with someone in their current suffering.
Learning how to be present with someone in their need will be a lifetime process for me. There are inherent risks in placing myself in these uncertain situations. I was struck by the stories of pastoral counseling students who would develop connections with patients through a class, and then have to separate on reaching the end of the semester. This is trial by fire, without a safety net. Not being a student in such a program, and not planning to pursue this as an actual career, it seems as through there’s a casual element in wanting to serve in this way, with a real possibility of causing more hurt. Even though I may feel like I have a handle on what it might mean to be present with someone, at the same time I’m now aware of the gravity of serving this way. And so, were I to continue learning about visitation, I must approach this in a sacred manner, with healthy respect.
And so, this is where my understanding of pastoral visitation begins. Visitation is being present with someone in the reality of their suffering or the uncertainty of their questioning. Visitation is also a very mutual transaction, where I might experience significant change as well. And throughout the experience, God can speak through either of us as God wills – only by understanding this can I hope to extend true compassion as God’s servant. With this starting point, I can begin to reflect on some of the other things I learned in class.
Naming the Obvious
In looking over my journal entries, one concept that seems to have really stuck with me is what I would call “naming the obvious.” In order to be present with someone in their suffering, I have to be able to recognize and name some of the obvious things that affect their suffering. In class we heard an account of visiting a wife in hospital, who was being present for her husband in his incapacitation. The obvious thing to address was her husband’s being there, incapacitated. And in turn, to ask her how she feels about it.
Less obvious was a skit we performed in class, where a woman had been admitted to hospital, diagnosed with ovarian cancer, hence unable to have children, and her husband was noticably absent. Going through the exercise, there was so much for me to process, that it was difficult to hear anything beyond the cancer diagnosis. I found myself stuck on trying to figure out how to talk about that, with barely having encountered it in my own life. After the exercise, it was explained that some of the “obvious” details I missed was the inability to have children, especially if she had mentioned anything about children, and the husband’s absence, which she had mentioned.
In this situation with multiple details, I’m still left wondering how to unwind them. Which do I ask about first? This would be something to talk about with someone more experienced if I were serving in this way. At least individually, I can think of questions to ask. For example, with the absent husband, I could ask about whether he’d been present, or how she felt he was or was not being supportive of her. With her inability to have children, I could ask her how she feels about that. What does that mean to her? Had she hoped to have a family? It would be helpful to know whether she already had any children. But again, if I were to recognize multiple incidents entwined and happening at the same time, can I touch them individually and how would I choose where to start?
But then again, I’m also not sure if I get to make the decision. In the exercise it felt like I was being given the opportunity to ask a question and then listen, which feels a little like driving the conversation. So, being aware of the need for mutuality, I would want to honor her feelings and suffering in a way that makes for a safe space for her to talk.
I did manage to approach this a little more successfully in a recent conversation with the mother of a member of my congregation. She’d sold her house and moved in with her daughter, being almost 90 and having some health issues. As she talked, she mentioned not being able to get around like she once did. I acknowledged that difficulty, and it seemed appropriate. Before taking this class, I would have avoided acknowledging this, worrying that it’s negative, and changed the subject somewhat. This time I didn’t try to divert, but I followed her as the conversation continued.
And so, naming the obvious is a skill and way of listening and observing that I will need to process and retain. Actually, regardless how serious or casual the conversation may be, it seems this skill has a place for all of my conversations.
The Five Levels of Conversation
Looking over my journal again, another concept that caught my attention was the multiple levels of conversation. This primarily came from the textbook (Conversation as Ministry, page 48). A conversation can move from chit-chat, to ideas, to emotions, to crisis, to sacred. A conversation can move up and down, from level to level, again and again. Reading this, I found myself thinking heavily about two conversation partners that I currently meet with every few weeks.
I initiated one conversation, at the recommendation of a pastor friend, with a mutual friend who he felt was reading and thinking similar things as me. In the times we’ve met and talked, the conversation has gone all sorts of places. It was reassuring that he wanted to continue to get together, and we’ve managed to share books and articles with each other. Before each meeting, I’ve prayed and asked God for some insight into what I might want to accomplish with the conversation. I hope to remember something of the levels of conversation when we next meet, because it might help me to be a more effective conversation partner. This relationship is not a visitation with someone who is suffering, but it’s an easier situation in which I can practice listening and detecting the level at which we’re talking at a given moment.
The second conversation I initiated with the pastor friend, with the hope of some spiritual direction. The conversation is somewhat mutual, but with this relationship I hope to practice detecting the conversation level to which I find myself going. This conversation tends to wander more than the other, and this might be a way for me to help become aware of special needs I might be forgetting to share with him otherwise.
This class has challenged my sense of boundaries. Through this paper I’ve documented the major ideas that have impacted me the most. I understand pastoral visitation to be a mutual experience of establishing connection with another person, in order to extend compassion to them. I also understand visitation to be a way to be available to another person as they navigate their way to a place of healing. And, I feel that by continuing to serve in this way I will continue to learn how to express compassion and to more truly listen to another person’s story.
Theologically, this class has raised troubling issues of the meaning of suffering. It is difficult to reconcile the love of God with the suffering that we encounter among the people around us, and especially when we ourselves suffer. What is the nature of our suffering? Can it be positive? Will God relieve us from our troubles? These questions have no clear answers, but our perception is changeable, and with it we can process troubles differently. A particular challenge is to learn how to not try to give answers or to fix someone’s suffering, but rather, to be able to recognize opportunities to offer a new frame of reference.
For me, this way of serving is a new outlet that I have not yet really explored. With these fundamentals I will be able to begin helping from a healthier understanding and frame of mind. From the previous Practical Ministry course, I learned that I have an empathic nature, and I can be sensitive to others’ feelings. I am also comfortable with navigating and discussing emotions and feelings, and what they could mean to us. I sense a call to offering some help to others who serve in this way, whether offering conversation, or other needs. For me, it will be an educational process of learning compassion and listening skills that could be useful to other people. And, this emotional and feeling service will help me to feel more centered, as most of the ways I currently serve are rooted in a more left-brained place of tasks and technical knowledge.
I feel like my reflections should stop here, for the present time. I am aware of opportunities to serve in this way, and can investigate them. I could say that I feel a little overwhelmed at the sheer amount of information and questions that I have been given, and I need time to continue processing and reflecting over everything.