During 20 years of chaplaincy in the NHS I faced all kinds of questions which might be grouped under the simple, short, yet daunting word: ‘why?’
It wasn’t only a question for people who might have seen themselves as religious. When I was present with families in traumatic circumstances there were often non-religious people among them. It seems that there is a basic assumption in life that there should be some reward for virtue, or at least a balance between the rain and sunshine. The suffering of the innocent, especially children, resists any attempt to attach constructive meaning. Occasionally a family member would venture something along the lines of ‘perhaps it’s for the best’, but when this happened it was often met with silence and muted rejection.
Time and again I was aware that in life-changing situations, when words were wholly inadequate to the experience of loss, the role of the chaplain was not orientated towards a solution. There was no good outcome, and in this context spiritual care was far more to do with helping shoulder pain than in any attempt to make things better. In my ethnographic writing about the experience of being a chaplain, offering compassionate presence in small spaces of great suffering, the simple fact of being there, bearing a particular group of associations, appear to be core components of the role.
There was more to this than pastoral empathy, valuable as that can be for people in distress. I was conscious at times that I was bringing the outside in. Even while being a member of staff, the religious identity I carried spoke of the wider community. When meeting a chaplain for the first time perhaps the most frequently asked question is: ‘where is your church?’, or mosque, synagogue or gurdwara. People of faith are linked to places of faith and the connection flows to and fro. In an institutional setting this can mean that the chaplain has a particular role in bearing the symbolism of community; connections to the past and the future; and a broad association with shared beliefs, culture, heritage and identity.
Yet there is a further dimension to this role – that of witness. The longer I worked in institutional settings the more aware I became that seeing what takes place, and holding that in the perspective of prayer and ritual, was part of what was expected. People cared that their experience, perhaps taking place at the dead of night in a large city, was not happening in seclusion. In their presence, words and actions, chaplains are personifying elements of the faith they profess. As I wrestled with this experience – and still wrestle – there is something in it about the God who doesn’t look away. I am not there to promote a God who can be bargained with in order to grant our wishes. The very least I can do is to behold this suffering, to touch and bless a life which is ending, and share the sorrow of the grieving whose lives are changing irrevocably. In the current circumstances of Covid-19 this can be experienced as a deprivation for both those in spiritual need and the chaplain tasked to provide it.
This element of pastoral ministry, the chaplain’s gaze, occurred to me again recently while reading Mark Oakley’s reflections on the poems of George Herbert. In The Glance, Herbert writes of a time when God “shalt look us out of pain”. It seems an odd notion, but I know from experience that looking has its own quality, and that in the silent relationship of beholding, much can be transacted. Following Herbert, this might be seen as a foretaste of a time when clarity of perception between God and humanity will dissolve the hurts and pains we all carry.
Maybe, in the request to witness those moments, and to be present with loved ones as they say farewell, there is a sign that this kind of seeing, and being seen, truly matters. That when we sense God’s presence with us, beholding our pain, there is hope that in the end this suffering will be lifted from us. It doesn’t diminish the experience we are passing through, with all its calamity, but it offers an unspoken hope that suffering is not – and never is – the last thing we see.