Virtually Being There

As I mentioned in my first pandemic blog, the issue of a chaplain’s presence in the context of distress has long seemed important. An embodied participation in events as they unfold is seen as critical to the practice of spiritual care. When God doesn’t appear to answer the deepest desires of human beings – for recovery or healing – the absence of a chaplain might feel like the confirmation of experience. Being there conveys pastoral response; compassion; and witness. This tragedy is not ignored – it has been seen.

During a recent conference on theology and Covid-19, I presented a paper on the topic. It is by no means a finished article, but rather a field report reaching towards theological reflection. The pandemic has provided plenty of good reasons to concentrate on the day job and shelve intellectual enquiry for better times. However, this suggests that theology is a task only for tranquil times and cloistered concentration, and I don’t believe that’s true. Theology needs to be done in difficult places and at difficult times or it risks becoming an irrelevance. Not only data gathering, but some of the thinking needs to be started in the compressed moments of critical times.

The conference reminded me of the existence of ‘trauma theology’ and the inspiring work of Shelly Rambo. Her seminal work, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, offers valuable material for anyone seeking to relate catastrophe and a theology which is engaged with people’s experience. At the moment the world continues to experience the sea-swell of sickness washing over every continent and island, leaving in its wake illness, death and all kinds of fear – from physical vulnerability to a paralysed economy. Rambo’s book takes its point of departure from hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans by a different kind of natural disaster. As she describes, while the critical time will come and go, the ‘after the storm’ remains. Global events of death and disruption linger long in the lives and memories of those affected, as we continue to see in the various ways by which WWII persists in both personal and public experience.

The impact of Covid-19 is already the subject of active contestation and dispute. Official narratives will be created alongside the stories of individuals who live this experience as a personal encounter with their mortality. As I observed last week, these stories have considerable power and can become something separate from the event itself – a mutating memory with the potential to shape and inform the present, for good or ill.

As a health care chaplain I often said that I tramped the familiar path between Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Usually, the resurrection was a distant possibility and the chaplain’s work oscillated between the moment of death and the experience of absence. Each death a figure swept from the landscape of someone’s life, very often creating the yawning gap of a potent presence. There was no magic which made this ‘alright’ but a painful living with what these defining moments of human existence mean for each of us.

Take courage; the time is near for God to heal you; take courage.

Book of Tobit, chapter 5 v. 10

The picture which heads this blog is of the Archangel Raphael, and was painted by a friend who gave it to me during my time as a chaplain in the NHS. These strange figures flit too and fro in the scriptures of the world’s religions, greeting and warning, announcing and healing. Raphael is associated with the latter and can be found, amongst other places, in the Book of Tobit. Here Raphael both announces that a time of healing will come and offers to be a companion and guide on the journey which lies ahead.

In time we shall all live with the ‘after storm’ and wrestle with its consequences. There will be those keen to shake the dust of Covid-19 off their shoes and spring forward into a bright tomorrow. Yet this event will not be dismissed so easily. In health, the economy, psychology and spirituality, the question will not be ‘shall we continue to think about it?’ but rather how that thinking will be done. Faith affirms the persistent promise of hope – there is a greater good to which we move – while offering to stay with us while we make this journey. As in the Bible, angels may appear at first as strangers, but in time those who stay with us and guide us come to be known for the hope which they embody, and the transformation they bring.

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