By Deborah Armenta
One of the greatest complexities of human behavior is the lie of “otherness,” meaning that the other is the adversary. A wise friend told me that perhaps the adversarial (and sometimes violent) defense of one’s opinion is actually a fearful person fighting to convey what they desperately wish others to hear. Humans long to be heard. Yet we also can’t listen. We stand across the chasm and shout or scream. In the era of social media, we use words and images excessively in ways never before available. The desire to be heard increases, but the ability to listen has only decreased.
A chaplain is trained to stand in the trenches of tension and discomfort, to hold the threads of fragmented discord from all directions. The challenge is to hold these jumbled threads with just enough gentle touch that they do not become too taut or too slack in any one direction. The chaplain is called upon to breathe space into the chaos and to be “the” person exhibiting peace and compassion in the face of discord, rage, despair, and even hatred.
Over the years, I have worked with persons who are aging, sick, dying, addicted, or facing disabilities – to say nothing of the family struggles involved. My key daily resource is my personal spiritual practice of cultivating inner silence. This is no easy task. Pragmatically, it could seem that in this frenetic world of social distress, silence is a peripheral luxury. I believe, however, that this practice is the critical tool for chaplains in this struggling world.
One must begin with a set time daily to tap into the Mysterious Universe, God, Higher Power, or personal belief system that connects the chaplain with their vocation and others. The ability to listen deeply is cultivated consciously throughout the course of our lives. It does not happen instantaneously. Listening to the inner God of self allows me to listen to the inner God of my patients. As practitioners, we know we cannot give what we don’t have. I cannot hear and know the sacred within my patient, if I am unwilling to know and accept the sacred within myself. This all begins with practiced listening and humbly appropriating the reality of mystery within self and all of humanity.
In my personal life, as a Catholic Christian, I commit my early mornings to my hour of prayer and silence. I begin by seeking a place of interior quiet. I acknowledge the distractions present and I let them go – though some days the distractions seem louder than other days. But I persist. I allow myself to be aware of “who is present” inside me at that moment. Is there fear and anxiety? Unaddressed anger or shame? Frustration from work or an encounter that still stings and raises my hackles?
I greet each emotion as it shows up, and I do not judge, condemn or allow self-recrimination. When I open myself up to my own vulnerabilities and fear, I bring them forth and invite God’s healing presence into that conflict. I ask my God to guide all movement. Then I seek to relinquish my own agenda. As a leaf falls on a river passing by, I seek to allow each dynamic to be present, and to fall adrift on the river. Sometimes however, my struggles do overwhelm, and so I sit with those tsunami-like moments in the presence of my God without judgment.
To be present without judgment to what is unfolding around me, I must accept what is happening within myself. Without identifying my own prejudices, my own triggers of judgement, and seeking to bring them to my God in all vulnerability for healing, I cannot stand compassionately with a person or situation rife with anger or brokenness. It is only because of this daily practice that I can begin to authentically stand in the breach of chaos and practice hopeful healing acceptance.
Particularly following the events of the past year, the gifts of the chaplain are needed more than ever. We live in a world starving for stillness and healing acceptance, kindness, compassion and non-judgment. It is impossible to give, and to be, something I do not possess within myself.
Deborah Armenta, M.Div., D.Min., is a chaplain, pastoral theologian and educator. She is working on her board certification and is currently on sabbatical caring for aging parents in San Francisco, CA.