The Taser's Edge


The Artist and The Contemplative

The Sartorialist is the fashion blog of Scott Schuman, possibly the most-read fashion blog in the whole shootin’ match.  Recently somebody at Intel thought it would be a good idea to do a brief documentary about him, and here is that product:

As I watched, I thought about a couple things:

1.) Schuman’s art requires leisure, 4-5 hours a day walking and attempting to be present to New York, Milan, London, or (most recently) Seoul, looking for 1-2 pictures.  And here’s the jump, if you’ll make it with me: contemplative prayer and good art both require a similar kind of leisure, a similar kind of attention, and a similar cultivation of awareness over time.  (Think Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, just ‘wasting’ her time.)  Maybe it’s obvious that leisure is required for contemplative prayer, but I never thought about just how important it was until Beatrice Bruteau opened her Radical Optimism with a full chapter devoted to leisure.  [Side note: she also says that study requires a similar level of leisure, which would also connect to the best study being the most creative study.]

2) Schuman’s daily process is a long search, but it is nonetheless fully expectant, and it has the right expectations, which the artist has learned over time.  Contemplation too is shaped by a similar expectancy, one which changes and matures over time and through experience.  Just as Schuman doesn’t expect or look for a brilliant photo on every street he walks, so the contemplative doesn’t expect life-changing insight 10 times a week, but this does not at all mean that there is not joyous and hopeful expectation on the part of both artist and contemplative.

Personally, I see a connection between the cultivation of a healthy life, an aware life, and a creative life.  Doing a year-long chaplaincy residency beat the crap out of me, but the twin practices which seemed to be most helpful for my holistic wellness are mindfulness/contemplation (not to claim the two are synonymous) and creative outlet.



7 Months and 2000 Miles Later

After a week off work, I returned home from Illinois last night at 8pm.  For at least 24 hours before that I had been counting the hours until I had to return to work, laughing at the absurdity of being at work 900 miles away.  Laughing mixed with bitterness I see now.  Laughing is what I always do when it comes to impossible situations.

I was ready to return, though.  Lack of structure is hard on me psychologically, so one week is plenty of break.  After returning home, I mostly took it easy last night.

This morning, after shoveling through a mountain of email (which, yes, is better than shoveling snow), I headed for the chapel.  I was there over an hour.  I always have mixed mind about that.  I believe very strongly in prayer, and I believe that any ministry job which faults me for praying too much has its own problems.  Yet I also know that the ‘desire to pray’ and the ‘desire to take a nap’ can overlap with each other.  This wasn’t that kind of prayer.  For weeks perhaps, I have been without set aside times for prayer, which is unusual for me.  There were plenty of days where I consciously noted that I hadn’t had two days in a row where I really gave any time to prayer in a while.  I was parched, and I needed that time.

The one part of my unit’s final evaluation with less than the highest marks was attending to self-care.  I vocally disagreed with my supervisor’s assessment, but my decision to stay in the chapel was definitely a self-care decision (although not only a self-care decision).

Then I went to see patients.  There were two referrals and one other family that I had been seeing before the break.  I have been seeing that family since I started at Duke in June.  They were literally the second family I ever visited with at the beginning of my residency, and they have been at Duke continuously since May.  Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a handful of family birthdays later, they are still here.  And since the end of June, I have known (or at least have constantly assumed) that he was going to die.  Nothing went right with his recovery from surgery.  Kidneys shut down, liver shut down, digestive tract shut down, depression and anxiety set in.  And for weeks, literally every heart beat and every breath has been dictated by the steady metronome of machines.  He is as healthy as a machine.  His heart and breath rates are so perfect and so pristine, that he is more ‘healthy’ than nature will provide. 

After I saw him today and talked to one of his doctors, I wondered if the miracle his family has been praying for all along is just around the corner.  I wonder if the miracle might be a good death, that God would rescue him from an end wrapped in blood, clawing for air (and this is the end which his doctor says is now likely).

In a CPE residency, one of the things we talk about so often is transference and counter-transference.  Transference is when a middle aged female patient notices that I look a bit like her son and then starts relating to me as if I were her son.  Counter-transference is when I relate to her as if she were my mom.  Most of the time it is much more subtle, and you notice it because your emotional attachment to a patient is a lot stronger than any intellectual view of the relationship can explain.

In my view, the reason my job is hard is not because people die around me, but because when they die, I somehow experience it.  I am in it.  I am with them.  And sometimes, I experience enough of their pain that I know that I am too close.  This is one of those times.  This will be one of those deaths where I need to ask myself the question again, “What will happen to you if this patient dies?” and the corollary, “Why this patient?”, as in “Why is this patient’s death and not some other death really getting to you?”

The easy and true answer is that this family has been at the hospital longer than I have.  Add up their hours since May and my hours since June, and I would guess they have been here 2-3 times as long as I have.  I introduced this family to at least three other chaplains, as the patient was shuttled from floor to floor, unit to unit.  And then the second crop of interns left at the beginning of December, and I was their chaplain again.  Add up the hours I have spent with them, and it is…well, a lot.

I’m angry about it really.  Why won’t God just kill the guy?  (A question with tone enough to show you how strongly I feel this death.)  Why won’t his family let him go?  Why can’t the doctors say, “There is nothing more that we can do.  Sorry, but we need to remove support,” and then do it and not have their labcoats sued right off their backs?  Everything is wrong about this.

What is at stake for me in this?  As I am assessing the last several months, the thread that runs through it all is this man, and I have failed him.  No, I haven’t failed him, but he is a failure.  He didn’t live and he won’t live, and he won’t even get a good death, as far as I know.  For anyone wondering whether there are fates worth than death, there are.  And for those wondering if there really are such things as the undead, there are, but they can’t walk the earth.  Their skin is far too destroyed, their legs far too weak, and their wills are snapped in pieces.  All that’s accurate about the movies is the groaning, because they can no longer speak.  If we continue on this cinematic route, just know that Darth Vader is a beautiful fantasy to real machine people.

So what is it to me?  I keep asking myself this.  What is it for youWhat is here for you?  I can give lots of answers, many of them true, but I can’t find the answer.  Maybe the truth is that there is no ‘the answer.’

A practical side.  If I see him every day, I will not be able to stay separate.  I cannot minister to the other if I become enmeshed with the other.  And I am in danger of becoming enmeshed.  I know this.  I am Harry Potter staring too closely into Albus’s pensieve; if I’m not careful I will be sucked into somebody else’s life head first.

Yet the family needs care and would benefit from daily visits.  The balance (and this is a daily rather than an anomalous balance for chaplains) is that I ask for help.  I can go twice a week, but I can ask someone else to go on those other days.  But that gives them three days and me two!, I may think.  Possessiveness is evidence that I am getting too close.  I know I’m healthy enough if I can ask somebody else to provide care to this patient alongside me.  Asking someone else also reminds me that I am not alone in my suffering with this family.  It’s a whole other reflection (and this is already three or more in one), but the reminder that I am not alone here is a reminder that at my most alone feeling, I am never alone.



Pastoral Care is a Waste of Time

One of my favorite definitions of prayer is “wasting time with God.”  As someone who has been highly ‘productive’ all my life, producing excellence of all kinds and being praised for it, constantly trying to produce self-betterment in my own self, defining prayer as ‘wasting time’ militates against things within me which I think are harmful.  Namely, the harm is utilitizing all of life, my relationships, my faith, and ultimately myself.  (As an instance of this move from ‘doing’ to ‘being,’ which I think is very tied to my ‘utilitizing vs. wasting time’, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness books became helpful to me when I began to see mindfulness as living into the image of the I AM which is being renewed in me, rather than the I DO, which is the demonic desire for self-sufficiency.)

Over the past few weeks I have been exploring a number of different pastoral care definitions, allowing metaphors and images to come into my mind freely, and then exploring them to see what they hold.  Among these metaphors has been the idea of pastoral care as ‘wasting time with people.’  What I do in the patient’s room is essentially non-productive.  I am not there to fix people’s problems, even though sometimes that happens.  Although patients’ bodies are in the hospital presented as medical problems to be medically solved, as a spiritual caregiver I cannot see my patients as problems to be solved or fixed.  I am not the Fixer, and they are not Problems.  When I turn patients into problems, then I have turned human beings into objects.  Our patients and our staff and their visitors are human beings and I am a human being, and somehow God comes into both of us, and we share in God together, knowing grace and love, hope and healing.

Choosing to waste time with patients, to not eye the clock, to not plan too far ahead, to live together for a few moments, and to invite one another (and yes, often most of the invitation will be my work) to rest in safety (God’s safe rest)—this is pastoral care.  Seeing pastoral care in this way works against the way that the world works (or at least the way American culture, American medicine, Duke Hospital, and the rest of the 21st century industrialized world work).  For me to be a caregiver with integrity, this is important, because it recognizes that the work we do is not our own work but God’s.  This is important theologically.  We must be wary of pastoral care definitions which cast us in the role of Jesus or the Biblical saint while casting the patient in the role of the one wholly receiving of the grace which God channels through us.  The fault (not to say there are not strengths as well) of incarnational understandings of pastoral care is that we are not Jesus, and that we are not called to be Jesus.  In fact, when Jesus speaks of our care of the sick in Matthew 25, it is not the caregiver but the one who receives care in whom we are told to see Jesus.

This recognition that our work is ultimately not ours—that patients are not Problems and that we are not Fixers—is also important psychologically.  If all rests on me, then I cannot help but be anxious.  If all rests on me, then it sets up for my goal a ridiculous and impossible perfection of production.  But if the patient is where I see Jesus rather than a problem to be fixed, then my visit to a person becomes a prayer to God.  “Wasting time with God” and “wasting time with the patient” can no longer be so distinct, and in order to be with God or the patient well, I must stop trying so hard to do.  Theologically, mentally, spiritually, psychologically, and ethically, asking myself the question, “How did you do on that visit?  How were you Jesus to the patient?” is problematic.  The question I should be asking: “What was the color and depth of your being with the patient and her visitors on that visit?  How did you see Jesus in them?”



Saint Joseph

O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

p. 239, 1979 Book of Common Prayer



Hilarious at first, then on beyond heartbreaking

Saint Matthias
February 24, 2009, 6:00 am
Filed under: Books, Religion, Theology | Tags: ,

Almighty God, who in the place of Judas chose your faithful servant Matthias to be numbered among the Twelve: Grant that your Church, being delivered from false apostles, may always be guided and governed by faithful and true pastors; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 239



A Big Step (or at least Pre-step)
January 6, 2009, 7:45 pm
Filed under: Life, Ministry, Social Justice | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Merry Epiphany!  And I’m Anglican now, so that counts and whatever.

Today was my first interview for a real job–a CPE residency at UNC Hospitals.  It went well–they said so–but I’ve felt a bit rough since.  It’s just so big.  I’m a pioneer camping in Independence, Mo.,  and tomorrow’s the big day.  There’s a vast wild country in front of me.  It’s already fully inhabited, but I don’t know that yet.  I’m thinking I’m the first.  And that God is with me.  On that point I’m right.

I haven’t yet begun to see the blessings God has in store for us.  Of course I must have had my eyes closed.  What is Duke?  What is Durham?  What is All Saints?  What are all these friends after all?  I am blessed.  I am privileged.  99.998 percent of the world’s population, past and present, wouldn’t have been taken seriously in that interview today, and yet for some reason I was.

I can’t claim that as my just deserts.  God gave me brains, good parents who pointed me college-ward, birth in a place and time where this could happen.  I could call that fortune or good luck.  I have called it bumbling.  But I’m wrong.

And what does what I’m saying say about the families huddled with their children in Gaza tonight, waiting, waiting?  I can’t say God caused those particularities, of course.  But at the same time I can’t not say that God gifted me with mine, and that God is good.

Lord God, Father of all peoples, we pray for peace in Gaza, for peace on earth under your Holy Spirit’s hovering wings, in the name of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.  Amen and Amen.