Annual Reflections In Depth Perspectives
A Christmas Story
Soul is not defined by time or space, but is attuned to the body. Being present to the embodiment of soul is essential to holistic living and fullness of life. When dealing with suffering it is therefore important to be present to the body—either one’s own body or that of the one or ones for whom we are caring. Therapy in all its forms evolves from this love of body’s reality. Within such loving attunement, divinity unfolds itself in the most amazing and oft times beautiful ways. The following story serves to open us to this grace.
Martin Buber held that all life is meeting. In the reality of such Mercurial moments, Eros joins us in new and transformational ways. Early in my ministry, I found this to be true. At the time, I was working in Denver’s inner city as a Methodist pastor working from a Jungian perspective. Through community organizing, I began to focus my ministry through the development of a community mental health center funded in part by President Johnson’s “war on poverty” funds. As the work expanded to include an alternative high school for “problem teens,” my name became known in the Denver area.
One morning, just weeks before Christmas, a nurse called me to ask my help in caring for a young teenage boy who was dying of cancer. Although the nurse worked at a hospital many miles from my parish, the nurse had heard of my approach to the care of Soul from friends familiar with the Northwest Mental Health Center housed in my parish. She told me of a teenaged boy recently admitted to the hospital. He was dying of a rare form of cancer that would, she predicted, take his life in a matter of days. She felt overwhelmed with the burden of this knowledge and her 18-year-old charge. She said that she knew the boy was not from my church, but wondered if I’d come and visit him anyway. Although she had called the boy’s own pastor, he’d not as yet come. One day had already passed in what she thought were “precious days.” So, the same morning of her call, I walked into the boy’s hospital room.
As I stood at the door to his room, I stopped to quietly behold the boy and his thin, pale, and exhausted frame. He was a little guy and frail. As he looked at me looking at him, he asked: “What are you looking at?” I responded: “You. I simply want to behold you before we meet. I’m a pastor and one of the nurses asked me if I’d come by to visit you. Is that all right?” He seemed eager to talk with me and invited me into his room. We introduced ourselves and then began to form the beginnings of conversation about the realities of his condition.
In that first session, I listened as Jason told me about his cancer and prognosis; his growing fears, vulnerabilities and loneliness; and his deep feelings of abandonment by his parents, friends, and even, God. He told me about his parents and how utterly devastated they were by the news of his cancer and of his approaching death. He told me matter-of-factly that there was nothing that could be done to stop the cancer from taking his life. It was sweeping through his body like a Kansas prairie fire. And for the moment, his parents had distanced themselves from their son. And, like his parents, he also told me that his church friends had also “written me off.” We talked about his youth group and of his involvement in a folk-singing group at the church. He felt confused by their silence and lack of connection with him in his suffering. I then asked him if he felt abandoned by God also? He was surprised that I’d ask such a question, but after a long silence, he admitted that he felt that he couldn’t pray any longer. God was lost to him as well. We talked more about his thoughts about God and the reality of his suffering and fast approaching death. And as I listened, I could hear his anger with the God who was so far away—this God who he felt had abandoned him so.
Sitting beside him, I took his hand and said: “Jason, when I listen to you talking about God, I hear you imagining God as being ‘up there’ or ‘out there somewhere.’” He nodded his head in agreement. Jason imagined God as being the transcendent, all knowing, all-powerful and all good God of Christian dogma. I said, “Jason, you’ve got to admit that in spite of God’s knowledge of your condition, God doesn’t seem to be listening to your prayers nor attending to your needs.” Jason was shocked to hear me say this. After reflecting on these facts, I suggested that Jason consider a different image of God. I invited him to open his mind and heart to the God that was not up there, but to the One down here. And, I challenged Jason, in the time that he had, to look for God not out there, but “within your deepest pain, you most fearful moments and your darkest hours.” As we sat quietly together, reflecting on these thoughts, I reminded Jason of the Book of Revelation and of its image of God quietly standing at heart’s door, gently knocking and saying: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in a sup with him and he with me.” I suggested that even in his twisted feelings of abandonment, this vulnerable God might indeed be waiting to be invited into relationship with Jason in the now of his experience. I wondered if Jason might discover a different God revealed through his cancer and its destructiveness. In the muted light of his hospital room, I spoke softly to Jason. “In the time you have left, I’m challenging you to seek God in the reality of this moment; to imagine God with you here and now. Likewise, I’m inviting you to love this moment and in loving it with your whole heart and mind and spirit, see if you might not discover God present to you in it.” Silence fell upon us as we looked at each other in the moments that lengthened. And, after what seemed like an hour or so, Jason said he would try to seek God in his suffering. I offered a prayer, bid him goodbye and promised to meet with him the next day.
The second day I came to Jason’s room, I again paused at the door to prayerfully behold him before entering his room. He greeted me with a welcoming look and warmly invited me in. Again, I sat on the edge of his bed and we began to talk about all that was happening in his life. His parents had been to visit him and he’d gotten a phone call from some friends at church. But the biggest news he had to share was his new sense of God present within his suffering. He was amazed. “I feel God is not just with me but in me. That God’s not ‘up there or out there’ but really within me.” I shared his amazement and joy, reminding us both that the God of the New Testament was called “Emmanuel—God with us” and that Jesus said that his “kingdom is within us.” We sat with this image of God for quite awhile before I asked him a new series of questions. I wanted to know about his losses. I asked him if he had a girl friend, if they had had sex together, if he had hopes of getting married someday and having children? I asked him about his career goals and his hopes about making his mark on the world? I asked him to share with me his dreams about his future as a young man? And so we talked about these matters. And, after a time, I asked him to reflect upon his feelings of grief about all of this. As we talked, he began to acknowledge that he wasn’t going to ever make love to his girlfriend or realize his future dreams. Now, he faced a different kind of future, one that was bringing death closer to him moment-by-moment. I said, “So, I have a new challenge for you today.” He was curious and asked what it was. I said, “You know how the Bible teaches us to “number our days so that we might gain a heart of wisdom?” He nodded his head; he knew the scripture. So I said, “Well, your problem is this: you don’t have many days left to number. Normally, we like to think that we’ve got a long life ahead of us to count so that we can “gain a heart of wisdom,” but you don’t have a long life ahead of you. You only have this day—but you can’t be sure that you even have it. You have this hour—but you don’t even know how many minutes of it you’ll have to live. Really, what you truly have is just this moment. So, my challenge for you is to imagine yourself living and loving this present moment, of embracing this awful reality, and living fully within and through it to ‘gain a heart of wisdom” today?” He was stunned by what I proposed. And with a grin, he looked up at me and said: “You just blew my mind.” We laughed. And then I looked deeply into his eyes and said, “Jason, none of us knows the length nor number of our days. In truth, we only have this day, this hour, this moment. And the kind of person we’d like the whole of our life to add up to can be lived only in this moment, this hour, this day. What I’m challenging you to do is what I’m also trying to do—live well this day, moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour within the reality that is ours.” He was awed by this image of life. With a courage born of his youth, he agreed that he would endeavor to live his life in this way. We then talked about the values that he hoped would characterize his life and how he might live them out in his hospital room. Again, we held all of what we’d shared together in prayer. And I bid him goodbye, promising to call upon him again the next day.
On the third day, I met with all the nurses who were attending him. They excitedly told me of the changes that had come over him in the last 24 hours. They said he seemed to be a different person. They said that he was a joy to be with and that they actually went out of their way to be with him. The images that they shared were of a dying teenager who was living well within the realities of his life. We were all amazed by the stories shared. We laughed and cried over them. And we gave thanks for the privilege of tending Jason. When I came to Jason’s room and looked across the expanse to where he lay, I was amazed by what I saw. He seemed radiant. He beamed at me and greeted me brightly. I came into the room and stood beside his bed. He shook my hand and invited me to sit down beside him. He looked at me and asked if I was ok? I told him that I was weary of my work at the church. Things were not going well. I told him of my powerlessness to affect significant changes there and my own feeling of hopelessness in turning the church around. I told him that we needed a new roof, but that we had no funds to provide for one. I said that one good rainstorm would be all that it would take to bring down the church’s interior walls. I told him I felt exhausted and worn out. And then I said, “And so today, I come not to minister to you, but to be ministered to by you. I’m the one in need of help today; I need your help.” Jason began to laugh. I looked at him in disbelief and then laughed with him as he said, “Man. You just blew my mind again!”
When we approach the care of Soul from an interrelational, dynamic and processive perspective, we discover that our relationship to the moment has the power to be transformational. And when we engage one another in this qualitative way of being in the now of our experience, the relationship itself becomes transformative also. In the care of Soul, especially when working with those who experience themselves to be powerless, helpless and terribly vulnerable, who are suffering and sometimes even dying, I have found my own life transformed by a grace that extends back to me through the relationship. And, oft times, I have experienced a divinity present within the lives of those vulnerable and powerless persons for whom I am called to minister. Thus, on the third day of my meeting with Jason, I experienced just such transformation. And when I asked him to pray for me, I felt myself empowered by his gentle and kindhearted prayer. He gave me a new vision and openness. And, in doing so, he awakened my soul to God within me, present to my loneliness, weariness and helplessness.
The fourth day I came to visit Jason, he looked terribly worn. He was sick and dying and I felt that the angel of death was very near. Intuitively, I had brought with me the elements of Holy Communion. And as I made ready to offer them to him, I reminded him that Jesus was also aware of his own forthcoming death when he invited his disciples to “take bread” and “wine” as a remembrance of his life and death. And just as Jesus gave thanks for his friends and their life with him, Jason and I gave thanks for each other and our life together. Then, we each served communion to each other. We also offered prayers for each other and for the journey ahead. That day, through my tears, I gave Jason a hug and thanked him for his ministry to me and for making such a difference in my life. And as we had talked about Christmas and the reality of Emmanuel—God with Us already realized through our experiences together, I wished Jason the Joy and Peace of Christmas. He thanked me in kind, wished for me the gift of Christmas Joy. We bid each other “Merry Christmas” and then said our goodbyes. Two hours later, a nurse called the church and left a message that Jason had died peacefully and well.
Over the years since that Christmas night, I’ve had other occasions that awakened me to a grace within and through the suffering of others and the relationships that formed with them. The details, of course, are not the same. Sadly, I know of no cleaver interventions that will guarantee outcomes similar to what Jason and I came to know. But what I can offer after 47 years of caring for Soul is this: insofar as we can openly greet another person where they are, in the midst of their suffering with a love that embraces the realities of their life in that moment, our life and theirs is opened to a spiritual and transformative experience that is, as the mystics and poets have proclaimed, “Charged with the grandeur of God.” That’s really the essence of the myths of both Hanukkah and Christmas. In the darkest time of the year, charged with profound emotions of powerlessness and vulnerability, God is revealed to us within our own experiences of our own powerlessness and brokenness, vulnerability and loss. Through this approach to Soul and the care of Soul, Eros also opens us to a religious sensitivity that embraces life’s unfolding. Through this way of being, we are invited not to dwell upon what happened or failed to happen to us in the past, nor what might happen or might not happen to us in the future, but to that which is happening to us and within us in this precious moment. And in that way of being and attending Soul, there is a wisdom that opens us to a more holistic and healthful living.
William McCreary is a licensed psychologist practicing in Salt Lake City. A retired Methodist pastor, McCreary served rural, inner city and university churches. As an executive, he later worked with major business, nonprofit and university organizations. McCreary has MBA and PhD degrees and is now training to become a Jungian analyst.
University of Utah College of Pharmacy
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