Early in ministry, there are skills to be learned. Preaching, counseling, the coffee-hour nod that says, “Yes, I’m listening,” even if it’s not true. Oh, and another one. Boredom. Overcoming it? No. Letting it pull you down below where you can breathe, and then holding you there. For hours. It’s important to know how to be there, in boredom. But for me, it was something that didn’t come easy. Some skills will take practice.
Apprentice clergy go through a form of ritual hazing known as Clinical Pastoral Education. Here’s how it works. For a few months, full-time, you’re a hospital chaplain. Your mission? To offer support when situations get bleak. To help people face pivotal, primal questions just at the moment something vital is being torn from their lives. And also? Despite the plastic badge that says “Chaplain,” you have not the foggiest how a person would do this. Like when someone lifts her tear-stained face, and says, “Why would God let this happen?” And, in response, you decide now is the time to fetch everyone coffee.
Later, with other glassy-eyed lambs of the chaplaincy, you gather in a conference room with a senior chaplain, to think about what you have done. You do this through something they call a “Verbatim.” It’s just like it sounds—a blow-by-blow you write up of some fumbling interaction you’ve just had with a patient. The purpose is to reveal how very far your attempts are from whatever it is Jesus might have done, had he himself served a turn as a summertime chaplain. With a Verbatim, the lambs become wolves, tearing each word apart. Why, for instance, when the conversation turned to cancer, did you launch into a long story about the time your aunt thought she had leprosy, but it only turned out to be a bad rash on her neck?
Still, basic incompetence has never stopped me, and it would not this time. I got myself assigned to the edgiest units. Ones with names like “Critical” and “Emergency.” No hang-nails for me. No mere broken limbs. Give me “touch-and-go.” Give me “hours to live.” Throw in the surprise arrival of an estranged sister, and I’d be all a-tingle. I strolled the halls, seeking crisis. Buttered up the tough nurses, so they’d let me know when anything truly awful went down. The family room outside surgery was a good place to find trouble. The family room is where the dutiful adult children endure their hopeless grown siblings as loved ones off somewhere undergo God knows what. The dutiful ones keep information in a folder, and they keep track of the time. The hopeless ones are tear-stained wrecks, sprawled on a sofa that’s strewn with wet Kleenex. With luck, they’ve been drinking. Here’s how a chaplain can stir up some business. Walk into a family room, perch on a chair and murmur, “So, tell me, how is everyone?” Like fish in a barrel, friends. Fish in a barrel.
As we breathlessly parsed the Verbatims, the chaplain supervisor rarely ever spoke. He hailed from the great state of New Hampshire, and was a motionless model of the state’s famed reserve. One got the sense that you could have taken a bucket of ice water filled with dead mackerel and dumped it over his head, and the most he would do would be to glance out the window, and emit a slight sigh. It was clear, however, from the way he would occasionally purse his lips in the midst of my Verbatims, that he was of the opinion that a person could stand to tone it down just a hair. Of course, those dry lips that pursed and un-pursed could have meant anything. In the absence of a bucket of ice water, and the way the hospital air-conditioning sucked all the moisture right out of the air, it could have been simply that the poor man was just parched.
In any case, my ministry was one of inserting myself where I wasn’t strictly required. For example, a sober conversation with the heartbroken family of an eighteen-year-old about whether the time had come, finally, to turn off the machines that had kept their boy alive. Already, the small room held the hospital’s medical ethicist, a representative from the organ donation company, and another chaplain named Frank. Did they benefit, as well, from my luminous presence, the guttural tones of my active listening? Because the answer to that question was not yet clear to me, I made sure to be there. Up in critical care, I appeared in the room of a man who was dying alone. He was beyond speech by now. Conversation was out. Companionable silence is something I can do for two minutes, three tops. At last, I hit upon an idea. What the old fellow probably needed was for me to hum hymns. So, that’s what I did. “Old Rugged Cross.” “Amazing Grace.” And, even though it was the middle of summer, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” In my defense, I did hum it slow so it came out a dirge.
Later, in the Verbatim, someone gently mentioned the effect that even a brief outburst of humming can have on the nerves on a typical day, let alone in the hours one is attempting to peaceably die. A otherwise kindly soul said that, in fact, my humming might have helped to hasten the poor man’s demise. Another wondered whether the nurses who had popped in and out all afternoon might have been not actually smiling approvingly at the humming young chaplain, as I had reported, but instead only smirking.
An old friend says I went into ministry for the second-hand thrills. The chance for a front-row seat to life’s wreckage. As if I were a ghoul. Which, years later, still seems off-base. I went into ministry for a regular paycheck. God knows I was not ever going to be any good for much else. You know how all the want ads say the employer is seeking a “detail person?” Well, me, that is not. I once spent ten minutes looking for my glasses only to realize that I was wearing them. My only talents are whistling and catching peanuts tossed into the air in my mouth. Besides, since I was a kid, people have sought me out to tell me their problems, and—God forgive me—through it all, I have been fascinated. Fascinated by how people can manage to get themselves into such an intractable mess. And fascinated by how they can get themselves out. Or else learn to live with it. Or how sometimes they learn to live with it, but then are transported out of trouble through no effort at all of their own, in a way that some will call grace, and others call luck. If there were bleachers on the sidelines of human society, I would enjoy sitting there, watching. Well, watching and cheering. Taking honest delight. Perhaps with buttered popcorn. Yes, I had advice, but I offered it like anyone sitting up in the bleachers who calls out advice—with the full confidence that it will be ignored. By the end of my twenties, it had dawned on me that, to get by in this world, I would probably need to get paid doing something. And ministry seemed easier than teaching kindergarten. So, I was in. And, ok, maybe it promised a front-row seat. Not to the wreckage. But to what stirs within it.
There came the day, late in the summer, when nothing was happening in Critical Care. Nothing in Emergency. I was bored, restless. So, I wandered up to other units, outside my assignment. In one room, a woman lay dying, her family gathered around. But the nice-enough priest sitting there didn’t seem to grasp that this was his moment to shine. I forget how I convinced him, but soon, I’d replaced him, intent on marching the whole family through all the stages of grief, perhaps twice, before the old woman had even taken her last dying breath. Was I badgering these poor souls? Who can say. But, whatever the case, I was summoned for a chat with the chaplain supervisor.
He said that if I went into parish ministry without learning how to be bored, there would come a Tuesday afternoon when things would be slow, and I would stir trouble up out of my own need for action. For the rest of the shift, he said, I was to walk the halls, but to visit with no one. To practice being bored. For me, that afternoon, ghosting the halls without purpose, was more difficult than responding to people who’d been hurt in a wreck. It took some time before I was able to breathe. Walking by rooms where people seemed upset, especially, was like walking by the donuts at a Weight Watchers meeting. Just one? But I couldn’t. And, I will tell you that, as I walked, I realized that, even without an eager chaplain on hand, people would continue to suffer and also to find ways to lessen their suffering. They would die, and the ones they left behind would figure out how to live. Sometimes, these things would happen more easily if I were not there. Sometimes, my absence helped more than my presence. The Taoists have a word called “wu-wei,” the power of inaction. It is there when one is in harmony with the Tao. With the way of all things. Another person might say, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” As if there were a power beyond the merely human.
For over ten years, I have served the same congregation in the same little town. Have I stirred up trouble? Oh, yes. Ask my people. They’ll tell you. But, here’s the thing: without ongoing study in the practice of boredom, without learning wu-wei, a ministry composed purely of action could have made things dramatically worse.