Pastoral ministry at a university means that I don’t spend a lot of time marking the passing of life into death. In the literal sense, anyway. This is an abundantly good thing, of course, given the average age of people in my parish.
Another kind of death does figure in to my work regularly, though.
I’ve been blessed over the years to be a chaplain to people in a liminal place in their faith. In other words, they’re in between: in between faith and doubt, in between church and no church, in between hope and cynicism. It’s a gift to be a shepherd in that space, to join them on that borderline. It happens in all sorts of ways; through pastoral care; through mentoring relationships, and it happens down at the pub. Every week I host a pub discussion group on campus, and lately it’s been a magnet for folks in that liminal space. There’s something about meeting in a so-called “third space” that makes possible a kind of spiritual care that might be harder to find at church or in a home. Folks are more forthright; they feel less pressure to put on airs or say the correct pious thing, and they’re willing to share their experience of doubt. Sometimes they start to call it their church, which, eh, is not what I’m aiming for, but if it helps as they explore that in between space, then I can live with that.
Few things are finer than talking theology at the pub. But I can’t hold it up as the cure-all, either, though I wish I could. As I say, it’s a gift to be invited into those in between spaces. But it often feels a little precarious, too. Sometimes – praise be! – folks emerge from that liminal space and return to the land of living faith. A new fire is kindled, and with it often comes hope and even some well-seasoned wisdom, too.
That’s sometimes, though. Other times it goes the other way and their faith dies. It happens subtly – I’ll notice a dip in someone’s attendance at ministry events, or an avoidance of spiritual subjects in conversation. It has often culminated in “ghosting,” our modern term for ending a personal relationship by suddenly and without explanation stopping all communication. (Millennials and younger often take a lot of stick for making “ghosting” a habit, but I’m sure it’s been a something people have done for ages. Either way, invoking a spectre seems suitable when discussing the death of faith).
Palliative soul care
It’s here that the typical, contemporary techniques of spiritual care seem to fall short. That’s hard to admit, because spiritual caregivers are often a tribe of doers: we like to offer the right word, the prayer that’s needed; we’re often tempted to fix people and their problems. And when we (think) we do those things, we put those stories in our newsletters. But the best leadership seminars in the world, or even the best roundtable at the pub don’t seem to have much to offer when someone’s spiritual space starts to resemble a tomb. And sure, for Christians, even a tomb is a liminal space, not the final word – the place where Jesus’ body rested as his spirit “went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” But moving on to the resurrection seems a little hasty here.
Instead, I’m trying to practice, for these souls, a kind of palliative care. One wise enough to know it can’t solve the problem of faith’s death because it’s beyond my means, but that maybe it can still ease the pain of its passing. I’m still figuring out how to do this. At the very least, it might mean learning how to patiently and non-anxiously stand vigil. The new life of Sunday morning might be a long way off, and in between lies a long, long Holy Saturday.