Don’t Fear the Reaper: Reactions When I Tell People What I Do

Cold-brewed-coffee-or-espresso-is-added-to-chai-tea-for-a-delicious-chilled-drink.I was in line at my local food co-op, which just so happens to have the planet’s best dirty chai (the treat I get for myself after an especially hard day’s work). It’s embarrassingly expensive, but nothing else compares. IMHO.

This morning, I was more needful of being seen than I usually am so, when the cashier asked, “How are you?” I let it be a question, rather than a social greeting.

I answered, “I could be better. I’m just coming off 24 hours at the hospital.”

He looked at me, a kind expression on his face, and asked, “Were you the patient? Or the MD? Or an RN?”

I responded, “Chaplain.”

From the look on his face, I’m pretty sure he heard me say, “Grim Reaper.”



It hadn’t actually been 24 hours, as scheduled. It had been 27. I stayed three hours extra because… well, there was a very good reason that involved newborn life and a dance at the other end of that continuum. Which is probably why I was on the more needful side of wanting to be visible to others. I knew I would be going home to an empty house (the rest of my family temporarily strewn around the rest of New England) and though I wanted to hide under my bed covers, I also wanted to be known and seen and maybe even given permission to cry.

On the first day of learning to be a hospital chaplain, they warn inform you about the myriad of reactions you will encounter. There are the people who will smile in relief at your knock on the door. There are nurses who will give you a heads up which patient needs your presence. There are people who will ask for a chaplain themselves, wanting something specific from their faith tradition or just knowing they want something and it has some spiritual quality to it.

Then there are the other reactions.

  • The patient who would welcome a visit from a spiritual leader, but when they hear, “chaplain,” they also hear, “Christian,” and that’s not their thing. (And their thing has been historically, and likely even in the present times, oppressed or silenced by representatives of Christianity…)
  • The people who have been so hurt, traumatized, denied by religion that the presence of a chaplain is not only painful to them, it enrages them and can be experienced as a reminder of that violation.
  • The ones who are wracked with guilt, not so much for any wrong they have committed, but because they haven’t gone to church/synagogue/prayers/ _______________ in a while, and think that a chaplain is the enforcer of such things, or will judge them, or withhold something from them.
  • The ones that would like something spiritual, but they see some explicit artifact of specific religiosity (a clergy collar, a hijab, a cross, a habit, a skull cap, a kippah) and cannot, or will not, let that chaplain be of service to them.
  • There are those who are not religious, who are not even “spiritual, not religious,” and who look for strictly secular forms of support, not knowing or able to hear that true multi-faith chaplains “serve people of all Beliefs and no Belief.”
  • There are the ones whose tradition doesn’t allow female clergy, and they have bought into that value hook, line, and sinker. “Thank you, dear, but no thank you.”

Then there are the people – patients and medical staff alike – who believe the presence of a chaplain can mean only one thing: bad news.   Usually death or imminent death, a.k.a. the Grim Reaper.   This is unfortunate. When it takes place in nursing staff, it can lead to families sitting with their grief alone for days on end in a hospital room while their loved dies, with no chance to build a relationship with the chaplain so that they can be better served when the patient’s time has come. 

So, when the cashier shut up, stopped looking at me, and got all kinds of awkward-y, I kinda knew what was probably going on. Maybe long ago he had a bad experience. Maybe it wasn’t so far in the past.  Or maybe he’s really uncomfortable with anything related to the topic of death or dying. If that’s the case, he’s in good company. At cocktail parties, it is a real buzzkill to tell people that this summer I am working as a hospital chaplain. Because, when I do, they get all awkward-y and either create some reason to flee or, if they have more success at managing initial impulses, they (usually abruptly) change the topic of conversation.

I am regularly a decade behind in pop culture when it comes to media, so please don’t laugh when I share that my daughter and I spend quality time binge watching Grey’s Anatomy. (We are in the second half of season five…which originally aired six years ago). I rant every episode about the absence of a chaplain on that show. (At least OITNB has had a chaplain twice.) I rant about how all the beautiful doctorpeople work out their high-drama psycho-shit on their unsuspecting patients.

Chaplains, at least, get formal training in how not to do that. True fact.

I wonder: if there were images of chaplains in the media doing what I do ~ what my colleagues and mentors do well ~ would my cashier buddy have had the same reaction? If he had seen on his favorite television show, or Netflix series, a chaplain who sat with someone fearful of their own mortality, or as they blessed a newborn baby, or as they helped a man out of control of his rage be able to contain it enough to say good-bye to his beloved sister, or sat with a distraught ICU nurse who had just one too many deaths that day and needed a shoulder to cry on – would I have still been seen as the Angel of Death?

As long as there has been television, there has been a plethora of doctor shows.  So I don’t mean to pick on just Grey’s Anatomy.  For instance, I just pursued the list of characters on the tv show, House, M.D. There’s a hospital pharmacist, there’s even a Carnival Goer, but I did not find a single chaplain. In this nation that is supposedly one of the most religious among developed countries, is there no need for spiritual healing at the same time that there is medical healing going on?

When addressing a national group of doctors, Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said,

It is a grievous mistake to keep a wall of separation between medicine and religion. There is a division of labor but a unity of spirit. The act of healing is the highest form of imitatio Dei.

Amazing strides have been made in this arena since he spoke those words in 1964. One huge stride is the move towards a multifaith approach that recognizes all people, whether affiliated with a specific religion or not, have spiritual needs. These needs can be independent of one’s religious identity. In a society that is becoming increasingly less identified with one religion or any religion, this is an essential step.  Is there room for improvement among individual chaplains or hospital programs?  Hell, yes.  But there has been great progress and continued movement in the right direction.

Part of breaking down the wall of separation is to make spiritual services at hospitals more visible in the wider world – not just more visible at hospitals, but also in popular culture.  

grey-s-anatomy-greys-anatomy-1663492-1024-768-grey-s-anatomy-sons-of-anarchy-doctor-who-fringe-weeds-5-tv-shows-to-binge-watchSo this is a shout out to the stunning Shonda Rhimes, executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy (and who might be a tad busy with Scandal, but a girl can dream), and to ABC, which just this past May renewed the show for an 11th season. Maybe, just maybe, the 11th season could have an appropriately beautifulpersonchaplain join the crew, just once or twice, providing spiritual support that meets the needs of the patients, not the personal-drama needs of the doctor interns and attending physicians.

Then maybe, just maybe, there won’t be as much need to fear the “Reaper.”

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Homily at Interfaith Iftar, July 19, 2014

one breaks the fast at Ramadan by eating dates

one breaks the fast at Ramadan by eating dates

Let me start with gratitude. Thank you for this opportunity to take part in this interfaith iftar. Thank you for this chance to come together across faith traditions, across beliefs that share commonality as well as contradiction. Thank you for the honor to be one voice among the many voices within my faith tradition of Unitarian Universalism.

I feel especially thankful to be here with all that is going on in the world, the relentless march of violence; hostilities that cannot be traced to their origins and threaten no foreseeable end; senseless deaths that bring great sorrow and no consolation. Thank you, that we ~ and others around the globe now and at other times ~ may gather together as an act of peace.

I’d like to start with a quiz – well, really, it’s a single question — gathered as we are on the occasion of an iftar, the breaking of the daily fast from sunrise to sundown during the holy month of Ramadan. I ask this question because a friend of mine just attended the iftar hosted earlier this week at the White House. This got me wondering about the history of the White House hosting iftars. I wonder if anyone here can guess the year – or even the decade –when the first iftar took place at the White House?

The year was 1805. The president was Thomas Jefferson. It took place at sundown on December 9, when Tunisia’s Muslim envoy to the United States visited the country during Ramadan. 1805!

Human memory can be short-sighted. Some of us – me, included, until not that long ago — look to the current presence of Islam in the United States and think this is it. Yet there is a long history of Islam in the Americas. Though there is some indication of Muslim presence during the centuries of exploration (and imperialism), the first significant wave of Muslims in America was when African slaves were forcibly brought to this soil. It is believed that 10-15% of those people were Muslim, some of whom continued to practice their faith in secret ~ including an African American community on one of the islands off the coast of Georgia maintaining a contiguous prayer community until the early 20th century.

It is so important that all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, learn this history and share it, for sometimes, this nation acts like Islam is a stranger in a strange land, alien and unwelcome.  It is we – this group of people from across differing belief systems, different faith communities, differing religious perspectives – who must call this nation – whether we be citizens or residents or guests – to live into its enshrined values of diversity and inclusion.

So if it was Thomas Jefferson over 200 years ago who held the first iftar at the White House, do you know which U.S. president said, when speaking before a gathered Jewish community, affirming America’s commitment to interfaith cooperation by insisting, “the Government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”?  I love the lilt of the language, so I thought for sure it was Jack Kennedy. Sounds like him, doesn’t it?

It was George Washington, speaking in 1790 in Rhode Island, articulating, restating, and reinforcing this nation’s commitment to pluralism in a religious context.

As we here do so tonight. By gathering at this interfaith iftar, risking connection with each other across unfamiliar ritual, we offer ourselves, our lives, and our service in search of an honorable pluralism of respect and celebration. As people of faith and conscience, we can always look within ourselves to know ourselves better and to better ourselves.

Yet, it is something altogether braver to look outside, to those from other perspectives, to strengthen the best in our own traditions. And to encounter those growing edges modern life brings to us that our ancestors either did not face or did not face in a way of lasting relevance.  

One of my interfaith heroes, Eboo Patel, a Muslim man who co-founded with a Jewish friend the Interfaith Youth Core (in Chicago and now nationwide), describes interfaith cooperation among people of contrasting political opinions. He says,

I think interfaith work is about building positive relationships between people whose diverse religious convictions shape their dramatically different politics. I believe that is both an end in itself, and a means to another useful end—expanding civic space, strengthening social cohesion and increasing social capital. How else do you have a thriving diverse democracy unless people who have deep disagreements on some issues are able to work together on other issues?

Expanding shared civic space and strengthening social cohesion is not just some theoretical idea or fodder for an elegant speech. It is the very life of life, it is the very honor of the passage of death, it is compassion and hope in the times inbetween. I have spent this summer as a hospital chaplain here in Springfield, providing comfort and spiritual healing to patients who are gravely ill. These patients come from a wide diversity of faith traditions: Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Lutheran, Baptist, Hindu, Pentecostal, Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Eastern Orthodox, Buddhist, and none of the above.

Tonight, I am accompanied by some of my chaplain colleagues, honored by the invitation to join you, as we are honored and blessed to serve the wider community. As multi-faith chaplains serving all hospital patients, we know that we are better chaplains if we have an authentic appreciation for each patient’s faith tradition. We expand our appreciation through interfaith engagement of many forms – learning, relationships, community events like this. Thus we ensure that when there is need in our country, in our communities, in our families, in our schools or hospitals, we are able to respect, honor and celebrate.

Let us end in a prayer (adapted), written by the Unitarian Universalist minister Kathleen McTigue:

We gather today as a diverse body of people

from many faiths and traditions.

We do not speak the same language of worship.

We follow different teachings, made known to us

by sacred voices and scriptures through the ages.

We do not utter the same prayers, nor do we even

use the same words if any word at all, to speak the name of God.

Nevertheless, we gather [in worship].


In our gathering we honour and celebrate our diversity.

We do no seek a unity that would deny our differences.

We seek rather a deeper union,

a union woven through choice and intent,

Through time and attention,

Through respect and compassion,

Until we recognize that we have become a whole cloth,

A cloth made rich and textured and vibrant through our differences.


Each of us can hear, in the beating of our own hearts,

The ancient rhythm of the loom at work,

We are woven together.

We are bound to one another.

We belong and with each other.

Let us [worship] break bread together.



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Prayer for Learning Self Defense Skills in a Hospital Setting

I wrote this prayer to frame a class on Non-Violent Physical Crisis Intervention required for staff at the hospital where I am a chaplain intern this summer.  Its purpose was to bring a trauma-informed understanding of our efforts.  Feel free to use this prayer or an adaptation of it in any setting where you are learning about personal safety and self-defense.   Of course, be sure to give the author proper attribution.

This morning our sacred task is safety. The safety of patients, the safety of staff, our own safety. It is an unusual thing to name the art of self-defense a sacred effort, but let us bring such intention to our efforts this morning, let us bring such intention to each other this morning.

We are called this morning to learn skills that bring us not into verbal contact with those who are upset and not into tender contact with those who are agitated; instead, we learn a firm and insistent contact whose intention is to bring greater peace and well-being when they are unable to do it themselves.

We offer our bodies, holy and whole, not as sacrifice, not for damage, not to danger or exploitation, but in aspiration of teaching and learning, to generate more peace, to grow non-aggression, with our goal of bringing suffering to a close. Should we hurt someone in our learning, may we seek forgiveness. Should we be hurt by someone in our learning, may we offer forgiveness.

Let us recognize that in seeking our own safety, the safety of our colleagues, and the safety of the one who is seeking to do harm, we, ourselves, may be experienced as doing harm – let us ask for humility in the face of this paradox.

Let us recognize that too often, those who seek to do harm, have experienced harm themselves, and generate more violence. Let us recognize that too often, those who seek to bring peace, have experienced harm themselves, still healing, willing to risk memories and pain in generating more compassion in this world.

Let us step into our pastoral power that pairs compassion with release holds; pairs kindness with alert attention to escape routes; radical concern with learning the concrete skills that minimize damage that can be done.

There is no separation. We are all a part of that Great Inter-being, known by many names. Let us use this knowledge we are learning and skills we are practicing not distance us, but bring us closer to our fellow human beings and our Sacred Source.


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Blessing for a Newborn Baby

In every birth, blessed is the wonder.
In every creation, blessed is the new beginning.
In every child, blessed is life.
In every hope, blessed are the possibilities.

Every child born into this world is something new, something never before, original and unique. Newly born, __________, you are called to fulfill your place on this earth.

This family was a complete family before you arrived; now, somehow they are more complete.

They shall do their best to teach you; it will be up to you to learn.

They shall try to guide you in right directions; it will be up to you to make right decisions.

They shall love you to the best of their abilities, honoring your gifts and needs; it will be up to you to love yourself fiercely and without apology, sharing that love in ways that make the lives of others, and the way of the world, better.

Brother/sister _________, do you promise with all your heart to love her and help her grow up to be strong and smart?

(Parent #1)* ________, do you promise with all your heart to love her and protect her, to notice her strengths and give your gifts that her strengths may grow and when it’s time, to let her go?

(Parent #2)* _________, do you promise with all your heart to see the brilliance that is in her, to hold her when she needs holding, showing her the path and letting her walk it on her own, but never alone?

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the Son of Peace to you

(these last lines borrowed from the Iona Community)

* of course, if there is one parent, these lines can be combined as the person giving the blessing is so moved!!!

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Crack in DC: Continuing to Witness Resurrection and Redemption

A few days ago, I listened to the interview of Ruben Castaneda, author of a new book, S Street Rising: Crack, Murder and Redemption in D.C.  It’s a memoir of a neighborhood and a city during one of its most stressed times. It is also the story of the author, who ~ while reporting for the Washington Post on Marion Barry’s (the then-sitting mayor of DC) crack-smoking habit ~ was an active crack addict himself.   The interview was compelling in its depiction of our nation’s capitol at the height of the crack epidemic. I knew some of which he spoke because I was there.

In 1991, I lived a few blocks from the epicenter that Castaneda describes. I lived near the U-Street Metro station, which had just opened but hadn’t yet dispersed the “ladies of the night” that walked the neighborhood. This was before it became gentrified ~ or given my presence, as an out-of-work, white college-grad hoping to find work in social services, it must have just been starting. Now, it is a hopping cultural mecca, much like it was during the same time period as the Harlem Renaissance, and not at all like it was after the riots in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. King.

When I was there it was more like the tail end than the height – crack was raging still, but just not at its apogee. I remember, too, that heroin was on the scene again, or still ~ insidious as it always is, sometimes taking a backseat to the new, sexy drug on the market, but always there, always outlasting that new sexy thang, ready to step back on center stage and take more life.

For over a year and a half, I worked at a homeless shelter just six blocks from the Capitol building. It was the only job where I have been officially reprimanded. It is the only job where I was told I had to change my clothes (on my first day, I had dressed down so as to be more accessible to the residents, but I was told by the shelter director that I was being a poor role model and should dress business-like in order to inspire the residents and prepare them for what work life looks like – for realz). It is the only job on which I was physically assaulted (punched; ended up more startled than hurt). So it may sound funny when I say this, but it was one of my favorite jobs (so far).

I am thankful for all the different edges that job brought me to – encountering and resisting racism; encountering my own racism and being called on it; rebelling with cause against unjust treatment of workers and residents; breaking rules to try to save the life of a child (which sounds melodramatic, but was nonetheless real, and devastating); hitting my head against a brick wall of homophobia amongst the staff in a context where there was a lot of lesbian life happening among the residents; and crossing cultural and interpersonal chasms through vulnerability and authenticity.

It was also my first (but certainly not my last) explicit experience of being witness to individual lives of tragedy, trauma, and occasional triumph. One of the clients I worked with froze to death at a bus stop outside the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Though some of my other jobs had me thinking this way, at this one I became convinced – and still hold this belief – that if we could end incest, we would vastly decrease – if not eradicate — addiction and homelessness. Nearly every resident I met – it was a shelter for women – had been sexually abused, certainly as an adult, and more often than not, as a child. Still, there were stories of triumph – like the two overnight workers ~ Ethel and Yvonne ~ who had been residents of the shelter at one point in their lives, were in active recovery, paying it forward.

There are many of these residents whose memory has taken up residence in my heart and head. Ardene, who OD’d. An old lesbian couple – Mary and Eleanor – whom I visited when Mary was placed in the city’s old, dilapidated psychiatric hospital. The Butch who was knocked up and gave birth to a little boy who played a huge role in my life and now doesn’t. The little lost old woman who was dying of congestive heart failure and did not know from whence she came — it turns out it was the Midwest and she got to see her family before she died. And then there was Renee:

Miracles come grudgingly
Don’t just happen
Don’t just descend upon us
From some spiritual high-up plane
Trumpets blaring as white-faced angels
Proclaim imminent arrival.

Miracles don’t just ease in and out of our lives
Making of us better citizens,
steadfaster friends,
kinder bodhisattvas,
gentler lovers,
surer seekers.

They emerge, slowly,
Inch by torturous inch.
Hesitant, even hostile,
A reluctant configuration of
Instinct and happenstance.

Miracles are not volcanoes
but they erupt from an inner core
Hot, festering, greedy
Burning with earthbound violence designed to
rip the ground out from under.

I have known a miracle.

Impulsive explosions that regularly barred her from shelter
A crack habit showing no signs of abating
Desperation disguised as freckles dotting her haunted yellow cheeks.

Month after month
She sat across from me
Scratched metal desk
delineating our separate lives.
She got in my face:
“I know which car is yours.”
She pointed to my face:
“I know which scar will go where.”
Her rage bubbling wildly,
untempered by a true target.

Instead of slashing my tires, somehow,

She told me her story:
Cast iron pan to his head,
after nighttime visits from a phantom father.
Weeping on a curb, behind her a burnt-out shell of a house.
A daughter torn from her adolescent arms,
never seen again.

I am not sure which is the miracle:
Her very survival
or that in this tormented place,
dank with our own ghosts,
we found each other long enough to give light.

I wrote this poem nearly two decades ago. I am always thrilled to share it, for it is part of my intention to continue to witness the life of this woman. I don’t know what happened to Renee. I suspect she succumbed to her addiction. It certainly seemed to be going in that direction the last time we encountered each other. Maybe she experienced the same kind of resurrection that S Street neighborhood is experiencing. Maybe she experienced the same kind of redemption that Ruben Castaneda experienced, in which he kicked the habit and came back to the S Street community, even preaching at the neighborhood church on Easter.

Or maybe, just maybe, each time I share this poem, and each time you read it, anyone reads it, Renee is resurrected and we all take part in her, and our own, redemption.


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Imagining a better abortion conversation


I have not been blogging much, given my current obligations elsewhere. This blog post caught my attention and I feel it is worthy of a larger audience, so I am reblogging it here. Thank you, Amy, for writing it and sharing it.

Originally posted on Sermons in Stones:

Every time abortion is debated I have this wish, this longing, which, forgive me, I’m going to articulate as a list. As with many polarizing debates, people tend to hunker down in their camps pointing at the most extreme versions of their opponents’ views (possibly fictional): “She had a ninth-month abortion so she could fit into her prom dress!” / “He thinks people shouldn’t even use contraception!” We know the stereotypes: Pro-choice people are just callous and selfish and eschew personal responsibility. Anti-abortion people just hate women and fear sex.

I believe (and fervently hope) that there is a vast realm of people who do not all agree about the ethics of reproduction but do share the following values, or strive for them, even though we get very nervous about how others might exploit them to ends we don’t share:

(1) We think sex is a valuable and precious part…

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On Not Knowing the Soul

This was delivered on June 23, 2014, as the Chapel Service as part of my Clinical Pastoral Education – Summer Intensive program.  We have chapel daily and we students are responsible for creating the content several times per month.


Opening Words Image

May all that is unknown

be a place of wonderment.

May ours be a spirit of curiosity,

no spiritual imperialism,

religious hegemony,

or emotional supremacy.

Let us be a wideness

an open-heartedness,

a humility not of our own making.



This morning I read a few passages at our morning meeting from Victoria’s Sweet memoir and treatise on Slow Medicine, which is a movement in the halls of medicine which like the Slow Food movement, is meant to bring us back to our roots, to ground us, to relinquish the sterile and embrace the life force. Sweet’s version of Slow Medicine is strongly informed by her understanding of the work of medieval Christian mystic, Hildegard of Bingen whose understanding of the green life force in all continues to offer wisdom to how our bodies and the world heals.

In the introduction to God’s Hotel, Dr. Sweet talks about her first autopsy, which when I re-read it this past week, brought me back to my first viewing. Perhaps it will do the same for you. When the body is uncovered, she discovers that it is the body of one of her very first patients. As she reacted to seeing the body, she writes,

Something was missing. But what? Mr. Baker’s breathing? His movement? His warmth? What I had expected, I later came to realize, was some sort of thing, some unopenable last nubbin, like what you find at the center of a baseball when you unroll it. I had expected some thing that was, well, ineradicably Mr. Baker, something the pathologist’s saw could not open and destroy. But there was no such thing: I could see for myself.

Much later I learned that medicine had once had a name for this, this something present in the living body but missing from the corpse. Two names, actually. There was spiritus, from which we get the English spirit, although the Latin spiritus was not insubstantial as “spirit.” Spiritus was the breath, the regular, rhythmic breathing of the live body that is so shockingly absent from the dead. Spiritus is what is exhaled in the last breath.

And there was anima. Usually translated as soul, the Latin is better for conveying the second striking distinction between Mr. Baker’s dead body and Mr. Baker – its lack of movement. Because anima is not really the abstraction, “soul.” Anima is the invisible force that animates the body, that moves it, not only willfully but also unconsciously….

By the time medicine got to me, however, words like spiritus and anima had been banished from the medical vocabulary.

Here we are, in the halls of a great institution of medicine, and we have the vocabulary. Perhaps they are different words – perhaps your words differ from mine – but we have such a vocabulary to offer, to embody, in our work in this place. We have the opportunity and responsibility to remind this place, these people, and ourselves about the soul of the work we do.

One of my spiritual ancestors was Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian minister in the middle of the 19th century who was good friends with Henry David Thoreau and connected with the Transcendentalist movement. Emerson was highly influenced by the “newly discovered” Eastern traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. It was in his exploration of the intersections between Unitarian Christianity and Eastern views of the nature of the universe that he wrote an essay entitled, “The Oversoul:”

We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within (hu)man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.

The soul is either a very delicate thing, or an everlasting thing. It is disputable and indisputable. Self-evident and non-existent. A matter of belief and, for some, a matter beyond believing. It is the foundation upon which theologies have been built and kingdoms sold away. It is where we locate any immortality that might exist; it is where any sense of permanence might reside; it represents wholeness unyielding to the vagaries of disease and death (though, apparently, it is possible to be corrupted morally and bought through a deal with the devil). Even for those who are not sure what they believe happens upon the death of the body, the survival of the soul offers solace.

Here is one poetic reflection on the soul, this one from Mary Oliver, entitled, “Bone:”

  1. Understand, I am always trying to figure out
    what the soul is,
    and where hidden,
    and what shape
    and so, last week,
    when I found on the beach
    the ear bone
    of a pilot whale that may have died
    hundreds of years ago, I thought
    maybe I was close
    to discovering something
    for the ear bone
  2. is the portion that lasts longest
    in any of us, man or whale; shaped
    like a squat spoon
    with a pink scoop where
    once, in the lively swimmer’s head,
    it joined its two sisters
    in the house of hearing,
    it was only
    two inches long
    and thought: the soul
    might be like this
    so hard, so necessary

    yet almost nothing.
    Beside me
    the gray sea
    was opening and shutting its wave-doors,
    unfolding over and over
    its time-ridiculing roar;
    I looked but I couldn’t see anything
    through its dark-knit glare;
    yet don’t we all know, the golden sand
    is there at the bottom,
    though our eyes have never seen it,
    nor can our hands ever catch it

    lest we would sift it down
    into fractions, and facts
    and what the soul is, also
    I believe I will never quite know.
    Though I play at the edges of knowing,
    truly I know
    our part is not knowing,
    but looking, and touching, and loving,
    which is the way I walked on,
    through the pale-pink morning light.


That is the true thing and the hard thing: our part is not knowing. We are pulled and pushed, drawn to ideas that attempt knowing, attempt defining, attempt to explain. The impulse is beautiful, is innocent, is a simple yet voluptuous artifact of our humanity – yet the acting upon it is too often a twisted, mechanical perversion of the Ineffable. Though I play at the edge of knowing, truly I know our part is not knowing.

I recently had the honor to sit with a mother, father, and seven-year-old as she asked her parents about the death of her beloved grandmother. The question arose of what happens when the body is turned to ashes. This was, compared to the question about heaven, much more concrete, and thus, easier for me to answer. Because she was seven (and not four and not eleven) and because it was her question, not someone else’s, I responded with simple, concrete, accurate details of the cremation process. No euphemisms. No make-believe. No non-verbal indications that this is a weird or off-limits question.

The heaven question, now that one was harder. In my faith tradition, there is no one answer about what happens upon death. Some say heaven and some say earthworms. Some say both. Some say that and more.   In general, we UUs tend not to emphasize much attention to an afterlife for two reasons: since no one has come back with confirmation, we simply don’t know anything with any reliable certainty. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, as the Rev. Marilyn Sewell says, “we do know about suffering and injustice on this earth, and so we try to create the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, with real people.”

I know there are huge, important distinctions between the soul and any afterlife, and yet I find, at least today, that there is not much difference, or not difference enough for our purposes here and now. The cosmos is vast and grand. Differences on our human scale seem paltry in the face of its grandeur. In honor of this, I offer a second and final poem. This one from John Glenday, entitled, “Concerning the Atoms of the Soul”:

Someone explained once how the pieces of what we are
fall downwards at the same rate as the Universe.
The atoms of us, falling towards the centre
of whatever everything is. And we don’t see it.
We only sense their slight drag in the lifting hand.

That’s what weight is, that communal process of falling.
Furthermore, these atoms carry hooks, like burrs,
hooks catching like hooks, like clinging to like,
that’s what keeps us from becoming something else,
and why in early love, we sometimes
feel the tug of the heart snagging on another’s heart.

Only the atoms of the soul are perfect spheres
with no means of holding on to the world
or perhaps no need for holding on,
and so they fall through our lives catching
against nothing, like perfect rain,
and in the end, he wrote, mix in that common well of light
at the centre of whatever the suspected centre is,

or might have been.

So we can let scientists and theologians, believers and non-believers, good people and good people, debate and discuss on the virtues and possibilities of the soul, its weight and its fate. Here on earth, at this hospital, in this place of suffering and healing, we companion those souls with bodies, spirits in human form, sparks of divine light who talk and moan, live and love, breathe in and breathe out. It is our deepest honor.

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