Writing papers was always difficult for me. To write something down seemed so final, concrete. Not only was it a vulnerable experience to put one’s ideas into words to be read and examined by others but also to somehow stand on their own, without opportunity for further explanation or nuance. This was and is an arduous process.
I have a good friend who wrote all my papers with me in graduate school. Now before you get all concerned about plagiarism, let me explain. She knew I was a verbal processor with strong pastoral instincts, and I knew she was an excellent writer and thinker. Before a paper was due, we would bring our notes of important ideas, pertinent research, what didn’t make sense, critical nuances, and of course, ourselves. Then we would set a time and begin the conversation. We talked through our papers. She would ask me questions. I would nuance my response and develop an idea further. I would challenge her assumptions. She would refine. You get the idea. This often took place in a University Park apartment over chai tea and frozen pizza, our Eucharist, that connected us to each other, to the ancient writers we were studying, and to the One they pointed us toward.
We were helping each other discover our theology. But we were also embodying our theology. We knew intuitively—although I am not sure we had the language for it at the time—that good, robust theology isn’t simply a string of logical ideas divorced from life, but is rooted in relationship and often filled with paradox and mystery. The process by which we discovered our theology seemed just as important as the content of the beliefs that came as a result of it. The mutual ebb and flow, the give and take, the willingness to risk ourselves and our ideas without judgement (but not without critique), and the hospitality were the fertile soil for our theology to take root. Because when it comes down to it, what good is any belief or idea that isn’t manifested in one’s life?
This process continues to influence my ministry practice in the hospital setting. Any time I walk into a hospital room, surgery waiting room, or staff break room, the theology discovered is inherently different because each person I encounter is different. Now you may be thinking, “Just because the person you encounter is different doesn’t mean God changes.” You raise an important point. However, we must not equate our current understanding of God, with God. That would be idolatry. If we believe every person is created in the image of God, regardless of their beliefs, then there is some part of God—if only a dim reflection—within them. Each encounter is an opportunity to discover another aspect of God.
So when I enter a room, I bring my beliefs, values, identity, and the experiences that formed it, and so does the other person. The virtue of hospitality, reciprocal ebb and flow in conversation laced with paradox, mystery, and the divine fill the sacred space. There are times when I enter the room and there is no reciprocity. Sometimes one’s circumstances, my timing, family dynamics, etc., make a pastoral visit seemingly absent of the divine. But other times—when a relationship is formed, someone risks themselves, their experiences, and their beliefs—a reciprocal conversation that clarifies, honors, and strengthens the other happens, and something beautiful takes place. We discover the Holy One among us, often looking different than we expected, and never without surprise. We see God a little more clearly than before, often not realizing until that moment that our previous image was a little fuzzy.
Header image credit: Herchenroeder, Karissa. Votives, Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe, NM. June 2012. Retrieved from personal archives.