by Will Hocker
A couple months ago, our rector, Paul Fromberg, asked me how I can work as a pediatric hospital chaplain. That is, how do I bear being with children as they suffer. I knew, as the words came out of my mouth, that I was scratching the surface of something I barely understand.
I said, “I cry. A lot.”
Well. That certainly is true. Actually, it’s never been so true as it’s been since I uttered those words. Nevertheless, it’s an inadequate response to a tough question. I’ve been holding this question close to my heart ever since.
How do I work with children who are gravely ill? How do I stand by them? How do I hold their disbelieving, fearful, sad, angry families close enough to feel their pain, yet at enough distance to act helpfully?
How does any of us sustain a vocation?
I consistently take great comfort in hearing the gospel lesson for the Feast of the Presentation when Jesus’ parents first take him to the temple. Just he takes Jesus into his arms, Simeon says, now that he’s seen the Person in whom God becomes one of us, he can rest in peace. Anna, at just the sight of Jesus, praises God, and tells all those anticipating Israel’s renewal that their hope has arrived. For me, the joy of being a pediatric chaplain lies in this very truth: that through working with ill children, their families, the doctors and nurses, respiratory therapists and physical therapists, that stand by them – all of whom embody the Divine as I understand it – I have the assurance my life needs.
Yet, the work challenges me daily. The work changes me daily.
How do I live with the suffering of others?
Well. It seems I – as is so with many of us – I have never been able to avoid it. My father became ill with heart disease when I was 13. He died when I was 20. How much time in the hospital had I spent with him during those 7 years? A whole year? I don’t know. I do know this: By the time my father died, I could find solace alone in the light of a hospital vending machine, worrying a watery cup of hot chocolate from one hand to the other – vaguely satisfied, if only because the cocoa was warm and familiar.
A refiner’s fire. A fuller’s soap.
When we’ve said ‘yes’ to the Spirit’s invitation to join in God’s mission of love, we begin to be purified. Not unlike the silver smiths hold deep in their fires. We are cleansed, our imperfections washed away, as the fullers’ cleaning, bleaching, wetting, and beating make new cloth clean and full.
Any true calling entails living out the understanding that our spiritual life is indeed our life. No more, no less. Our daily bread is the stuff of that life. It is given to us. Our sole responsibility in this involves saying ‘yes’.
When I was 25, a colleague asked me to visit a man with AIDS at Ann Arbor’s V.A. Hospital. I’d been reading about AIDS – which of course back then was known as the ‘gay plague’ or, as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. I’d been working with both the University of Michigan’s Lesbian and Gay Advocates Office and the Washtenaw County Health Department to educate myself and other gay men about this disease. Shortly thereafter my friends and colleagues began to die.
It was possible to escape this tragedy, to bury one’s head in the sand, for a short while. But, frankly, no one I knew did so. In fact, all those I knew – lesbians, straight folk, gay men, rolled up their sleeves to post HIV awareness flyers, and slept on their couches while their sick friends wasted away in their beds.
A refiner’s fire. A fuller’s soap.
I was not surprised when I myself began to get sick. I knew it was coming. Or, maybe, I just dreaded surviving as my friends and colleagues were dying. Eventually I was confronted by that ultimate need to let go of my doing and simply get on with ‘be-ing’. Not an easy feat for someone driven by a sense that he’s got a lot to do. But, with the help of my husband, and a Blackfoot shaman spiritual director, and a couple bad-ass friends, I did let go. I learned to stop doing, and to begin blessing others from my chair and from my bed.
This messiness is indeed the stuff of a calling. Facing our messiness – our shadow (which we strive to never see and acknowledge) and our persona (that dull smile we present daily) – is surely the linchpin of our salvation.
I’ll say that again: Facing our messiness is the linchpin of our salvation.
It is from this place of ultimate vulnerability that I know being a chaplain to ill children to be my spiritual path. As a pediatric oncologist acquaintance has said, there is indeed something about our work itself that sustains it.
that acknowledges death and injustice and love thwarted and hope extinguished and potential squandered without accepting them as facts preeminent over life and justice and love triumphant and hope eternal and potential fulfilled.
Truly, I don’t know if this love, this being a pediatric chaplain, is forever. Three months ago it felt sustainable by daily prayer and tears several times a week. But the past 6 weeks? I actually don’t know how I’ve made it through so many sudden, unanticipated losses: a child born deaf and blind who wrapped my heart around his own – perhaps because his nurse told me his parents could not be in regularly, and asked me to take him into my arms when I could do so; and, more recurrences of cancer than I’ve seen in the 2 ½ years I’ve done this work. Will I be a pediatric chaplain 5 years from now? I hope so. But, I don’t know. I believe I’ve learned, in a life lived amidst the suffering of others, how to care for myself well enough to have another day. But, truly. I do not know.
A refiner’s fire. A fuller’s soap.
Whether I continue to serve as a pediatric chaplain remains to be seen. Whether Cheryl will continue to work with special needs children, whether Maitreya will maintain the fight exonerating innocents now on death row, whether Sara will every Friday help the needy and hungry feed the needy and hungry, I do not know.
But, whether we continue to bear our spiritually and emotionally challenging work or not, the world’s suffering continues. Even were we to step out of the trenches, none of us can adequately shield ourselves from this fundamental truth, from these inevitable injustices and sufferings.
In fact, it is in our very attempts to protect ourselves from such painful realities that we actually injure ourselves spiritually.
Pico Iyer, one of my favorite thinkers on multiculturalism, says “To see that life means a joyful participation in a world of sorrows, and that suffering is not the same as unhappiness, is one of the singular blessings…”
Frankly, I take heart facing into the wind, leaning into the gospel certainty that we continue toward perfection as we face the truth. We follow our calls not on our own, of course. We do so in sure and certain truth that we will be dismissed in peace, according to God’s word; that we ourselves have seen the pattern of our salvation in the life and death of Jesus. Even when we face squarely the tragedy inherent in life, we know we have nothing to fear.
Jesus assures us again and again: Fear not.
The Rev. Will Hocker, pediatric staff chaplain at UCSF hospital and volunteer priest associate at St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, CA