Just as it is a privilege to care for someone, it is just as much a burden if we are ill-equipped, and the ill-equipped may struggle to realise two critical truths that must be respected in a person’s suffering.
Their belief system needs to be respected and the facts of their experience supported.
As we hold these two tensions together—perhaps a person’s belief in God, and that same person’s doubting, that, “How could a ‘good God’ allow this suffering?”—we are able to support the person without feeling like we should have the answer. In times of deep suffering we cannot possibly have the answer; the timing is wrong and the words almost certainly will come out wrong. It is right to say, “Yes, it doesn’t seem fair, does it?” or “I don’t know.”
There are situations also where there is no religious underpinning, yet there may still be a virgin faith. Seriously bad circumstances cause us to question the purpose and meaning of life. Sometimes they push us toward God and sometimes away.
What we should be open for, however, is to be prepared to meet a person with a unique belief system, where faith has a personal context—especially as they meet tragedy. We often don’t know how we will react or respond until we are in the thick of the moment, in all its messiness. As a carer we hallow the messiness. It is what constitutes this other person before us, just now.
This is why the pastoral carer enters the situation without words, trying to discern the way, respecting the environment, being careful only to add value, where silence can be a dear friend.
Open-mindedness and respect for people’s dignity, with the wisdom of the significance of the moment, work with a few seasoned words that are not rehearsed beforehand, but are given to us by God, as we experience the moment with them. We are, for that moment, inside them, feeling as they feel, as best we can. We are humbled. We cannot possibly know how they are feeling, but this lack only drives us to be attentive to the moment.
Being attentive to the moment and being utterly respectful of the person’s faith-stance are the keys to good pastoral care. Their truths are the truth, unless they ask, seeking to be corrected, as is sometimes the case. What does it matter if they are angry at God? Allowing a person to discharge their feelings without judgment seems easy, but we need to have processed our own hurts to be fully available to them.
There should be nothing the needy person can do that would be wrong.
When a person is suffering their belief system needs to be respected and the facts of their experience supported. Being attentive to the moment and being utterly respectful of the person’s faith-stance are the keys to good pastoral care.
© 2013 S. J. Wickham.