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A Novel Venue for Developing True Spirituality: Companions of St Silouan Athonite


Some General Information About
The Companions of St Silouan Athonite

First of all and from the outset: This is not a religious group nor a denominational outreach. It is not a cult-in-the-making.


One nagging question that I have frequently posed is this: Why do most people think of spiritual care at the last minute, when someone is at Death’s door or when you are facing the dying process of a loved one? It’s like exercising and eating a healthy diet after the heart attack, isn’t it? Why not get started now.


This is an ecumenical, interfaith, non-denominations, judgement-free community of persons who are solely interested in companioning each other on their spiritual pilgrimages.

The inspiration for forming a wider group of spiritual companions came from my association with a Russian Orthodox Monastery in Northeast New York. The monks decided to resurrect a concept of a group of lay persons who would live some of the monastic values while in the secular world. These so-called companions of the monastery would apply, be considered as aspirants and then admitted to the so-called companions. They would subscribe to a rule of life, establish for themselves a prayer discipline, support the monastery in time and treasure, and make regular pilgrimages, either to the parent monastery or to some other monastery or retreat venue. It was a great idea but poorly organized. It was open to all faiths and, while it had an insignia identifying the companions, a small stylized cross, it still had the flavor of a very distinct Christian denomination. I couldn’t imagine a Buddhist, a Jew or a Moslem wanting to become a companion and having a cross as their insignia.

My patron saint is St Silouan of Mount Athos, St Silouan Athonite for short. I chose Silouan because of his humility and simplicity, his dedication to love and forgiveness, his compassion. Although Silouan was highly advanced in monastic ascetic spirituality and reached the height of monastic hierarchy as a Staretz or elder, a schemamonk, his humility and simplicity were legendary. Silouan, a Russian Orthodox Christian elder monk, who lived on the exclusive Greek peninsula known as Hagios Oros, the “Holy Mountain”, or Mount Athos, he lived values that transcended the Christian model and are the common threads of all the great world spiritual traditions.

As a professional theologian and thanatologist, a scholar of religion and psychospiritual care, I find that the vast majority of persons who call themselves members of a particular faith or belief community don’t have a clue about what their denomination teaches. Most ministers have no clue about what’s going on in interreligious dialogue, much less about their particulars. Most institutionalized religion has been caught with their pants around their ankles when it comes to credibility.

In recent decades we have all too often heard the ambiguous and practically meaningless phrase, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Even the “spiritual” professional literature from the healthcare, deathcare and spiritual care disciplines can’t even agree on an across-the-board commonly held definition of what spirituality is! In fact, one publication did a review of the literature and found more than 90 different “definitions” of  spirituality!

In my professional practice I deal with end-of-life, death, dying, and survivors. I know the value of religion and I know the value of spirituality; I think I know where the one stops and where the other starts. Every time I think I’m sure, a situation arises that sets me back to square one.

One thing is certain: every human being is spiritual. There’s no doubt about it. Once you can admit you recognize that there’s something greater than yourself, that transcends your understanding, you have become spiritual. Now how you use that evolutionary revelation to best advantage and how you ease into it to make meaning of difficult moments, suffering, challenges is another story. To get the most out of your spirituality, you need companioning, guidance, others willing to talk about their spirituality and to share their insights.

That’s what this group, the Companions of St Silouan Athonite, is all about.

It’s an open group meaning that anyone inclined to explore the group can freely do so. What you receive from the group and what you give to the group is purely a matter of what you have at any given time in your journey. The pilgrimmage is self-paced. The requirements are your own.

The only formal hierarchy is me, the self-styled “Principal Companion,” actually the monitor of the group and the main person doing most of the work on this site.

In the near future, once the group shows signs of stability and growth, I will offer two levels of formal membership: Aspirant and Companion. The Aspirant is a candidate who has identified a sincere calling to companion others in developing their spirituality. The Companion is the person who has achieved a certain level of competence in companioning through personal discipline and involvement.

Initially, there is no commitment other than the personal commitment you make to yourself and to those with whom you have a relationship to follow the Simple Rule of the Companions of St Silouan Athonite. As the Companion community matures, we may ask for volunteer support or offer specific products for generating funds. Those products will be subject to the Community’s approval, basically all full Companions will have a say in what is offered and what is done.

At some point in time, again as the Community grows and matures, it would be great if we could have a Companions retreat once a year at locations offering retreat accommodations and meeting facilities.

The organization will be very loosely structured: Most of the site will be public access. That means that announcements, reflections, etc. will be public access.

Anyone interested in more intense involvement will be asked to “Follow” the site by signing up with their real name and their email. This means only that the moderator, I, will see who you are and know our email. You will receive an email automatically notifying you whenever a new item is posted. You can do the same for comments.

At some time in the near future, I will post an application form on this site. If anyone wishes to become an Aspirant they will fill out the form and email it to me.

To become a full Companion, you will fill out the same form but only after 6 months of Aspirancy, include an essay about your spirituality and the importance of being a Companion, and you will document your spiritual activities, retreats, spiritual direction, etc.

A full Companion will receive a letter of good standing and a Certificate of Companionship, both of which will have only sentimental value.

Very soon I will create a suitable “habit” for Companions. The habit will be a small item identifying the wearer as a Companion. It will likely be a lapel pin or similar item. Cost will be kept low, since the value of the habit is to be kept intrinsic and the habit itself is to be kept very humble.

Since most everything will be done digitally and the material for reflections etc. will come directly from my own resources or from material I’m reviewing at the time and find suitable for the Companions, no real overheads will be generated. As for the habit, the Companion will purchase that directly from the manufacturer.

I may from time to time suggest certain devotional items such as prayer ropes and the like or items to enhance sensual aspects of the spiritual practice. If I do so, I will also provide links to suppliers of such items. I do not have any financial interest in any of these suppliers but if one were to come about, I would announce that fact publicly to the Community.

Aspirants and Companions are accountable to themselves. If you misrepresent something you do your conscience is your judge, no one else.

Finally, all I ask is if you are seriously interested in becoming a participating member of the group that you contribute to the reflections or to the feedback about reflections. The only requirements are that you remain on topic, leave egos outside, and don’t bring any personal baggage on board. No proselytizing and not judgmentalism.

In closing, I do sincerely welcome your comments, recommendations, suggestions, even criticisms of me and only me. Comments should be made using the comments form on each post; they will be moderated and then published. If you don’t want what you write to be public please email me your thoughts to st.silouan.companions@gmail.com. Your email communications will be confidential and I now notify anyone concerned that I invoke clergy privilege should any law enforcement agency request insight into the emails. When I say confidential, I mean confidential.

As always, I am available at st.silouan.companions@gmail.com should you have any questions or concerns.

To view the Simple Rule of the Companions of St Silouan click here.

Looking forward to exploring the beauty and mystery of spirituality with you,

Peace and joy!
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv.
Principal Companion

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Do our funeral homes provide only customer service or human service?


An Op-Ed Republished with Permission

We might ask the same question as regards our faith communities and so-called pastors.


As a provider of psychospiritual care to the bereaved, as a professional bereavement chaplain, theologian and thanatologist, I firmly believe that some things just have to be delivered locally and face-to-face; these include sex, making friends, spiritual care, funeralization services. Not necessarily in that order or priority ranking.


Grief work is not achieved in three days nor with an online consult. That’s purely and simply idiotic.

The saying goes thus: “Death is the great equalizer.” We are all equal in death. Presidents, kings, supreme court justices, movie stars, athletes all die, all decay, all go the same way as the homeless man on the corner. But would you think of direct burial or direct cremation for a president, a queen, Mohammed Ali? So why skimp on grandpa? We celebrate the deceased’s achievements in life, not the fact of his or her being dead. And we do it with pomp, ceremony, rites, ritual, tradition, dignity and respect. Virtual mourning is none of the above and the grief work is not achieved in three days nor with an online consult. That’s purely and simply idiotic.

Furthermore, a death is a social, political and community event. The emotions involved in the acute grief experience are far too complex and idiosyncratic to be amenable to one method, one technology, one dose. As a social, political and community event death care requires real community involvement, hands on, and that means a local group understanding the local cultures, a “neighborhood,” if you prefer. This is a physical community, complex, deep, involved, alive; not a virtual make-believe, conjured up community.

One more thing: We have to stop giving Jessica Mitford and her estate post-mortem kudos for a book and a sequel book that was not only self-serving and conflicted in its interests, but a masterpiece of biased muckraking appealing to the titillation lust of the masses and their denial of death anxieties. Mitford couldn’t attack Death itself nor could or would she attempt to attack institutionalized religion, so she went after the next best thing, the funeral services industry. I’ve cited Mitford several times on my various blogs so I won’t waste bytes on her here.

I place Mitford in the same category as Kübler-Ross in that neither of them can claim any objective or scientific credibility but their main contribution to Western, particularly American society, was to get people talking about death and deathcare services. That, my friends, was a big step in a society frozen in preadolescent fascinations, psychosocial pathological denial, anxiety and narcissism, steeped in materialist humanism and addicted to corporate-fed consumerism.

It’s progressively gotten worse with the public health problem of Internet Addiction Disorder and the pathological subset, Facebook Addiction Disorder, and the emergence of the multistate funeral services groups like Newcomer Funeral Services Group, Service Corporation International and their alter ego Dignity Memorial, and StoneMor, who have all added greed and indifference to the corporate mix of tastelessness and deception of the consumer public. and their dead Again, I’ve commented extensively on these ghouls of the funeral services niche so I won’t waste time or words on them here.

Newcomer, SCI/Dignity Memorial, StoneMor
Ghouls of Corporate Death Services

They want your money not your brains!

Like it or not, death is inevitable for every mortal creature from cockroaches to presidents and kings. No matter how you define or think about it, you will have to some day deal with death so get a grip. How you deal with the death of a significant other in your life, whether that loved one is a pet or a parent or a child–or your own death is a matter of what I will term befriending death. No, I don’t mean the superficial, make believe, virtual “befriending” most of you are addicted to on Facebook and other social media. I mean the kind of be-friending that involves learning about, nurturing an intimacy with, even trusting, welcoming into your world, and frequent contact. Being at ease with, acknowledging, being aware of death is key. That may sound a bit bizarre so let me explain.

Technology has evolved faster than we as human beings have done. We lag far behind technology in our understanding of it and our ability to wisely and prudently steward it. In fact, technology has overrun us and has taken over our lives; this can’t be denied. This fact has been used to the level of Dr Strangelove proportions by corporations and big business, and even by individuals with pathological ambitions like Donald Trump on Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg with the Facebook phenomenon. The medical, psychological and ethics journals are full of reports on the so-called Internet Addiction Disorder, which was described back in the 90’s, and now there’s a subset of that disorder termed the Facebook Addiction Disorder and the Internet Gaming Disorder, which all share the same symptoms as alcoholism and street drug addiction like heroin or the like. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it, just go to Pubmed and plug in a couple search terms and you’ll get all the proof you’ll ever need of this fact.


Editor’s note: For those of you who are not familiar with Pubmed, it is the database and search engine maintained by the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health; it provides access primarily to the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. (Access Pubmed here. )


You have to admit you have a problem when you need Facebook to help you grieve!

The stimulus for this editorial, however, is not Newcomers or SCI. Nor is it Twitter or Facebook. The funeral service corporations and the social media and networking evils do figure in the theme of this communication, however.
If presidents and perverts have discovered social networking and social media, neither of which are social in the benevolent meaning of the word but serve a more sinister, asocial purpose of getting people hooked and then controlling them, just as the word “service” is used deceptively when used in conjunction with such greed mills as Newcomers or Service Corporation International.
The stimulus for this commentary is, in fact, an article that appeared in Forbes online, “Customer Service In Deathcare: How The Funeral Home Industry Cares For The Living” (contributed by Micah Solomon, MAY 26, 2017).—

Mr Solomon describes himself as a “customer service consultant” and “consumer trends expert,” — he doesn’t say how he got those credentials, though — catchy phrases but a bit too catchy to inspire any confidence or credibility. I’m a bit at a loss not at the What? but at the How? when Mr Solomon then goes on to say:

While some of my own work with the death care industry as a customer service consultant and consumer trends expert has been on innovation in the deathcare customer experience (methods for serving today’s far-flung bereaved customers by using connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies to allow them to take part in memorial/celebration of life service) most of the work I do in this industry and that matters the most, in my opinion, is simply aimed at improving the customer experience, which, of course, is for the living.

Likewise unclear is Solomon’s terminology “far-flung bereaved customers” and “connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies” to involve them in the “memorial/celebration of life service“. Maybe it’s Mr Solomon’s sense of compassion that is represented by his use of the term “far-flung” to describe the unfortunate mourners who are separated by distance from the event. Describing the bereaved as “customers” further chills the atmosphere he’s creating. Technical jargon like “connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies” somehow put a damper on my sense that this guy has any clue about the nature of bereavement, acute grief, mourning, tradition, spirituality, cultural sensitivity, or even the characteristics of the vocation of funeral director. I’m therefore at something of a loss how he, with his frigid and disconnected technospeak, can improve the customer experience! This he leaves to the funeral directors he’s interviewing. Wisely so.

But even more poignant ar the three phrases caught my attention in that unimaginitive and deceptive title: “customer service,” “deathcare,” “funeral home industry.”

We alone, as moral agents and social actors, are responsible for what we do and how we do it

Inserting a bit of Kantian deontology that I’d like you to keep in the back of your mind while reading this, I’d like to say that we are not measured by what the other guy or gal does, but by what we do; we alone, as moral agents and social actors, are responsible for what we do and how we do it. It’s the quality of our values, morals and ethics that govern our behavior. As moral free agents we alone are responsible for what standards are used to guide our conduct.This applies not only to our inner forum, our conscience and how it guides us, but to the external forum, the community in which we live, work, and may disinterestedly interact.

Human service becomes “customer” service when an goods or services transaction forms the basis of the interaction

Customer service is at its most basic human service, service to human beings, human interaction, relationship building. By human services, I mean a broad range of interdisciplinary services whose commitment is jointly and individually to improve the overall quality of life in diverse populations through guidance in meeting basic human needs and support remediating real or perceived social challenges.  Human service becomes “customer” service when a goods or services transaction forms the basis of the interaction but it is still a subset of human services. Accordingly, customer service cannot separate itself from the humane aspect, the relationship aspect of its nature. The problem I have with the Forbes article is that, true to the materialist consumerist interests of Forbes, the article defines customer service purely in terms of selling and purchasing relationships but in the context of the so-called, malapropism, funeral service industry. Customer service must be human service, especially in the funeral services professions. Human service and hence customer service in this framework is near impossible on a corporate or industrial scale for reasons I’d be happy to substantiate in another article, if required.

Try doing this on Facebook or in cyberspace!

The second term that raised my suspicions is “deathcare.” We can defined death care as the care given to the dead or as post-mortem care. This would involve respectful and dignified custodianship and preparation of the dead body for whatever funeralization rites and rituals are appropriate as defined by the deceased individual during his or her life or as requested by the survivors. We must not oversimplify deathcare with the deathcare services businesses and industries that commonly provide services related to the dead body and death traditions, that is, preparation of the dead body (removal, embalming, cosmetology, etc.), funeral rituals, disposal (burial, cremation, etc.), and memorialization. The deathcare business includes for example funeral homes and their operations, including transporation services; containers like caskets, coffins, urns; accelerated decomposition services such as alkaline hydrolysis, cremation, etc.; cemeteries and burial plots, and headstones, markers, etc. What we most neglect in the discussion of deathcare services is psychospiritual care, and here we must include the professional bereavement chaplain and some but not most clergy.

The phrase that most raised my hackles is “funeral home industry.” First of all, the funeral home is not an industry. It may operate like a business but it is a professional operation requiring very specific training and licensure in most places. Most states require a trained and licensed funeral director to at least oversee the operations of a funeral home. The term “funeral home industry” is grossly misleading and deceptive because it creates an image of the traditional funeral home with all of its warmth and amenities together with the dignified and compassionate professional funeral director at its helm. Nothing could be farther from the truth if one looks at the funeral services industry, the more correct designation for the funeral services groups and corporations such as Newcomer Funeral Services Group, Service Corporation International (Dignity Memorial) or StoneMor, who operate more like waste disposal business than funeral homes. Remember corporations operate according to policies, procedures, protocols and most of all the bottom line and shareholder satisfaction. No room here for stuff like compassion, empathy, much less “human service”.

Their focus is twofold: dignified care of the dead and compassionate care of the living.

The traditional, community funeral home is a hub of interdisciplinary teamwork.

The role of the funeral services provider, more accurately the funeral services team, is just that: to provide human services. Those human services are provided by a team of specialists that range from the funeral home cleaning and maintenance person(s), to the housekeeper, the groundskeeper, the funeral home assistants, the behind the scenes professionals (the cosmetologist, the hair stylist, the embalmer), to the front of house staff (the assistants, the funeral director(s)), to the psychospiritual care provider (the funeral home chaplain or associated clergyperson). Their focus is twofold: dignified care of the dead and compassionate care of the living. The human services aspect persists far beyond the care provided with the first call, the removal, the arrangements conference, the chaplain visit and consultation, the visitation or the funeral; what happens at any of these milestones significantly affects the survivors during, immediately after the services, and well into the future, perhaps for years. That’s what the funeral services industry, the large groups, the corporations can’t provide but what the local family-owned funeral home pride themselves in: the human side of funeral services. So be clear on this point: once you start talking “industry” you are not talking “human”. Period.

So far I’ve taken issue only with three phrases that occur in the title of the article alone. But what about the remainder of the so-called article at issue? Well, there’s not much to say about it because the bulk of it is made up of questions put to three selected funeral directors and their responses. Their responses are totally acceptable in terms of the language, and to be honest I can’t find much with which I’d tend to disagree. The funeral directors seem to have their acts in order and say the right things. They are in a highly competitive business and have to be realistic, not necessarily traditional. Read into that what you like.

It should be clear by this point that I do not advocate virtual or technological or corporate solutions to anything as profound as the death experience or any occurrence of acute traumatic bereavement. Electronic signals, bits and bytes, virtual compassion just do not and cannot replace the warmth of human spirit, the compassionate embrace of a friend or loved one, the immediacy of the death experience, the real-ization of the death and its sequellae. The funeral home and its resident and on-call team members are the experts in offering compassion and comfort and no social networking scheme, no corporate disposal package, no virtual event and no DVD can replace the authenticity and true empathic response of face-to-face, human-to-human, verbal and non-verbal communications, the symbols and rituals that give meaning to this most mysterious of life events, death.

… some things just have to be delivered locally and face-to-face; these include sex, making friends, spiritual care, funeralization services.

This is what we do.

The Editor

 


Editor’s Note: Solomon’s self-description reads line a narcissist’s mini-bio: “I’m best known as an author, keynote speaker, consultant, and thought leader in customer service, customer experience, company culture, leadership, hospitality, innovation, entrepreneurship and consumer trends. I travel nationally and worldwide, and home base is metro Seattle. Reach me at 484-343-5881 or micah@micahsolomon.com or http://www.micahsolomon.com” We’ve contacted him for a comment on this editorial.


Acknowledgement: I’d like to extend my special thanks to my colleagues on LinkedIn, Ms Linda Williams M. Ed., M. Th., who describes herself as an Entrepreneur, Virtual Event Planner and Facilitator, Instructional Designer, Educator, Inspirational Speaker”.” Ms Williams describes her business, In-Person Away Virtual Events, as an operation that provides “our clients, their families, and friends with a virtual alternative to come together in an engaging, realistic and meaningful way, as well as host and attend social events, without breaking the bank on travel expenses.” Ms Williams does not advocate virtual resources as a substitute for real presence but only as a valuable alternative affording an opportunity to share where no other viable options are available. I agree.



Death, Bereavement and a Return to Silence


Republished with permission from Spirituality and Griefcare.


Death does not respect age; any death is a loss whether it be an 18-month old infant, an 18-year old youth, or an 81 year old matron. They are all significant losses to someone and each instance has its own pattern of grief responses and challenges to overcome. Regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status or any other feature, each death is unique and special, like no other death ever or anywhere, because with each death we lose an entire world, an entire package of experiences that may have just been in the process of unwrapping.

We hardly ever speak of a beforelife but tend to be overly concerned with the afterlife. It may be comforting for some of us to reflect on who and where we were before we became who we are when we were born. It’s interesting to ponder that question because we can either trust that we were in fact somewhere, existing, before we were physically conceived. But where was that? The alternative is to believe that once a random sperm entered a waiting egg, a cascade of events was triggered that became the infant you and developed into the you you are today. Quite honestly, neither of the two hypotheses can really be resolved, because we have no real idea what constitutes “you.” Perhaps that’s why we prefer to occupy ourselves with an afterlife, since in that discussion we at least have a tangible quantity to work with: a physical person with all sorts of attributes has died, and we ask the many questions associated with a death, most often Why? and Where?

We are terribly uncomfortable with being so vulnerably human and can’t bear to think that we will someday, somewhere, somehow die. We will physically stop working and some rather disgusting changes will take place in our physical bodies. Like the proverbial ostrich, most of us wander aimlessly and with minimum purpose along the myriad possible paths through the time and space we call life. We greedily seek one diversion or entertainment after the other, never getting enough, and yet demanding and getting more and more distraction from the reality of ourselves and the world around us. We become a shell of what we potentially can be.

Shells of former selves.

When death finally arrives to claim a loved one or a friend, we are shocked, confused, angry, and demanding. How could this have happened? Why did it have to happen? If only…! Reality is really hard to take and when you are so arrogant that you think you can handle all the answers or can control what happens, reality gets even harder on you. You attempt to quench your anxiety with denial but it doesn’t seem to work for you – or anyone else. Death visits and seldom knocks. Death rarely makes an appointment to come around when it’s convenient. Death just drops by and takes what is his.

When a death occurs it almost always ushers in a psychospiritual process we commonly refer to as grief, and a psychosocial process we generally refer to as mourning. Both grief and mourning have their sociocultural patterns we call ritual on the “micro” level and ceremony on the “macro” or public arena. Within these we have social norms, including how grief is politicized, acknowledged, and cultural dictates, bundled together into what we call practice or on a more substantial scale, tradition. Religion / spirituality of one form or another, or one of the philosophies seeking religion, frequently provide a foundation upon which these behaviors can establish and legitimize themselves. The psychospiritual and the psychosocial environments provide the contexts in which the bereaved engage in their grief work, find meaning in their loss, incorporate the transformed deceased into their lives, continue their bonds with the deceased, and transcend the bereavement experience as transfigured persons. It’s a complex process that requires time and permission to proceed. Although the social / public process of mourning may have temporal waypoints and a particular culture may set an end time for the public display of bereavement, grief does not have such an amenity. In fact, grief may be experienced for many years after a loss even without being classified as “pathological,” or complicated, and grief is unique to each griever, it’s a personal experience and must be accommodated by each griever in his or her own way. Grief cannot be rushed nor can it be stereotyped.

Today, in the early 21st century, we are deluged with information and stimuli of indescribable variety and in asphyxiating volumes. Some of the deluge tends to shape our very physiology and repattern our nervous systems, especially our brains and the way we think. The information and stimuli enveloping us at every instant of every day is insidiously evil in that it is directed at transforming human beings endowed with free will into means to unhealthy ends. The media bombarding every single human being today is dehumanizing us and transforming our very existence from beings to doers. We are no longer mindful of the gift of the moment we are living in and we are unable to enjoy the moment in silent reflection We have no peace. Television, radio, emails invade every moment of our lives with commands to “Hurry!” “Don’t wait!” “Do it now!” “Last Chance.” Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging have all replaced real personal relationships with virtual personal relationships. The once sentient being we called human has become a mere reflection in a smartphone screen. We don’t even take the opportunity to speeddial a significant other and would rather spend the time texting rather than  talking. Even “chatting” which was once a form of informal oral communication and stimulus sharing has become realtime texting and responding but there’s nothing real about it.

All of these intrusions and incursions into our humanity and their tragic effects on who and what we are can be seen in our death practices. Digital death is a term that once described online practices centering on death-related communications; today, digital death is the counterpart of a person’s physical death. Our dehumanization is almost complete now because we have moved away from metaphysical, spiritual trust in an afterlife and are now even concerned about what happens to our Facebook page or our Twitter account after we physically die; we are now concerned with a digital afterlife! How pitiful can it get?

Materialist consumerism has decided that your death-related experience, your bereavement, your grief should be limited to three days and then you need to get back to work, get over your loss, and become productive again. It’s called bereavement leave. But it’s not leave to grieve; it’s merely time to get the necessary paperwork done to dispose of whoever it was who died. Three days, people! You’ve lived with an individual for decades, sharing almost every moment and you have three days to get over his death. You’ve raised a child to young man or womanhood, watched a helpless infant become a strapping happy young adult and you have 3 days to get over the car crash that killed him. What have we become?

On April 25, 2017, at 9:20 a.m. two young men, Logan Penzabene and Matthew Hamilton, each 18 years old, were traveling down a main road near their homes, a road they had probably traveled dozens if not hundreds of times on their way to school or once they qualified for their drivers licenses. But today was going to be different, very different. Today was going to be so different that at about 9:20, one would be dead and the other, Matthew Hamilton, in a coma, and hundreds of lives would be forever changed. One would be dead, Logan Penzabene, and the other in a coma. Two families would be plunged into the darkness of despairing grief; a whole community would be plunged into disbelief. An entire school district would be offered grief counseling. Why?

Well, on that fateful morning, the two young men were driving along and for some reason we may never know – perhaps they were texting, perhaps making a call, perhaps responding to some electronic notification – the driver crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic and hit a flatbed tractor trailer head-on, killing the young driver and causing critical head injuries to his passenger. Were they texting, making a call, responding to an electronic notification? Does it really matter? Yes, it does matter! One young man is DEAD, another is in a COMA, a whole community is thrown into disarray. Yes! It does matter!

The appalling part of the story is not that the event was preventable – I cannot support the belief that anything is truly preventable and must dispose of that notion of preventability as just more arrogance believing that we can control events. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of those arrogant, self-important political figures who believes that if he announces to a so-called program, “No Empty Chair”,  Teen Safe Driving Campaign, which is heralded on the Campaign website as: “Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today launched the “No Empty Chair” teen driving safety education and enforcement campaign to raise awareness of highway dangers during prom and graduation season.” Apparently, Cuomo believes that if he announces a campaign the problem is solved.  Cuomo’s campaign  was announced on April 15, 2017, the fatal accident occurred on April 25, 2017.

What we have to come to understand is that inflated programs and bombastic political rhetoric or police efforts during a so-called “campaign” do little or nothing to fundamentally change what government and corporations have worked so hard to create: producers to produce goods and services, consumers to consume goods and services, and sheeple to hear and obey (and to consume). The hypocrisy is conspicuous, it’s glaring, but if you’re constantly gazing into your smartphone screen, constantly receiving the indoctrination (in the past called “brainwashing”) and loving every digital minute of it, you won’t notice.

The churches and deathcare providers are elated. The churches because you may never have set foot in church for Sunday worship but they’ll wheel you in one last time and the church and pastor can get 30 minutes of exposure and a check. The deathcare industry doesn’t care one way or the other; the funeral director will get each and every one of us sooner or later, but sooner is better for the bottom line, and even better if it’s a sensational death that will attract multitudes of mourners! Visibility for both. Revenues for both. Rescue and paramedical personnel get to flaunt themselves and their equipment, which is good stuff for budget negotiations. Local political hacks, including everyone from the coroner / medical examiner, to law enforcement responders, to local elected stumpers ever eager for that special moment to appear and look devastated and share “Our prayers are with you today” canned expressions for the cameras. Even the public mourners and their makeshift shrines erected at the accident site. Everyone wants to be seen meditatively and reflectively, even prayerfully standing at the roadside memorial, “paying their respects,” showing solidarity for the momentary grief of a community. It’s really difficult to tell the real from the virtual.

The Penzabene Crash Site.

But the bottom-line, naked reality is that one young man is dead; another is critically injured. The bottom-line, naked reality is that one family is grieving the loss of a vibrant and vital part of that unit called family; a limb has been amputated and just like in the case of amputation of a physical limb, it is acutely painful, and there will be phantom pain even when the limb is no longer there.

Three days of bereavement leave is not going to work. Empty political actions like “No Empty Chair” or whatever they’re calling that stupidity is not going to work. Law enforcement “efforts” – as yet ineffectual and unrevealed – don’t seem to be doing very much. People are still killing each other, and people are getting dead regardless of whether the killing is intentional or unintentional. Sorry but dead is dead.

We can’t change what has happened and there’s no way we can justify any attempt to rationalize what has happened. That’s what makes Gov. Cuomo’s “No Empty Chair” campaign so political and so scurrilous. That’s what makes Bethlehem Police Commander Hornick’s statements like “it’s a tragic loss”  and “our feelings to out to the families” so pro forma and empty. Incidents like this one are not “tragic” and they’re probably not “preventable” by inaugurating campaigns with political undertones like “No Empty Chair.” Most people would probably disagree with what I just wrote. Not tragic!?! How heartless! Not, preventable? How fatalistic, how pessimistic! But those people would be wrong and misguided, victims of their own delusions, denial, and despair.

What I will say is that incidents like these, while not tragic and not preventable, are important teaching moments. Are important opportunities for everyone concerned to re-evaluate themselves and decide what they have become. It’s a time to become reflective and for self-examination. It’s a time to honestly admit that we are all contributing to our own psychospiritual demise, some of you willingly others inadvertently, but the vast majority are all part of the “preventable tragedies” of our post-modern, post-Christian, dehumanized world.

So what’s the final take-home message? Dead is dead. Loss is loss. Grief is unavoidable. The living will bury their dead and go on living. But is it that simple? Not really.

In my thinking, grief is a unique opportunity for personal and community growth. What you can’t change you have to take good advantage of. We do this by extending ourselves in compassion and love. We have to allow ourselves to stop for a moment so that we can catch up with ourselves. In other words, we have to take a moment and sit on a rock and become lost in time watching the brook flow around the obstacles. We need to shut out the white noise in our lives, and listen to the music of the brook and the birds. We need to raise our eyes from the illuminated screen and allow our souls to be illuminated by the sunlight playing off the ripples and the leaves. We need to stop feeling guilty about caring for ourselves and for others. We need to take time off from being busy to being just be-ing. This is essential to reclaiming our humanness, our spirituality.

I recall as a child the silent dying of a favorite apple tree. Of course, as a child I had the time for be-ing and for listening, for seeing; where there is no time for be-ing there’s no time for seeing or for listening. If we slow down we can hear what the Spirit is telling us about the dying of trees, the planet, of people, and what these deaths mean to us as beings capable of creating meaning and reflecting on love and how all of these things came into being, how a Spirit of love brought us into being.

The questions that we ask about death and dying are basically questions about the meaning of being, of be-ing. These are the questions that go into the stories once told around tribal campfires, and which now become part of the narratives that are told about our dead. These stories were the subject matter of the drawings on cave walls long ago, of the poetry of love and loss, and the emotions associated with the death of green in autumn. The Spirit is very generous in using any opportunity or event to make a point to us arrogant, uncertain, hesitant creatures.

We as educators, spiritual care providers, thanatologists, human beings, need to get back to basics and enter the world of the deep soul.

No condolences, no campaigns, no law enforcement efforts, no roadside memorials, no funeralization service will every have the desired, the needed effect unless we learn to appreciate silence. Our institutions from the family to church to government have taken a wrong turn. We live in an “increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualized world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness…” [McGilchrist, p. 6]

Our institutions cannot help but have a stake in blunting our maturity even if it means they must destroy the original versions and insights on which those very institutions were founded. We can easily identify that fragmentation in our education system, our government, our churches, and even in our families. [Aside: Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is a fascinating work of literature in many ways, but the story about the Grand Inquisitor is probably the best illustration of the perverse change in institution over time. Here’s a link to a brilliant portrayal by Sir John Gielgud. The Grand Inquisitor ]

I’ll close with a quote taken from Maggie Ross’ fascinating book, Silence: A User’s Guide, in which she cites a passage from Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria, noting that Holloway’s use of “religion” should be thought of in broad terms, in the sense of any pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance

Hear the flow. See the light. Enter the silence.

“All institutions overclaim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. This is particularly true of religions. Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description, but they end up claiming exclusive descriptive rights in them. They seque from the ardour and uncertainty of seeking to the confidence and complacence of possession. They shift from poetry to packaging.” [italics mine]

Peace and blessings,
Rev.  Ch. Harold

Download the final article from Spirituality & GriefcareNo Empty Chair

Further reading:
Holloway, Richard. Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.   Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013. Print.
L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art,  2016. Print.
Ross, Maggie. Silence: A User’s Guide, 2014. Print.


Get it Right the First Time…Hire a Bereavement Chaplain!


The subject of clergy involvement in the funeral or memorial service comes up again and again. Most people feel that spiritual or religious content is very important in the funeral or memorial service, and I agree. I can’t even start to count the number of families who start off the conversation with me with something like, “He used to go to church but stopped going” or “She wasn’t a churchgoer but she did believe in God and prayed.” My question, sometimes asked aloud, is “Why is that important?” I ask that question because I do not feel that a person’s spirituality or sense of a transcendent God is determined by how often one sees the inside of a church, or whether the individual wears his or her faith on their sleeve, or quotes chapter and verse with every breath. In fact, I’m sometimes very suspicious of such people and smell hypocrisy in much of that behavior. Your essential and core spirituality is how you live your life, and that’s what I as a professional bereavement chaplain explore in my meetings with the bereaved when planning the funeral or memorial service.

I frequently get involved because the bereaved do not want “clergy” involved because they’ve been wounded by their “clergy” or the faith tradition represented by their clergy. The ineffectualism of mainstream clergy is a whole discussion on its own, however, but let’s just say a few words about it. “Clergy” as used in the non-clergy community means anyone who provides some sort of pastoral service, or anyone who has some sort of leadership role in a religious congregation. “Ordination” is a canonical or legal term that means that the particular person is approved by a particular denomination to provide pastoral care to that specific denomination. Regrettably, adhering to the rules of that denomination may not provide much relief of the suffering experienced by the bereaved; it may have just the opposite effect, leaving them with a sense of emptiness and loneliness, and asking the question, What was that all about?!? But it doesn’t have to be that way and shouldn’t be that way. Spirituality and meaning-making is quite different from religion and religious doctrines and notions of popular piety.

Don’t Let This Happen To You! Get Personal!

In all honesty and fairness, and in my personal experience, clergy is not really what it’s hyped up to be. In fact, clergy tend to deliver the most boring, impersonal, and unsatisfying services imaginable. While there are good reasons for the deficient performance, a lot of the blame should be placed on the funeral home’s hands-off spirituality attitudes, and their failure to provide reliable recommendations to the bereaved. Simply handing the bereaved a clergy list at the arrangements conference is a bit irresponsible. What’s worse still is if a funeral director or funeral home staffer attempts to play chaplain and deliver some insincere “words of comfort” or preside over a prayer vigil. It’s generally like the plumber doing the catering.

Where was I? What’s his name? Where am I?

Even considering the ignorance of many funeral services professionals regarding the psychospirituality of funeralization rites and ritual, calling an individual a clergyperson can be very misleading. First of all, only the mainstream denominations really have an “educated” clergy; that means attending a seminary or seminary college, assuring that the “seminarian” is properly indoctrinated. Most other non-mainstream, storefront or megachurch, clergy may have attended a so-called Bible college or something like that. Basically all that is is a glorified Sunday school for adults. There are many problems associated with both mainstream and non-mainstream clergy. First of all, most are poorly trained in handling existential crises like death and its sequellae grieving, mourning, healing, transformation, and will turn to their denomination’s religious teachings, their doctrines, first, since that’s all they have. Secondly, they don’t have the necessary training or education in death, dying, grief and mourning. Thirdly, they lack interfaith, intercultural training to be able to understand the cultural dynamics that occur in the particular family system. Fourthly, they very rarely take the time to get to know the deceased, much less the key mourners and the family in general. Fifthly, most clergy do not understand the importance of continuing bonds of the living with the dead. In fact, most have a rather antiquated Freudian approach of the need to cut any continuing bond with the dead and replace the bond with something else. That’s a very psychospiritually unhealthy attitude indeed. And last but certainly not least, since I could go on with this list, most clergy have parishes or congregations to run and can’t really provide the kind of service or care required for funeralization and aftercare. The result is what I call the cookie-cutter service with all of its failures and insincerity. The clergyperson, a priest, minister, deacon, or layperson – sometimes, embarrassingly, even the funeral director – steps up at the appointed time, opens a book or recites a formulaic prayer, and it’s all done and over.

Let’s do a prayer now. OK. We’re done.

Sometimes there’s the de rigueur church service that’s all but meaningless to most attendees and represents only an additional expense (can approach more than $600 in some cases). Practically and theologically, the dead are in God’s hands, there’s little the living can do to change things, despite what the minister or priest may preach. Most of these characters are mere sock-puppets anyway, ventriloquist’s dummies.

For all of the reasons given in the above, the best choice for the spiritual or religious care of the bereaved is, believe it or not, the experienced bereavement chaplain. An experienced bereavement chaplain is a specialist in dying, death, psychospiritual care, and aftercare. The experienced bereavement chaplain is not only trained in the disciplines relating to interfaith practices, rite and rituals associated with death, psychology and spirituality of dying, death, and survivors, technology of deathcare, and much, much more that is of essential benefit to the dying and to survivors. No funeral director and no denominational clergy can offer the scope and depth of services that the interfaith bereavement chaplain can offer.

It’s the scope and depth of expertise of the interfaith bereavement chaplain that make him or her the go-to when a family is faced with the dying process, death and deathcare, grief and survivor care. It’s that expertise that makes the interfaith bereavement chaplain an essential member of the care team at all phases of the bereavement process. The professional interfaith bereavement chaplain does what neither the funeral director nor the cookie-cutter clergyperson can do: the chaplain makes death a meaningful and survivable experience.

When a family considers spending $2000 to more than $10000 on a casket alone, or when the family opts for an economical funeral package of say on average $3,000-5,000 does it really make sense to do without an essential service costing a mere $200-300, in most cases less than 5 % of the total cost of the funeral? When survivors consider spending up to $800 on embalming which won’t last more than a couple or days or a maximum of a couple of weeks before decomposition sets in, and embalming is not even required by law in the majority of situations, even when there’s a viewing planned. Why would any family not request the services of a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain with all of the long-term benefits to the survivors socially, psychologically, politically, spiritually that are associated with dignified funeral rites and rituals, and aftercare by a deathcare specialist? You’ll consider several hundreds of dollars for unnecessary embalming, several thousands for a casket, a couple of thousand for a vault, but will go cheapo when it comes to dignified, personalized, meaningful spiritual care? Go figure!

I personally serve the Albany-Rensselaer-Schenectady-Greene counties region in New York state, and have been requested by families in the New York City area for special services, but this blog is read internationally. Given that this blog attracts an international audience, I would like to provide some very general recommendations taken from my local practice, which can be applied to most North American and European regions with little or no adjustment for local conditions. Here is how I practice and what I recommend for families, survivors, and others involved in deathcare:

  • As soon as it becomes obvious that a death is about to occur, whether hours or days, contact a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain. Please note that denominational clergy have their place if the dying person has had a personal relationship with the clergyperson or was active in a faith community. Please note further that hospital chaplains are OK for certain interventions but their competencies are mostly restricted to the hospital setting. Hospice chaplains, too, have their place but are agenda and program driven, and have limited effectiveness outside of the hospice setting.
  • If the person is in the process of dying, you may want to ask for presence or companionship during the dying process. This presence/ companioning can be for those around the dying person as well as for the dying person. If this presence / companioning is to be provided in an institution such as a nursing home, hospital, or hospice, an institutional chaplain may be available, and the interfaith bereavement chaplain will coordinate care visits with the institutional chaplain(s). Nevertheless, when death is imminent, it may be helpful to have your interfaith bereavement chaplain present for the dying person and for the family. Consider the options carefully.
  • Make an appointment to meet with the interfaith bereavement chaplain to discuss your situation. The chaplain will listen attentively and will hear what you need even before you know it. It’s important that you hear what the chaplain has to say, and to share your interpretations with him or her. You should be doing most of the talking during this initial meeting; if the chaplain does most of the talking or interrupts, he or she may not be the ideal choice. Try again. Only after you have explained your situation and the chaplain has had an opportunity to ask some important, brief questions seeking a better understanding, should he or she start making any recommendations.
  • Once the person has died, you may want the chaplain to remain with the body until the funeral home sends a care to take charge of the body. I do this out of respect for the family and to ensure that they know the body will be watched over. This is very important in the initial hours following a death. The bereavement chaplain is also an advocate for the family if the family wants to spend more time with the body.
  • Once you have established a rapport and trust with the chaplain, and if you haven’t already given your funeral director the chaplain’s name, contact details, and the information that you have spoken to the chaplain, you should do that when you make the initial call to the funeral home for removal of the body. Inform your funeral director that you’d like the funeral director to contact the chaplain to discuss the arrangements made and any details if the chaplain is going to do the funeral for you. You may want to ask the chaplain to be present during the arrangements meeting with the funeral director. I find that families are less stressed if I am present.
  • Be sure to discuss aftercare with the chaplain. You should ask about regular contacts with the chaplain for at least the first year after the death. He or she should be available on what are called trigger dates (birthdays, holidays, special dates) when grief may be particularly noticeable, or if you find you need some help in getting through a particular day. The chaplain will likely have discussed grief and grieving with you so that you know what to expect. That discussion is standard practice during my initial meeting with the family.
  • Remember always, that the interfaith bereavement chaplain may be your independent choice or you may receive a recommendation from the funeral home you choose. Do not accept a mere list of clergypersons. You want an interfaith bereavement chaplain. If the funeral home does not have one on call or on staff, maybe it’s time to find another funeral home that can provide a complete range of services.
  • Beware of the funeral home chains and factory funeral homes. Their sole interest is in their bottom line and their shareholders; you are just a consumer to them. You’ll find chain funeral homes and factory funeral homes almost everywhere. I call them Walmart-funerals, because they are there to sell you everything because that’s what they do; they sell funeral goods and services. What you need is deathcare services not a sales pitch and a huge bill.
  • The worst time to do any of the above is when a death occurs. I usually counsel my clients not to make any major decisions for at least 6 months to 1 year after the death but now you have to make some major decisions within hours of the death. It’s an incredibly confusing and draining expereince. That’s why I unconditionally recommend that you really should seriously make pre-arrangements so that when a death occurs, you can deal with the grief you will experience, and will have everything else under control. We highly recommend advance directives and pre-arrangements. We also recommend having an interfaith bereavement chaplain present when discussing and finalizing both advance directives and pre-arrangements. You many know what you want but it’s always good to have an impartial presence who can do some impartial thinking.

In upcoming articles I will be discussing the importance of revival of traditional funeral rituals and why they are so important to the living. As a sequel to the discussion about traditional funeral and memorial rituals, I’ll share with you why the family’s participation is so very important, and how we can personalize the rituals and ceremony so that they have lasting psychospiritual benefit for you. I’ll also be writing about continuing our bonds with the dead and why it’s normal and healthy to do that.

But in the meantime, if you have any specific questions or would like more information, please contact me directly at compassionate.care.associates@gmail.com. I’ll be pleased to help in whatever way I can.

Peace and blessings,
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney

 

 

 


Bigotry Abounds: Religious Censorship on Facebook


The Prime Minister of England, John Cameron, rose to the occasion of the Easter season in a beautifully crafted public address on England being a Christian nation, the good works of the Church, remembering persecuted Christians around the world at Easter. It was enormously refreshing to have heard a high statesman affirm his faith tradition without having to demean any other faith or belief system, and drawing our attention to remembering what Christianity is…or ought to be.  (Click here for a link to the video.) How very different from what we have here in the United States, where a politician can be shunned by Christians themselves for affirming his Christian Faith.

Blevin, an Antiochian Catholic cleric,
Deletes Cameron’s Easter Message!!!

I noted the term “bigotry” and “censorship” in the title to this post because I was appalled at the heavy-handed censorship exercised by one despotic moderator of a Facebook group calling itself the “Anglicans, Old Catholics, Western Orthodox, and Lutherans Discussion Group,” manhandled by one Mr Gregory Blevins, who will be very quick to correct you by informing you he’s “Father” Blevins. In our book he’s “Bigot Blevins”.

Gregory N. Blevins

Gregory N Blevins

According to his Facebook profile, Blevins claims to be a presbyter of the Antiochan Catholic Church in America— which could mean just about anything — but one thing is certain, Blevins, if you read some of his posts is a very angry old man, he’s cantankerous and not very pleasant. We have clerics like him in every denomination and they generally do more harm than good in their self-righteous pseudopiety.

One of the group members was thoughful enough to have posted Mr Cameron’s beautiful and articulate Easter message on Mr Blevins’ site but when Mr Blevins found it, he almost immediately deleted it from the site saying that it was anti-Obama, anti-US, and political; Mr Blevins doen’t want “political”  in his group. (In my experience, the Eastern rite churches are very political; burt Blevins doesn’t like your political, only Blevins’ political.) Our conclusion:  Mr Blevins’ is a hypocrite judging from his discussion group practices compared with the posts on his personal page!

You see, Blevins claims to be Ecumenical and Social Concerns Representative for the Antiochian Catholic Church in America. The ACCA is a recently founded “church” and has no roots of its own but claims to derive its authority and tradition from the ancient Syriac Orthodox Church and the Indian Orthodox Church. The truth is that it illicitly claims these authorities based on apostate or maverick lineages, and is one of those so-called churches that are founded by non-conformists, usually excommunicated or defrocked, who can’t tow the mark with a mother church. Problem is they lead a lot of faithful astray with their heterodox teachings and phony sacraments.

Back to PM Cameron, in 2013 the Daily Telegraph reported that at “[a] Q&A in August 2013, Cameron described himself as a practising Christian and an active member of the Church of England.[320] On religious faith in general he has said: “I do think that organised religion can get things wrong but the Church of England and the other churches do play a very important role in society.”[321] He says he considers the Bible “a sort of handy guide” on morality.[322] He views Britain as a “Christian country” and aims to put faith back into politics.” So where does that place Mr Blevins as the ACCA’s representative on ecumenical and social concerns. There seems to be a very serious contradiction in Mr Blevins’ actions, words, and his role in his tiny maverick church! We’d love to hear from Mr Blevins with some sort of explanation. Or from his metran, or archbishop, Victor Mar Michael Herron.

Anyone who heard Mr Cameron’s message would have been proud to hear a western leader affirm his Christianity but not Mr Blevins. Mr Blevins is more interested in playing mini-pope and acting like Goebbels’ mini-me with his censorship notions.

I wrote to Mr Blevins expressing my surprise at his heavyhandedness and his misinterpretation and misapprehension of Mr Cameron’s video. I told Mr Blevins that his censorship was not appreciated. I further mentioned that here in the US our own POTUS, Christian, Muslim whatever he claims to be today, should have such courage to make such a profound statement at Christianty’s most holy of holy seasons.

Shame on you Mr Blevins. I’m unfriending you and your group forthwith. Have a good life.

Ab illo benedicaris, in cujus honor cremaberis.
(May you be blessed [Mr Blevins] by Him in whose honor you will burn.)

Abba Silas, Heresiarch

Abba Silas, Heresiarch


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