Category Archives: Suffering

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

 

 

 


Conversion 101: A Reflection on Repentance vs. Metánoia


On reflection, one of our most distinctive traits as human beings, although created in likeness of the Creator God, is our freedom to choose to approximate the Divine or to take an alternate route, distancing ourselves from a forgiving God, a detour we call sin. The Greek is for missing our waypoints is hamartia (αμαρτία, from αμαρτάνειν hamartánein), which in the classical language, means to “miss the mark.”

Conversion 101 – A Reflection

In a recent reflection posted for the Companions of New Skete, we read the word repentance, a word that has plagued theologizing linguists for centuries because it is an extraordinary mistranslation, a linguistic glitch that distorts the intended meaning of the Greek word metánoia – and conflates it with the Greek word metámelomai (see Mark 1 vs. Matt 27:3, sources which employ the words metanoeo/metánoia or metamélomai (μεταμέλομαι)) that occurs in the Second Testament (and in the LXX), which renders the Hebrew word “nacham” (change of mind, finding comfort). That word metánoia (μετάνοια, change in mind, conversion) continues as evidence of the extraordinary insult in translating dating back to the Latin Fathers’ translation of metánoia, rendering it poenatentia, and thus associating it with penance and punishment, and which reflects the later Medieval Scholastics’ teaching of a God, who is vindictive and vengeance seeking, angered by our choice to sin, and the teaching that for our sinfulness God demands propitiation, payment to avoid Divine wrath. The sinner must purge themselves of their guilt engendering guilt and condemnation. That teaching reached its pinnacle of silliness with the teaching of “tollhouses”, stages of purification through which the soul must pass to attain salvation.  This is a notion of a distorted God and flies in the face of the teaching of a forgiving and merciful God, and our freedom to change.

Metánoia is not the only casualty of the Latin translators, we can also note the confusion of messiah and savior in the translations from the Hebrew; that confusion continues to this day and continues to mislead the ignorant faithful and far too many of the clergy. No less a figure than Tertullian took offence to the translation of metánoia with poenitentiam, arguing that metánoia is not a confession of sins but a change of heart. (Having made that statement, I do not argue that the “change of heart” does not result from reflection of one’s past behavior or regret for having sinned. St Augustine himself is clearly a witness to that.)

The word repentance, which has persisted in myriad translations and in pastoral and theological usage, does not convey the very important and authentic meaning of metánoia: a change of heart.

In the ordo salutis, at one pole of which we have the steps leading to healing and return to the source and final end in the Western Catholic (faith, contrition, regeneration, penance (epitimion, pokúta; following confession), sanctification, purgation, theosis) or in the Eastern Catholic (Orthodox) (catharsis, theoria, theosis by way of virtuous life, prayer, and participation in the Mysteries), or in the Reformed tradition, election/predestination. Repentance, at least in the Western tradition, has to do more with penance, less with metánoia.

This is metánoia, not repentance. The Great Error of teaching is based on erroneous translation!

So, what is my point, you may ask by this time? I find myself reflecting on the Orthodox tradition, in which sin is conceived of as a disorder, an illness, and confession as a ‘medicine’, with metánoia being the healing therapy, leading to – another insult to conscientious linguistics and competent translation — “salvation”, where salvation may be in its broadest connotation a sort of being saved or deliverance, in truth is not being saved but being “healed” (it derives from the Latin salvus, and like the English word “salve,” is healing).

There are a number of reasons for these confusions but whatever the reasons, we have to deal with them now, in our lives, in our teaching.

No matter what the reasons for the misuse of the term repentance or why it has persisted, the fact remains that our healing, our salvation if you prefer, depends not on revisiting old sin, or on guilt, or on propitiation (save for the salubrious effects of epitímion, if employed by the priest) but on metánoia, a change of mind, heart and conduct.

In fact, a more appropriate reading of John the Baptist’s call to “repent” is actually a call to change of heart, a change of mind and conduct, not to revisit past sinfulness. Moreover, the reported teachings of Jesus point also to the notion of change of heart and conduct, less than a recollection of past sinfulness. While I am not purporting that we should not maintain an awareness of our freedom to make wrong choices or that we should not examine ourselves regularly, nor that regular confession and consultation with a spiritual guide are nice but not necessary, I do feel that we must look forward, while employing all of the preceding, to changing our way of thinking and behaving. And Yes! this process of metánoia or conversion is a lifetime process, and we would be ill advised not to revisit our hearts and minds and conducts regularly, in order to tweak and fine tune ourselves, ensuring we are on the correct spiritual heading towards the destination, which is God.

Far from the negative connotations and denotations of the term “repentance,” metánoia compels a positive, proactive, life-affirming response to God’s offer of union through His grace.

Reading St John Climacus’ “Ladder of Divine Ascent“, the saint teaches that “[R]epentence is the renewal of baptism. Repentance is a contract with God for a second life. A penitent is a buyer of humility. Repentance is constant distrust of bodily comfort. Repentance is self-condemning reflection, and carefree self-care. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the renunciation of despair. A penitent is an undisgraced convict. Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the practice of good deeds contrary to the sins. Repentance is purification of conscience. Repentance is the voluntary endurance of all afflictions. A penitent is the inflicter of his own punishments. Repentance is a mighty persecution of the stomach, and a striking of the soul into vigorous awareness.” We could easily replace “repentence” with “metánoia” or “change of heart” without substantially distorting the saint’s teaching (assuming the rest of the translation is correct).

Having said all of that, I do not wish to avoid reflecting on the concept of repenting on behalf of others (so important for Greek monastic theology from the 4th century on), at least in nascent form, can be found in the LXX, but that’s another diatribe for another time.

Our reflection was on repentance as compared with metánoia, and our Lenten retreat centers on forgiveness. So what’s the connection I’m trying to make? Well, having reflected on the importance of metánoia, it would seem that claiming a Christian lifestyle would be a mockery if not abject hypocrisy, if we were not to engage metánoia as our radical, i.e., fundamental attitude towards forgiveness. We have the freedom to choose Divine Light or a fragmented, autonomous existence choosing darkness. Self-awareness, authenticity, that is, the admission that we are capable of sinning — sin is not just the province of evil people — our purification and forgiveness comes from getting to the root of the reality of potential and real sinfulness, and this involves metánoia: a change of mind, heart and conduct. Some have referred to this as “soul surgery”, something we can’t do ourselves, but for which we need God’s grace and the wisdom of wise and patient spiritual guidance from another pilgrim capable of nudging us towards opening ourselves to the truth about ourselves, acknowledging that truth, doing something about it, and navigating us towards true forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimately healing.

This is a radical revolution, an about face in our attitudes rooted in a change of heart and an orientation to God. If we commit ourselves to metánoia, we approach true self-awareness, a prerequisite for the essential authenticity, and self-control through the action of the Holy Spirit and Divine Grace.

Whoever acts as his own spiritual guide has a fool for a client.

As I reread and reflect on my thoughts, it becomes obvious how frequently I, and you, have been deceived by detouring from the true path to the Divine; in other words, we have frequently been deceived by sin of one sort or another. We all have heard the saying: “Whoever acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client.” This can apply very aptly to our spiritual life as well. As we cannot do our own soul surgery, we cannot act as our own spiritual guide, and we really should have a wise spiritual father or mother who can provide good counsel to us, based on their mature spirituality and their deep listening skills. We are fortunate, as Companions of New Skete, to have a treasure of rich resources at our disposal, and we would be pitiable spiritual sons and daughters if we were not to avail ourselves of these resources.

In conclusion, our focus should be less on repentance as such and more on metánoia. Through a change of heart, a reorientation, a radical transformation of outlook, a change in our view of the world and ourselves, a renewal of how we love, and how we see beauty.  Metánoia should be at the heart of our teaching, our liturgical preaching, and our participation in the liturgy, which is a great source of healing and inspiration. The liturgy is faith in action, and Orthodoxy is a liturgical culture; we are liturgical creatures. We must appreciate the gift of liturgy and spiritual guidance. I speak from experience: Those of us practicing vocations of compassion often come away from encounters with the faithful-in-crisis, whether spiritual or existential, with a deep sadness, a sadness that has its roots in a realization that our faithful have acquired and live with an image of the Christian life and the Christian God that are distorted. One of those distortions is that God is punishing one because of one’s past, present, even future sins. This is not the message of the Gospels. Let us recall the scripturally based prayer of absolution teaching that “God desires not the death of a sinner, but that the sinner turn from his evil ways and live.” That prayer teaches metánoia, not medieval notions of repentance and wrath, guilt and shame. It also teaches forgiveness.

I think, during this liturgical season of reflection, that we should seriously make metánoia and forgiveness our goals as compassionate companions.

Please share your thoughts with me about my thoughts.


Thanatology Café: A Community Service and a Bereavement Ministry


Pastoral aspects, especially in terms of bereavement ministries, are part of the Thanatology Café experience.

crying-dying

This past May 7,  the second video in the “Death: A personal understanding” series started the discussion of what is the dying person and how that person transforms to him or herself and to those around them when a diagnosis of terminal disease is made, and death is a short time away. How did these three women react to the diagnosis of their terminal cancers? How did their loved ones react? What were their hopes for themselves and for their loved ones?

Click this link to read the Thanatology Café blog and follow the blog to get regular updates.

The next regular monthly meeting of Thantology Café is planned for June 11, 2016, at the RCS Community Library, from 2:00-4:00 p.m. Please let the organizers know if you plan to attend by either sending an email to thanatology.cafe@gmail.com or by signing up at the RCS Community Library (just ask a staffer for the sign-up sheet). The public is welcome. Refreshments will be available.

flowers+gravestone


A Thanatology Café Guide to Communication


Thanatology Café will meet on Saturday, April 9, 2016, at 2:00 p.m. at the RCS Community Library, 95 Main Street, Ravena, New York.


we will listenHow do we communicate in a group like Thanatology Café?

Well Part of our task is to learn how to communicate effectively in a group. Most of the time we find ourselves talking. It’s like we have two ears and one mouth and the mouth has to work twice as much to keep up with the ears. Problem is, we don’t use our ears for much anymore except to listen passively to the television pundits, talking heads, and, of course, we need someplace to plug in the ear buds to isolate ourselves from the very thing we are attempting to re-create at TC, community.

We live in what holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl would call an “existential vacuum,” where most people live without a real purpose and try to fill the vacuum with neurotic pursuits. Sound familiar?

Well, the success of Thanatology Café depends on active listening, not passive listening, so we’d like to share some listening suggestions to make our journey together more effective and to ensure that we achieve our purpose of effective communication, learning, healing and growth.

My first tip for better communication would be the statement,

Communication is about listening and talking.

Not listening to talk, which is what most people do. They listen for a pause so that they can start talking, even if they aren’t really responding to what was said. Sometimes it’s like being at Planet Fitness and having some juicebag on the phone broadcasting his or her side of a conversation. It’s a monologue and no one seems to care what’s being said, they just have to use those free minutes. That’s not what we do at Thanatology Café.

We listen actively and deeply  to what our conversation partners are saying, and we want them to do the same for us. Right?

Listening is not passive. Being a good listener is a skill that requires patience and practice. A compassionate listener …

  • listens with the ears of the heart (a lot of what’s
  • sits quietly (but comfortably, assume an interested posture)
  • avoids unnecessary distracting activity (don’t fidget, don’t start grabbing for the beverage, and don’t you dare reach for that phone)
  • doesn’t interrupt (even when there’s a longish pause)
  • lets the other person express an entire thought or feeling (this may not be orderly expression and it may take sime time)
  • acknowledges understanding by repeating back statements (this ensures that your conversation partner knows you are listening with a purpose)

As a good listener you can show interest and support with …

  • eye contact (don’t stare but do occasionally make contact with your eyes)
  • nodding the head (don’t be one of the bobbing creatures you see in a rear window but do nod occasionally in affirmation of what you’re hearing)
  • reaching out and touching (read the body language first; touching may be welcome but it may also be intrusive or even offensive)
  • ask if you can give a hug at an appropriate time in the conversation
  • make supportive statements (see below for some examples).

Thanatology Café is a safe, sacred space. What is said in a Thanatology Café converstation stays in Thantology Café. Each person must feel safe to talk and must have the freedom to express feelings, needs, and concerns, whatever they may be. We are conversing about what might be the last taboo in our culture, death. We’re discussing a topic that for some people means suffering, pain, emotional turmoil, and something they’ve been taught to deny rather than to acknowledge in our society.

Be non-judgmental and supportive.

We’ll be seeking and hearing a lot about feelings. Feelings include opinions, beliefs and pure emotions (many opinions and beliefs are highly emotionally charged). Because these opinions and beliefs, like emotions, usually come from very deep in the speaker, they should not be judged as bad or good. They are what they are. Sometimes the speaker expresses them intentionally and sometimes they come out unexpectedly. We’re listeners, not analists, and we’re not talking to each other to be judged, but to understand and to grow spiritually.

Expressions of feelings or concerns should begin with “I” statements. We are not here to give policy statements or to persuade or convert anyone. What you say is yours and you need to take ownership of it.

Here are just a few examples of supportive statements you will be using and hearing during your conversations:

  • I hear what you’re saying.
  • I understand.
  • I care about what you think and feel.
  • I don’t know what you need; help me understand.
  • I’m here for you; we’re all here for each other.
  • Your feelings are yours and I’ll listen if you’ll share with me.
  • I’m trying to understand you, please help me do that.

There’s much, much more to conversing, sharing effectively. One of the first things we need to do is decide to let down our shields, we have to accept permission to be vulnerable, we have to learn to trust. We’ll do our very best to try to create an atmosphere that will make these important steps easier, but every participant in the conversation has to decide for himself or herself when the time is right. It’s OK to just listen; you’ll know when you have something to say. Sometimes silence is a very expressive statement. This is just a starter; we’ll learn so much more during our sessions.

Research by David Macleod shows that the most important enabler for employee engagement is that they ‘feel listened to’. The ‘feel’ in ‘feel listened to’ comes from the above kind of listening, particularly the heart and undivided attention.

Chinese Character for Listening

Chinese Character for Listening

Thanks for listening!

the-first-duty-of-love-is-to-listen

Please click here to read, print or download a short Thanatology Café_Assuring Better Communication handout.


Register Now for the RCS Thanatology Café Event on April 9, 2016!


Please Note: We have just been informed by the RCS Community library that the Thanatology Café sign-up sheets at the RCS Community Library are kept in a binder behind the check-out desk. You must ask a staff member for the book to sign up. 

register-nowWe recently announced an exciting new program coming to the RCS Community Library. The program, which plans to meet regularly monthly and will be supplemented by extraordinary meetings for smaller groups to discuss special topics focusing on death, dying, coping, grief, and death-related topics, has published its Initial Registration Form that can be completed before the Saturday, April 9, 2016, session at the RCS Community Library, from 2:00 – 4:00 p.m.

The organizers encourage interested participants to download and printout the form and to bring it the the April 9 session; that will save time and will leave more time for the conversations.

Sign-up sheets are also available at the RCS Community library, but interested persons can also R.S.V.P. their intention to attend by sending an e-mail to thanatology.cafe@gmail.com.

We are informed that local churches, fire and rescue departments, police departments, EMS, schools and local funeral directors have been contacted and urged to send representatives.

It’s an important program and will deal with a subject that really needs to be talked about more. It promises to be an outstanding opportunity for sharing, learning and information. Don’t miss it.

register now_red

Initial Registration Form

Of course, if you have any questions, please e-mail the organizers at thanatology.cafe@gmail.com. They will get right back to you with an answer.

Please click the Register Now image to display and download or print out the Initial Registration from, fill it out as completely as possible, and bring it with you to the Thanatology Cafe session on April 9, 2016, at the RCS Community Library, 95 Main Street, Ravena, New York. The session starts promptly at 2 p.m. so please be on time.

And in the meantime, visit the Thanatolgy Café blog.

Well be there and we hope you will be too; we are looking forward to meeting and chatting with you on April 9th!

The Editor

The Editor

 


Thanatology Café: Where the conversation is about death.


Church and clergy have fallen flat on their faces when it comes to supporting the bereaved in their difficult moments of loss. Scripted, cookie-cutter rituals and services, bland remarks, formulaic prayers all serve to leave the bereaved high-and-dry at a time when they need empathy and presence. A new opportunity for bereavement ministry is being offered in a unique program called Thanatology Café.

Thanatology Café: Where the conversation is about death, is being launched in Ravena, at the RCS Community library, 95 Main Street, Ravena, New York.

Be sure to mark the date: Saturday, April 9, 2016, 2-4 p.m. The program starts promptly at 2:00 p.m. so don’t be late. There will be light refreshments.

The organizers do ask that you sign up at the RCS Community Library using the sign-up sheets available there. You can also sign up at thanatology.cafe@gmail.com. When you sign up via email, you’ll receive an initial registration form that you should fill out and bring with you to the program on April 9.

What is Thanatology Café?

We thought you’d never ask!

joke's over


Thanatology: [than-uh-tol-uh-jee] the study of death and dying, and bereavement, especially the study of ways to understand the coping mechanisms, meaning-making, transcendence and transformation to support the bereaved and mourners, and to lessen suffering and address the needs of the dying and their survivors.


It’s a  totally unique program and it’s called

Thanatology Café.

It’s a place where anyone can come in and talk about their thoughts, concerns, and interests centering on death and dying, bereavement, grief, society and death, spirituality and death, the death industry, our responsibilities as human beings who will die some day.

Thanatology Café is a safe place to talk about the ultimate mystery and to share thoughts and concerns about death and dying. It’s a place where you won’t be judged, no agenda will try to convert you or attempt to sell you something. It’s neutral ground, a sacred space where you can open your heart and mind to benefit everyone.

Thanatology Café will also be a source of valuable information from professionals who work in the field of death and dying. The program will include speakers, presenters, or even a film for discussion. But most of the time it will simply be a place to freely express ideas and thoughts, to share with the entire group or in smaller groups working off their own energies, monitored by a facilitator.

Thanatology Café is going to be offered in at least four counties: Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer, Greene to start. Since community libraries are centers for education and information and are central to most communities, the organizers will be holding the regular monthly sessions in community libraries throughout the area. There will also be other sessions for special interests or to organize special events like tours etc. to historic sites. One such site is Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, where Uncle Sam is buried along with a slew of other historic figures. But the crematorium chapel is a must see and TC is working on a tour for sometime in May or June 2016.

Thanatology Café is an important resource for first responders, church bereavement groups, bereavement ministries, and even funeral directors (TC will host several presentations by funeral directors with Q&A sessions).

Thanatology Café is for everyone and the invitation is open to anyone who needs or wants to talk about death, dying, grief, mourning, spirituality, traditions and superstitions, the funeral business. The field and conversation is wide open. Only the participants will decide.

Click the link to visit the Thanatology Café blog.

Don't be one. Join us at Thanatology Café on April 9th, RCS Community Library. The Editor

Don’t be one. Join us at Thanatology Café on April 9th, RCS Community Library.

The Editor


Pastor or Chaplain, or Both?


Is There a Distinction that Needs to be Drawn Between a Practicioner’s Playing the Role of Pastor or that of Chaplain?

I was a bit bemused by the persistence of the tendency to Bible-thump one’s way through any such discussion

I recently engaged several colleagues on the question of chaplaincy or pastoring. I was a bit bemused by the persistence of the tendency to Bible-thump one’s way through any such discussion, while advocating an interfaith approach as advanced by the adherents of the CPE agenda. I thought I’d share my contribution to the discussion.

listen-with-heartIt is my contention that we should not advance the notion of a “versus” or “as opposed to” when discussing chaplaincy or pastoring. While it is true that some traditions, the Hebrew and Islamic, for example, eschew the notion of “pastor” or “shepherd” for cultural or traditional, even ethical reasons, in the broader sense all chaplains are in fact “pastors,” while all pastors (in the conventional sense) are not necessarily “chaplains” (or critically speaking, even pastors!). In fact, I object in principal to the biased terminology we so frequently use in our vocations, “pastoral care” department, because it tends to be exclusive. I personally prefer spriritual care provider (although in my professional materials I do use pastoral care). Moreover, most people, even those in the vocation, tend to associate pastoral with pastors and thus with some sort of clergy or ordained service provider (usually with no questions asked and we all know about the profanation of ordination); that in itself is a misfortune for all concerned. But the much-touted CPE doesn’t do much to clarify the issues for interns or residents, and we still see chaplains “certified” by the self-proclaimed arbitors of chaplaincy who are just as ignorant after several years of “education” as they were before.

A case in point is taken from the scenario presented by the initiator of the discussion who describes walking into a Jewish patient’s room with a Christian clerical collar, which I characterized as benign “ignorance” but in reality was outright insensitive and would indicate that the “chaplain” in question did not do any initial preparation before launching out on rounds or visitations.clerical collar pc I might fraternally suggest that in future, whether you are a chaplain or a pastoral care associate, to check the chart briefly or dialogue with the nurse assigned to that patient before you visit. The offending chaplain actually says that he was aware that the patient was dying and had no family, so it seems rather odd that the chaplain did not appreciate the patient’s faith tradition and, if it wasn’t in the chart, that he didn’t consult with the immediate caregiver (nurse or LPN).

I also questioned the fact that the visiting chaplain was aware that the man was “Jewish”. Being Jewish immediately identifies one as being associated with a certain cultural, socio-religious tradition, after all, one does not call one’s self “Jewish” except to identify one’s self as a Jew. So this also raises the question of whether the chaplain in question was indifferent to the possibility that this dying man might have welcomed a visit by a rabbi, or that the chaplain did not make or offer to make a referral. Such sensitivity may have been a great comfort to the man, who might have found great refuge in his tradition and prayers. So I identify a boundary issue in this behavior, too; an issue of knowing one’s limits.

This situation also sends up red flags in that it clearly indicates that the institution did not do a spiritual assessment of this patient, much less a spiritual evaluation or history, which also reveals a glaring ignorance of the now widely inaugurated JCAHO and HIPA scoring categories relating to patient spiritual care.

The scenario I describe above should be instructive to us all and I thank the so-called chaplain for the inadvertent teaching/learning moment he has provided.

Finally, in the dying process I don’t feel there’s a heck of a lot of “pastoring” left to be done, unless it’s for the survivors. In my experience, in end-of-life situations I am more of a presence and spiritual guide/companion. While that may arguably be part of pastoring in a general sense, I feel that the actual mission of pastoring contrasts in praxis with the mission of spiritual accompaniment at end-of-life or in an existential crisis.

plant in handIt’s rather like the difference between evangelization and catechesis, if you have that in your tradition. One takes care of the basics and gets the seed started (evangelization), the other (catechesis) ends in the care and nurturing to harvest time.

Listening to hearAnother colleague mentioned in a rather cliché fashion with which we are all familiar when listening to the CPE crowd, that CPE trains one to listen. I disagree with such responses such as “CPE “teaches” one to listen.” I’m not quite sure how that works but in my divinity training and three years of supervised pastoral formation, and my participation in and disappointment with a rather popular CPE program in a large trauma center in Albany, New York, which fell far short of even my minimum aspirations, I don’t think that people can be “taught to listen” they may listen, but they don’t listen deeply. I know that from experience the deep listening skill comes from deep within one’s self, once one is comfortable with one’s self, and can leave one’s self for the time it takes to absorb and process the patient’s narrative. It’s that kind of listening that might be part of qualifying an aspirant to be spiritual care provider but it certainly isn’t the be all and end all.

The serene face of the large Buddha his long wise curvaceous ears at once loving and open to the woes of the world: Compassionate.

The serene face of the Buddha, his long wise curvaceous ears at once loving and open to the woes of the world: Compassionate.

Deep listening is the act of sinking into a serene quiet place, and awakening a receptive awareness of the other. By entering quiet and becoming aware of the other, we move out of and beyond our ego-driven chaos to become open to the divine messages within us and shared with us by the other. Imagine the irony here is that we so often complain of the pain of not having been heard, but we are so guilty ourselves of being deaf to, not hearing the innate wisdom from within ourselves and shared with us by others. When we learn to accept emptiness, when quiet, we instinctively trust in the guidance of sacred voices far more profoundly than what our bullying brains and the busy buzz of life would have us hear. And we listen, respond with silence.

In fact, having examined quite a number of CPE curricula and having developed continuing quality improvement curricula for the healthcare chaplaincy department, I find that the current CPE programs and their associated certification elements serve only to promote a burocratic and very branded form of “pastoral” care, and that branded product falls short of most suffering persons’ real needs. helpingIt’s the proprietary nature and standardization (viz. uniformization, homogenization) of the learning that deals the death blow to an appreciation (1) of the universal truths and values shared by all human beings, (2) the beauty in the diversity of traditions and how to appreciate and be enriched by a certain mutuality, (3) the possible pitfalls of an interfaith approach to faith traditions that may adhere very loyally to their dogmas. There are other reasons I could enumerate but regrettably (or fortunately for the readers) space is limited.

I think that an overwhelming majority, too, of CPE students come with excess baggage and too little self-death–I’ve observed interns, residents, even certified chaplains who have a great potential to do considerable damage…and do. The situation is not unlike seminary, you can do much to scrutinize, to form, to standardize but Whoa! when you turn them loose on the world, watch out! (A Roman Catholic diocesan priest, who also serves in the chancery tribunal, remarked ironically to me one day, “They’ll ordain anybody these days.” Which is probably true given the shortage of priests today.)

The so-called supervisors of the CPE programs almost invariable have their own biases and agendas, and these tend to impair good formation.
In some, not all instances, too, CPE programs have become “pay-to-work” programs in which minimally screened individuals, wet behind the ears and green, are turned loose on the floors to deal with sophisticated staff and human beings in existential crisis. I don’t feel that’s right. And I have also observed that interns are exposed to the same curriculum content for three or four years, and unless they have the academic predisposition to independently advance their armamentarium of experience through narrative and study, many don’t build their foundations. Some interns do not have theology or pastoral studies to help them through the necessary processing, and almost all have a depraved Western bias to their spirituality that tends to act as a speed bump when offering care to Non-western recipients. These programs tend to be “chaplain mills.” CPE does not fit the bill on its own to form professional, well-rounded spiritual care providers, but does excel in churning out multitudes of volunteers for greedy institutions. That may be one of the reasons it has survived this long.

On another level, some practitioners involved in the discussion advocated that the “Gospel” or, by extension, holy scriptures, has no firm place in chaplaincy. I do differ in that the fundamental ethics of the “Gospel” (not as understood principally by the evangelicals or fundamentalist among us) is a major part of chaplaincy. servant leadershipI cite particularly the beatitudes and the teaching of discipleship and servant leadership (chaplaincy is certainly not limited to the sick and dying but to the suffering generally). While I abhor the notion, and even more so the practice of proselytizing to captive audiences, and would hasten to emphasize that evangelization and catechization is not a fundamental role of the chaplain, ethics, discipleship, and servant leadership all play a special role in the myriad activities of the professional chaplain. (Note also that I do distinguish between the “professional chaplain”, the pastoral/spiritual care associate, and the visitor providing spiritual support.) To advocate that the truths and values espoused by the “Gospel”, the holy scriptures of any faith or spiritual tradition might have no place in chaplaincy is to advocate a position, I believe, of a chaplaincy practice devoid of ethics (and religion) (I do realize that this is a particularly “Christian” approach and my Judaic, Islamic and Buddhist colleagues may not necessarily agree with the religion-ethics statement, but I make the statement here somewhat loosely for convenience sake).

I’m not judging colleagues in chaplaincy or Clinical Pastoral Education too severely at all. In fact, I’m simply sharing my own observations and opinions based on personal experience. I am not a bit surprised when some readers tend to take these observations personally, as if they were meant to make an ad hominem stab at the straw[wo]men of CPE; I usually anticipate that persons in our line of work have a bit more self-awareness not to take every facially severe remark as a lancet thrust to the heart, however.

Rather than play an offended person’s role, perhaps we all would benefit by admitting that we may have learnt something about one’s self as through another’s eyes.

We Respond, We don't React.

We Respond, We don’t React.

Our role is to humbly respond, not to knee-jerk react. After all, to paraphrase the prophet Martin Luther King, Jr.: ‘We are all wrapped in the same cloth…when we directly hurt another we indirectly hurt ourselves.” (I do hope I did that statement justice!). So, when one party to the conversation called such a response arrogant, and a failure to simply accept some responsibility in relationship to colleagues’ responses, I merely responded, “My point indeed. The mouth loves the feel of words.” Instead we minimize, rationalize and justify our behavior, making certain to protect one’s self. This particular correspondent insists that “our patients have thick enough skins to handle a collar.”panda overload My response was tantamount to the fact that I don’t think that we have any right to expect patients to have “thick skins.” Some practitioners in pastoral care seem to admit patients’ strengths but underestimate their sensitivity and vulnerability. Many of the patients I see have lost their thick skins and in fact are pretty bruised in terms of dignity, autonomy, fortitude, patience, etc. I see no reason to add another straw to the pile. And Yes! It’s not about us, it’s about patient-centered, family-focused, inter- and multi-disciplinary care.

bedside prayerWhen we adopt such an approach we appreciate that, whereas many of our colleagues practice their spiritual care ministry in acute care settings or in crisis settings, many colleagues may find themselves–particularly in the scenario of the long-term care setting–in the position of playing both the role of chaplain and pastor to some residents in those longer-term care facilities. Regrettably, many of these residents lived their lives unchurched or churched with infrequent interaction with their faith community; more regrettably, some faith communities have disappeared or simply no longer continue a ministry of visitation of the sick and homebound who were once part of their faith community. It’s in such situations that the chaplain may very well become the pastor, and have to function in both roles. I don’t feel that this should be a major stumbling block nor even a concern to the well-formed spiritual care provider, who is responding to a true call to spiritual care ministry.

We're all wrapped in the same cloth...

We’re all wrapped in the same cloth…


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