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Be Still


Patricia Hoffman

          We are a society addicted to distraction. Everybody’s busy, driving the car while talking on a cell phone, time booked to the max. Have a spare minute, check our email on the laptop. The Los Angeles Times just ran an article on ways megachurches are using technology. One service will send a daily Bible verse to your cellphone for $5.99 a month. The designer of that program commented that in this harried age how else are you going to “get in touch with the Word?”

           Getting in touch with the Word will probably take more than a hurried text message moment. Thoughtful time is needed for reading and hearing Scripture. Just as important, as incarnational people we need time to discover the Word lodged in our hearts. God speaks to us in our daily lives. If we feel worried or anxious we need some time to notice our inner state, to let the discomfort be known. In the car? Turn off the radio, or CD player, or other electronic gadget. We need to listen to what our hearts can tell us. Is it a message of sorrow, fear, shame? God may have a balm for our souls, but not until we know our need.

          I woke up to my need to be still when I was 53. I had been laid up for months following two knee surgeries and then a hysterectomy. I was having anxious feelings of helplessness as I was laying around, unable to take care of things the way I was used to. I had spent years in ecumenical social justice work, on the move, traveling, organizing, strategizing, and managing my home life. It was a life of working for solutions. This down-time disturbed me. Wisdom was whispering in my ear, “You better pay attention to your anxiety because you’re not going to get any younger. You are going that other way toward more limitations as you age, more problems you can’t solve.”

          Adding to my unsettled feelings was my desire to make a career change. I had read the latest edition of What Color Is Your Parachute and another book on career changes for the older adult. But I couldn’t get a fix on what I wanted to do. What new direction was struggling to be born? I recognized that feelings of helplessness had led me into social justice movements. Maybe it was time to examine helplessness.

            Adding to my unsettled feelings was my desire to make a career change. I had read the latest edition of What Color Is Your Parachute and another book on career changes for the older adult. But I couldn’t get a fix on what I wanted to do. What new direction was struggling to be born? I recognized that feelings of helplessness had led me into social justice movements. Maybe it was time to examine helplessness. 

          I decided to try something entirely different and signed up as a volunteer with AIDS Project Los Angeles hoping that people living with AIDS could be my tutors. This was before the current medications were available and people with HIV were dying within a few years of diagnosis. I was distressed when APLA assigned me to be a hospital visitor. That was the last thing I wanted to do. Following my three recent surgeries, I wanted to stay away from hospitals. I didn’t understand them and I didn’t like being a patient in them. Nonetheless, I took APLA’s training and for the next year I visited patients at a small hospital near my home every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon.

           This was transformative work, immersion therapy. I became immersed in illness and death with all the accompanying feelings. The men I got to know, (all the patients were gay men at that stage of the epidemic) let me into their lives. I heard about Mark’s first car and how he had met his life partner. Dennis told me about restaurants he had run. Tom revealed his estrangement from his father. Bruno gave me a book of his poetry and David a handkerchief fresh from the package, “In case you sometimes cry.” Mark gave me a significant gift. At the end of one of our many visits, I must have felt disquieted and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” With barely a pause he said, “Just be you.” As I got close to them it grew harder to accept that they would die, and did die. I offered them what I could, to sit with them and listen to their stories.

          To sustain myself in this new role as one who waits and listens, I drew on what was familiar, prayer, hymns, gratitude, journalling, and drawing strength from the small congregation where I was a member, United University Church at USC. The congregation took an interest in my inner and outer journey as an AIDS visitor and held me up when grief threatened to collapse me.

          How can I convey how tumultous that quiet year was? Have you ever been in Chicago? Do you remember the wind off Lake Michigan and the way you can come around a corner and have the wind hit you? My year with APLA was like that. I kept turning corners and coming down streets with God’s Spirit, ruah, hitting me suddenly, pushing me along, or making it difficult to move in the direction I wanted to go. Things as they had been were blown away by a mighty wind I had let into my life.

         Three years later, God’s Spirit in and around me led me into Clinical Pastoral Education and a career shift into chaplaincy. What would have seemed like a most unlikely choice three years earlier, proved to be a remarkable fit. Helplessness, which had so troubled me, became a strength as I accepted it. During my training in hospitals, I learned to enter a room with no expectations, no ready-made plan. What was needed would reveal itself in meeting the patient, the friends or family. Chaplaincy became a fit as I learned how to pay attention, to those in front of me and to myself, and to practice noticing God’s Spirit in the mix. This required stillness.

          In the years since that tumultous year of quiet, I have sat with the dying, comforted the grieving, and watered sprouts of hope in the ill. Because of my work, so little has been fixed, yet God’s Spirit has repaired so many breaches. For several years I was the chaplain at an AIDS social service agency in Ventura County, where I now live. We averaged around one hundred and eighty clients, most of them experiencing some chaos from the shock of HIV and often from former or current addictions.

          For five years I led Spiritual Questing groups for our clients and their caregivers. In these groups participants, sitting in a circle, would share joys and concerns, then comment on a reflection question, something like, “When was a time when you felt particularly alone?” At the center of the meeting we would meditate on a brief passage from Scripture or other meditative source. Using a group lectio divina process developed by brothers and oblates of St. Andrew’s Priory at Valyermo, California, the participants would meditate on the passage then share how it was touching them. We would conclude by praying for the person to our left.

           In all the circles over the years participants commonly expressed feeling alienated from religious institutions, from families, and, too often, from themselves. One night, looking around the group, I realized that almost all participants in that series had spent time in jail, mostly on drug charges. Yet these men and women were not turning to distractions or to whatever they had been addicted. They were sitting in that weekly circle listening for how God was speaking to them. And they were daring to believe that God’s Word was incarnate in them and were experiencing that they could be spiritual community for each other. These were people acquainted with escaping pain and suffering with the use of substances. Yet, confronted with a life threatening disease they chose, at least that night of each week, to sit quietly and pay attention to God in them and around them. 

          Because of their trust, God’s Spirit repaired many rents. We had a reunion a year after Spiritual Questing ended, with the close of the agency. At the reunion, most of those who gathered reported having found spiritual community in Protestant or Catholic churches. One man claimed that Spiritual Questing had saved his life. Another stated that it had given him permission to have a spiritual life. All spoke of ways it had helped them stabilize as they came to terms with their diagnosis.

          I am now a hospice chaplain and it continues to surprise me that God can use me in these quiet ministries. And I’m surprised that the cumulative grief has not overwhelmed me. I stop daily and check in with my heart. How is Christ trying to be born in me today? What will be the sign of that new birth?

Be still--be still

And know me

Be still and know

That I am what the nations grope toward

I am earth’s desire

(Version of Psalm 46:10,11 by Norman Fischer in Opening to You)

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