“How can you spend so much time around all the suffering you see in the hospital?” people ask me sometimes. But, what they don't know is how much my work is a source of inspiration and hope for me. And, I don't just mean my work with patients; I also very much mean my relationships with my non-Jewish colleagues.
I thought of this last week when I was at an interfaith conference in New York (the CCJU's "Colleagues in Dialogue" conference). The rabbis there with pulpit jobs were bemoaning how very difficult it is to get serious interfaith dialogue going back in their home communities. One young rabbi even recounted how he had been taken aside by some leaders in his community and scolded for talking with the “wrong people” in his efforts to reach out to some non-Jewish clergy. Others rabbis just complained about how hard it is to get their congregants interested in conversations of any great depth with other faith communities. They all asked the group (which included a variety of Catholics and Protestants) for their suggestions on how to improve their interfaith efforts when they go back home.
I sat there, silent, searching my mind for something useful to add to the discussion. I was surprised that nothing was coming to mind. And then suddenly I realized why – in my work I am privileged to experience very deep interfaith dialogue as almost a matter of course throughout my day.
And the interfaith dialogue I am privileged to experience is not just the kind of dialogue where people share information (“I’ll tell you about how we do prayer in my religion if you tell me how you do prayer in yours”), as useful as that kind of dialogue is. No, the dialogue I experience is also the kind that may be most hardest to get to – the kind where people of different faith traditions get to share spiritual experiences.
We recently had a patient at the hospital who had spent days amid winter weather alone, injured and unable to move trapped by a lonely set of railroad tracks. By the time he was found, his limbs were so damaged by frostbite that the surgeons were forced to remove most of his hands and feet, including all of his fingers.
To this point all you have is a tragic story. You have a story of such great loss that it would make almost anyone give up and just want to die. But the story of this man – call him “Jim” – does not end there. He did not crawl into a corner and die. He surprised everyone who had contact with him by refusing to give up. The physical therapists were amazed and inspired by how hard he worked every time they were with him to get back as much function as might be possible. They say that he never complained.
Another of our chaplains – a Catholic – formed a relationship with Jim and went to see him regularly during his long stay with us. One of the things that we do – as fellow chaplains in a Clinical Pastoral Education program – is hold case conferences where we present our encounter with a particular patient in great detail. And so this chaplan presented Jim’s case and what his interaction with Jim meant to him.
What happened in the room in the following minutes where the chaplain presented the case (and then we discussed it) was something powerful and Holy. I was deeply moved myself and spent a significant amount of time with tears in my eyes, as did some of the others in the room.
Why was I so moved? Because of what Jim _and_ Jim’s effect on this chaplain and others says about the human spirit. About the beauty and resiliency of that spirit, a spirit that I understand as a gift from The Blessed Holy One. A spirit that I understand as a sign that we are indeed made in the image of God (בצלם אלוהים).
The most miraculous thing about Jim’s case was to see what he awoke in others. Many people enter medical care fields out of a sense of an idealist hope to help people. But the hard reality of medicine in a cost-conscious world and the amount of suffering one is exposed to can make folks – even chaplains!! – hard and jaded over time.
I, however, had opportunity on my own to see what Jim awoke in the eyes of some of the people who had contact with him. His spirit awoke in them their own spirit of love and caring. He called forth in them the Bible’s command to care for the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan who are among you. He reminded them of what is Holy within them. He was a miracle to them.
What did Jim mean to my Catholic friend? I am not sure exactly. It is certainly possible that he saw something of Jesus in him, that he saw Jim’s suffering as somehow taking on the sins of others as Christians believe Jesus’ suffering took on their sins. It is possible that he saw Jim as somehow Holy because of his poverty, in line with a Christian belief – one not shared in Judaism – that there is some inherent religious value in poverty.
And so, I – as a Jewish person who most certainly cannot share a Christian’s belief in Jesus -- could not have the same religious experience as my Catholic friend did in reaction to Jim (as our theologies really are different). But, despite the differences in the nature of our religious experience around Jim, we were able to share that experience together. We were able to both have a powerful experience of the Holy together.
The rarity and preciousness of such profound sharing across religious boundaries is what I was reminded of at the CCJU conference. It gives me great hope to be reminded in my work of the possibility of such shared experience. To me it is a beacon of hope – it says to me that what we share as people of faith is more significant than what is different. And, perhaps more importantly, that it is possible to maintain our differences at the same time we share what can be common between us. This is the hope for the future, that people of all the world’s faiths will hear the call to live in peace – Shalom! – that sits at the center of every great faith tradition and will learn tolerance and love for one another across our differences and particularities.
May it come speedily and in our days.
At the CCJU conference, one of the speakers, a professor and Catholic nun by the name of Mary Boys, broke up interfaith dialogue into four types. I’m not quoting her here, but it went something like this:
- Dialogue of life (talking with your neighbor of a different faith just over the back fence; that is, just talking with someone in the course of your regular everyday business).
- Dialogue of action (working together with people of different faith in a soup kitchen . . . I am reminded of serving Christmas dinner to the homeless along with other members of my synagogue when I lived in New York)
- Dialogue of spiritual experience (sharing a ritual together, like perhaps a interfaith Thanksgiving service).
- Dialogue of theology (one of the people at the conference suggested that this might be a shared text study, but I wonder if that is not more like spiritual experience).
It’s worth keeping these categories in mind as you approach your own interfaith efforts. The last two of these four are the ones that people are sometimes most motivated to try, but they are also the very hardest to do (I am reminded of how hurt some Christians are when they find out Jews felt excluded by a prayer service they had tried so hard -- but naively -- to make 'interfaith' in advance). At the early stages of an interfaith dialogue effort just getting to know one another might be considered a victory. A dialogue of action effort has great potential for this and can very often be the easiest to enter into.
Another way I am privileged as a person working closely with non-Jewish clergy is to hear some perspectives that I might not have access to otherwise. One of my colleagues is from South Korea, the same country that the shooter at the Virginia Tech tragedy was.
When I asked my colleague if the fact that the killer was Korean had any significance to him, I learned a way of looking at what happened that I would probably never have seen otherwise. My colleague said that his greatest feeling in regards to the shooter was that his community was not able to help him (with his troubles). And he put the understanding of the young man’s afflictions through the prism of the lens of a native of Korea. That is, through the lens of being a male from a culture in which direct confrontation – including direct eye contact – is much discouraged, and then to find yourself in another culture (the shooter came to the US at age 8) where people are offended if you do not make eye contact with them and where direct confrontation – especially among males – is often expected and encouraged.
This new knowledge has the potential to help me as I work with patients going forward. If I should be ministering to a angry, young male from a place like Korea, it will give me the insight to be open to the possibility that the person before me is suffering in part from a difficulty adjusting to American culture. That understanding could help me to help that young person cope with their anger and the underlying casues.