Theology leaves the dusty tomes of libraries and comes to life when chaplains go out onto the floors of a hospital. The "big questions" – What is life? What is death? Why do the good suffer? – wait behind every corner for us to uncover.
But as those of us who supervise clinical pastoral education (CPE) students know, theological issues do not always leap quickly off the page from the verbatims and other clinical material students bring. There are two problems here: 1) the encounters recounted in the clinical material may not be theologically rich to start with, and 2) students' ability to reflect theologically – to be able to see deep spiritual issues in the concerns patients have – may not yet be well developed.
To address both these issues, it can be helpful to supplement students' clinical material with other sources that are already both full of the "big questions" and that already have some reflection built into them. Great literary works like Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich do both these things wonderfully as we discovered when we introduced literature into our summer CPE program this year.