Monday, July 21, 2008

Torah as self-care

I was reading Pamela Cooper-White's Shared Wisdom: the use of the self in pastoral care and counseling, today, and was reminded of some thoughts I've been having lately about self-care. White (pg. 130) articulates a vision where self-care is not just about the caregiver preserving his or herself from burnout or overwork. For White, self-care is central to the practice of spiritual caregiving itself. And, for her, the most important element of self-care is not the things people usually list -- exercise or working shorter hours, or alike. Rather, she emphasizes paying attention to one's spiritual life and one's relationship to God:
Daily renewing of one's relationship to the Holy One puts one back in touch with the sacred foundation of all healing, all care. This, in turn, prepares us, again and again, for a use of the self in pastoral care that can be a channel of grace for both participants in the caring relationship.
White's approach, of course, has a more Christian focus than mine. She emphasizes the role of grace and the role of personal prayer in the God relationship. For me -- as for many Jews -- Torah, and the study of it, plays the more central role in maintaining that relationship. The lesson is that Torah study -- especially study for its own sake (Torah Lishma ) and the curiosity it cultivates -- is the ultimate Jewish approach to the kind of self-care we are interested in for spiritual caregivers. Its aimlessness renews us. It invigorates us and prepares us for the rigors of facing the pain and loss of others with an open, curious and caring heart.

Other non-Jewish thinkers whose works I have been reading, especially bell hooks and Parker Palmer, also emphasize the importance of self-care for the truly effective teacher or spiritual caregiver -- the kind of teacher/caregiver who can help people engage in the kind of learning that involves personal transformation and growth.

I also found this recently in reviewing Henri Nouwen's The Wounded Healer with my summer chaplain students. Nouwen (pg. 76) talks about a "promise", one that was first given to Abraham and later to Moses. This promise -- not any "self-confidence derived from . . personality, nor on specific expectations for the future," is the true foundation on which the spiritual leader must find his or her strength, Nouwen says. "Without this hope, we will never be able to see value and meaning in the encounter with a decaying human being and become personally concerned. This hope stretches far beyond the limitations of one's own psychological strength, for it is anchored not just in the soul of the individual but in God's self-disclosure in history."

Nouwen goes on to say that the spiritual leader who hopes to find satisfaction in seeing "concrete results" from his or her work is "building a house on sand instead on on solid rock."

If all I could do this summer is leave my students with an understanding of the wisdom of those last words I have quoted from Nouwen then I will have more than done my job. The work of a person in ministry -- whether he or she be a rabbi, like myself, or of some other faith tradition -- only rarely is manifest in concrete results that we will see with our own eyes in our own lifetime. We do not know how -- or when -- we truly touch the hearts and souls of others. Thus, we must have faith. Our faith has to be in our understanding of our task, of what we do, and in the authority of what we do. And we must renew the source of that faith regularly. Torah is our way.

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