Richard J. Severson
Foreword: I wrote this little essay in 1997 for the staff newsletter at Hopewell House, an 18-bed residential hospice in Portland, Oregon. I was a volunteer at Hopewell House for 15 years. Once a week, I would spend 3-4 hours helping the nurses and CNAs take care of patients and their families. Typically, I would catch a bus after work and arrive in time to help serve dinner to the patients who were capable of eating. One of my favorite tasks was to sit quietly with patients who had begun the active process of dying, which usually included a loss of full consciousness along with lengthening periods of apnea.
Probably the most valuable lesson I learned at Hopewell House is that most people find a way to die gracefully. It was a revelation actually, because, like most people, I thought working at a hospice was going to be a burdensome task. It turned out to be anything but that. There was a calm serenity about the place that was contagious and palpable. In the presence of death, it becomes easier to live in the present moment. For most patients, the time of tears and worry about tomorrow was finished.
Sadly, Hopewell House was forced to close its doors in 2019, as documented in this article: Hopewell House hospice has closed. You should care about that – STAT (statnews.com)
Jesus is a Bodhisattva:
I struggle with my Christian faith. It is part of the modern mental makeup to cast about in some doubt. I used to worry that there was no God; that life held no higher meaning. Reading Kafka and Camus will do that to you. Shrugging off existential quandary, next I worried about the Earth and those nonhuman beings who don’t seem to matter in the quest for personal salvation.
At least one theologian–Paul Tillich–has argued that doubt is an integral part of faith. He said that we measure the seriousness of our commitment according to the number of conundrums it generates. For somewhat anxious persons, like me, there is poetic appeal in that kind of dialectic.
Lately, I confess, I have a new sort of worry. I’ve lost faith in evangelism. I used to think that being a witness for God and Jesus meant that I needed to convince others to believe and behave like me. Now I’m not convinced.
Different Times are Different
It is a truism of Freudian psychology that early childhood conflicts help determine the adult outlook on life. Perhaps the same is true of cultural phenomena such as religious traditions. Christianity is a child of the Roman Empire. Conflicts of that era continue to determine the framework for Christian practice and reflection. Some corrective analysis is called for, I think, because virtually everything is different now.
Consider the practice of reciting creeds. Worship services, Protestant or Catholic, are punctuated by congregational recitation: “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth….” This is a Roman legacy, meant to create social order through right belief.
Right belief, or orthodoxy, became a Christian preoccupation (though never a Jewish one) because Christianity came into being during Roman times. When the emperor was converted in the early fourth century, he herded all the bishops to Nicea in order to protract a uniform creed that saved him further embarrassment. It didn’t look good that the most powerful man in the world belonged to a querulous religious sect.
In the Middle Ages, heretics–nonorthodox believers–were occasionally burned at the stake. Even in America, where religious freedom is sacred, the legacy of Roman passion for right belief is dominant. Much as they did fifteen hundred years ago, Christians spar about who is right and who is saved and who really belongs. Worse, there is the presumption among many that others–non-Christians–only matter to the extent that they are potential converts. There is little attempt to listen or respect or marvel at the other as other.
All faiths entail belief systems. But to equate faith with belief is excessive, which the study of western Christianity makes apparent. The message of love and forgiveness was sometimes lost in the struggle to create social order by insisting that everyone believe the same.
In our times, we celebrate individuality. We are willing to sacrifice some orderliness for the sake of private prerogatives. Christians need to remind themselves that we don’t live in a Roman world anymore.
Doubt is good for a faith (like mine) that must learn to cherish the beliefs of others as much as its own. Love is the message, not right belief. Love requires that I listen to others, respect them, let them be.
Loving You Is Better
Most Buddhists pray for the help of Bodhisattvas. A Bodhisattva is an historical person who achieved enlightenment, but then refrained from leaving this world. Bodhisattvas don’t leave–they don’t consummate their own nirvana–because they want to help others. They have infinite compassion for the suffering of other living beings. For them, enlightenment is unthinkable until every creature–human and nonhuman–is also enlightened.
I cherish this Buddhist tradition, and I think of Jesus as my special Bodhisattva. It gives me an opportunity to set aside what is of lesser importance (believing the right thing) for what’s greater (loving others by letting them affect me).
Working in a hospice setting makes the distinction between believing and loving seem worthwhile. I’m a new volunteer, awkwardly at times defining my role at Hopewell House. In order for me to be comfortable, I have to find a place for my faith as well as my strong back.
I want to pray for the well-being of Hopewell patients. But I don’t want my prayer to be sectarian; I abhor the thought of offending a dying person’s spiritual sensibility. So I intend to pray without words, with images of light and warmth and joy, believing that the mysterious spirit who touches us all will understand and make do.