In training for pastoral care, I’ve spent much of my time recently trying really hard to be empathetic. “Empathy” is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. In postsecular online circles, Brené Brown is empathy’s high priest. Her prevailing definition of empathy is something like “the ability to nonjudgmentally recognize and understand another’s emotions.”
According to her view, it is in this recognition and understanding that we humans find comfort and solace. I think this is true.
And yet, the consolation of empathy isn’t total. That is, I think there are parts of us that empathy simply cannot reach. Despite my occasional worries that I lack in empathy, I’m nonetheless certain that even on my best day, there are parts of you that I will simply fail to understand and vice versa. I suspect that among these parts could be the “soul” (or psyche, or whatever you’d like to call it).
Though I’m actually an optimist about empathy’s prospects, my job often reminds me of its limitations. Each day, the gulf between any soul and another lays itself bare in ways both profound and banal.
Since I finished my residency at an inner-city hospital and started work at a mostly suburban hospice, my exposure to Roman Catholic patients has increased greatly. A happy side effect of this increase is that I’ve become much more familiar with Catholic prayers to saints and for different liturgical seasons. Among these prayers, the importance of the famous “Hail Mary” cannot be overstated. So I’ve committed it to memory and I often recite it with patients.
As a Reformed Christian, I feel a minor discomfort with this—not only because we don’t pray to Mary, but also because the words feel strange on my lips. And yet, if I suspect it will be good for them, I’ll often encourage a patient to pray a Hail Mary by starting one myself and inviting them to join in.
I sometimes wonder: what goes on inside the soul of the 90-year-old Catholic patient when I pray the Hail Mary with her? If together we used the tool of empathy, perhaps we could explore her feelings of comfort, safety, admiration, and devotion when she prays to the Blessed Virgin. And maybe we could understand my discomfort more deeply, too. And yet, I suspect we would have gotten no closer to the “thing-in-itself,” that momentary movement that happens in her soul but not in mine.
Now, maybe the whole thing is wish fulfillment. Maybe I just use a different religious method to satisfy the same infantile God fantasy. But I think that to suggest this would be to miss the patient’s devotion to the real Mary, an actual young woman who magnified and mothered in a certain time and place. And so a gulf remains. There are parts of her I simply cannot know.
Yet somehow, this is not a lonely thought to me. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite. Recently I prayed a Hail Mary at the bedside of a dying patient—the first in my short tenure to whom I had really grown attached. As I prayed words that weren’t my own—and probably never could be—the gulf between us gave itself to me as a happy mystery.
During the season of Advent, as I’ve been figuring out how to care for patients with memory loss, I’ve found myself describing my favorite Christmas traditions in detail, hoping that my words might jog something familiar in them. To my (shortsighted) surprise, my favorite Christmas tradition is shared by many of my patients, Protestant and Catholic alike.
It goes like this: At a midnight service, everyone is given a small candle. When the service (or mass) ends, all the lights are lowered so that only the candles on the table (or “altar”) are shining. Someone approaches the table and ignites their wick. Then, they turn to the person next to them and pass the flame on. That person passes the flame on again, and so on, until every candle is burning. In a capella unison, the congregation sings “Silent Night.” After Jesus, Lord at thy birth, we leave in silence as the smell of snuffed flame fills the room.
I love this tradition, and I’m not sure how to account for my ignorance of its popularity. Maybe it has less to do with my naivety than with the ritual itself. Every time I participate in it, though still a part of the greater body, I feel it’s somehow my own. In it, I know a particularity that conquers loneliness, belonging that outruns possession.
There will be a lot to miss this Christmas, and perhaps I’ll miss “Silent Night” the most. Still, I feel compelled to believe that something of the arrival of Christ remains intact—beyond the dates on the calendar or maybe even beyond the Scriptures that are read. I don’t know how else to describe it; I know only that it takes place in the gulf between you and me.
To say anything more, I’ll need to borrow the words—“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. He has lived on the East Coast since then. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.