Life After CPE: Remembering the Challenge of Joy
Homily – Monday of the Twenty-Third Week of Ordinary Time
By Stephen Pitts, SJ, CPE Intern | June 1, 2018
“You’ve had enough suffering. Your goal should be to find joy.” It was the mid-unit review for my CPE two summers ago at the Children’s Hospital in San Antonio. We interns were going around the table reading our mid-unit reports out loud and asking the group for feedback. I had had a rough first month—a couple of deaths, some cases of child abuse, many broken families—and somehow I got it in my head that God was inviting me to work even harder and go deeper into these difficult experiences.
When I was done reading my goals to the group, however, our supervisor, a laywoman surprised all of us with her comment: “You’ve had enough suffering. Your goal in the second half should be to find joy.” She told the four of us interns: I’m going to give you a hundred dollars and this Wednesday off. Your job is to plan a fun day for yourselves. That’s the first step towards working on your goal.”
We were shocked and speechless, much like the Pharisees in today’s gospel. I don’t know about you, but I can relate to the man with the withered hand, because sometimes my hand hurts, if I spend all day in front of the computer and it cramps up when I have to take handwritten exams. To the man and the Pharisees, Jesus poses the question: is healing permitted on the Sabbath? I’d like to turn it a little bit this evening: can the Sabbath be healing?
We all know where the Sabbath comes from: Sabbath is an integral part of the act of creation. It’s not enough to have six days of work. God needed a seventh day to appreciate all that God had done. Can’t you just imagine God taking a walk in the garden, remarking: “this isn’t such a bad place,” sampling the fruit from the different trees, playing with the animals, goofing off with Adam and Eve? Sabbath is fun and creative.
How did this new goal work for us CPE interns? We got up that Wednesday, we drove to Austin, we got ramen, walked around the state capital, spent the afternoon in one of those places with a bowling alley, laser tag, a pool table, and a bar [enjoying them in that order], and finished it off with a big juicy Texas steak.
In fact, though I was a little suspicious of my supervisor’s unorthodox tactics, in the second half of the unit this and other experiences did make me a better chaplain. Do you know what I discovered, little by little? Many of my patients did not in fact need someone to challenge them to engage with the depth of their suffering. Some were more comfortable with their illnesses than I was.
I remember a teenage boy who had been hospitalized a dozen times in his life. He had a steel rod in his back that required surgery to adjust every six months as he kept growing. When I visited him, I realized that he just wanted someone to keep him company, play video games with him and exchange witty banter so his mother could get a cup of coffee and not feel guilty for leaving him alone. My challenge was to let him make me laugh, there in the Pediatric ICU. And it took effort on my part to recognize and receive the joy in the room.
That’s where Jesus’s words really hit home: stretch out your hand. It makes me ask the question, why is the hand tense in the first place? Maybe it’s like a muscle that’s been used too much in one direction and not in another. Maybe it’s about too much doing, clenching, and not enough receiving. For us, at the beginning of the semester, I hear it as an invitation to reflect on our own balance. Hold them out in front of you. How are your hands? Depending on our temperament or our previous experience of the summer, of regency, of pastoral work before coming here, our hands may be still be little tense, and so balance may require a little bit of effort.
Hopefully we have our class schedule or teaching schedule.
What about our exercise schedule or sleep schedule?
We’ve scheduled our day of ministry or the weekends we’re going to go out to say Mass.
What about our day to go hiking in Marin County or walk around San Francisco?
We have your house cooking schedules.
What about our schedule to grab lunch or get a beer with our friends?
We have our house jobs. Whose job is it to lighten the mood of the community?
We’ve bought or borrowed our textbooks.
What about our fun books or some telenovelas? We live in the golden age of television.
Even as we hear these suggestions, what do they evoke inside of us? Like the remarks of Pharisees in the gospel, my experience is that the evil spirit will fight me tooth and nail, make me feel guilty, make me feel lazy, make me feel unworthy, make me not feel like a good priest or a good Jesuit if I make an effort to put these suggestions into practice. How does the evil spirit work in your life? Ignatius would say that presence of the evil spirit is a good sign – if the evil spirit is fighting it, then it’s probably a life-giving, creative, healing process. In the gospel, Jesus isn’t afraid to confront the evil spirit in the Pharisees’ words, and neither should we be.
One of my most important learnings from that summer was the Sabbath could be an integral part of my formation, and since then, some of the best pastoral encounters I’ve had as an entrée to build relationships with people, who many times don't find out that I’m a Jesuit or a priest until midway through the conversation, and when they finally do, the revelation gives them pause.
I can see the wheels turning: you can go running or hiking with me, you can talk about movies, you’ll have a beer with me, you laugh at my jokes. You’re too normal, they say, often in not so many words. How can you be both a person of faith and a human being?
This witness is sometimes the most powerful ministry of all: when like Jesus, we invite others to stretch out not only their hands but also their minds and their hearts, so that they too can be restored to full participation in the life of the community and God’s life in the world.