“Called to Co-Passion”

They are ready, I said to the doctor in the Medical ICU.  I had just spent the last thirty minutes in a conference room with a family on the worst day of their lives. They were preparing to say goodbye to their daughter, wife, and mother – a woman in her early 50s whose cancer had taken a mysterious turn for the worse, and was now declared brain dead.  Her parents preferred the memory of her alive, radiant, wearing running shoes and a smile, and did not want to see her.  So I accompanied her husband (let’s call him John) and her two daughters (who were unsettlingly close to my own age) to her room. I briefed them on what they would see, and carefully parted the sliding glass doors – like the veil to the Holy of Holies[1] – and led them inside.

The room was bright. The patient’s belongings were scattered about the room – a suitcase full of clothes, a pair of running shoes, reading glasses perched atop a well-loved book – images of a robust life abruptly cut short. Her daughters stood by the head of the bed, one on each side, holding their mother’s hands and crying softly. John stood next to me by the foot of the bed, silent, distant.  He was the perfect picture of what men think they should do in times of trouble – stand tall, keep watch, don’t let them see you cry. He asked if I would read some scripture, and the second the words In my father’s house there are many rooms (John 14:2) left my lips, he collapsed.

Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures, who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave? Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in? For my sighing comes like my bread, and my groaning poured out like water. Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet: I have no rest, but trouble comes (Job 3:20-26, NRSV).

There is something about scripture that gives voice to the voicelessness of suffering. In Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine, Allen Verhey writes, “in these words of Job, in these words of anger and anguish, human suffering finds a voice. There is no pretense here, no denial of the hurt, no flight to some otherworldly consolation. There is no flinching here before the hard truth that human life can be beset by death and disaster” (117).

I quickly got on the floor next to John, holding his hand and rubbing his back as he sobbed. The tile floor became wet with tears – his and mine, co-mingling together as we mourned. After a few minutes that felt like a few lifetimes, he looked up at me and asked, “How do you do this?”

I didn’t have an answer for him. What do we do when a grown man falls to the floor, groaning with the intensity we are sure only the Psalmist understands? What do we do when everything in our mind is searching for a way to “fix” the situation – through technology or psychology or religious platitudes – but we know that would do more harm than good?

Verhey, following the example of Jesus, calls us to compassion, or co-passion. When faced with the suffering of another, we are called to lament with them, bearing the image of the One whose Passion reminds us that our God knows intimately what it is like to suffer. He writes, “Looking heavenward, we call upon the one who hears the cries of those who hurt and calls people to something like the same uncalculating compassion. Looking heavenward, we name a risen Lord and remember that his wounds were raised with him” (141).

Compassion can sometimes lead us into projects that seek to eliminate suffering altogether (and all too often, as Verhey argues, eliminate suffering by eliminating the sufferer).  But this is a form of cheap grace, of distorted compassion. Likewise, in practicing co-passion we are not called to take on the enormity of one another’s suffering in its entirety. For that task belongs to Christ, the One who bore the enormity of our suffering on the cross. Still, I cannot tell you how many times I prayed as I sat on the floor with John: God, please – let him have the chance to breathe. Give it to me. I can take it.

But the truth is, I can’t take it. None of us can. Not alone at least. Where passion is isolating, co-passion is communal, living into our identity as the Body of Christ. We act as one Body, co-passioning together with the saints who have suffered before us and those who suffer around us now. Sometimes this co-passion does look like poring over lab reports in search of a solution not yet thought of. Sometimes this co-passion looks like working tirelessly to develop a new drug or surgical method that promises to cure disease or at least alleviate some of the physical suffering of the sick. But, sometimes, our co-passion takes a different form. Sometimes co-passion looks like sitting on the floor with a grieving husband. Sometimes co-passion looks like bringing a tired mother coffee as she waits for her child to come through a tough surgery. Sometimes co-passion is holding someone’s hand for hours in the middle of the night until your fingers go numb.

Verhey writes that “this ‘altared’ compassion makes it possible to lay our best skills and our worst cases before God and, even when the suffering that surrounds us seems intractable and hopeless, even when our capacities are limited, allows us still to be present, still to notice the hurt and give it voice, still to share the pain and cry out to God, looking heavenward” (144). We are called to simultaneously lament with the sufferer, while also holding fast to the promise that suffering and pain and death do not have the last word.

[1] Thanks to Anthony J. Maynard (CPE Resident, Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital) for introducing me to this beautiful metaphor for pastoral care.

-Carlson Sawyer, Theology, Medicine, and Culture Certificate recipient 2017-18

Combining scholarship and course work with practical experience and community engagement, the Certificate in Theology, Medicine, & Culture equips Duke Divinity students for robust theological and practical engagement with contemporary practices of medicine and community and public health

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