July 21, 2020

Pastoral Care in the Time of Pandemic

One of the key elements of the ministry of pastoral care is presence: being present to and with the one to whom one relates as a pastor. So the greatest challenge in this time of pandemic — and concomitant social distancing and isolation — is the inability of the pastor to be in the physical presence of those with whom the ministry of pastoral care is exercised.

I take as my text in response to this the words from First Corinthians 15: “If there is a physical body there is also a spiritual body.” Paul is, of course, talking about the resurrection; but this also applies to our present circumstances. If there is a physical presence there is also a spiritual presence — and this should not be a surprise to those of us who believe the promise that where two or three are gathered together in God’s name, God is present with them; and who trust and believe in the presence of God in, with, and under the forms of bread and wine.

Of course everyone knows the difference between sitting next to a person in flesh and blood and looking at their image on a computer monitor. But I would like to draw on another element of our tradition in response to that distinction: the tradition of the icon. It is part of that tradition to believe that in venerating an icon — an image of a saint or of Jesus Christ (the Incarnate One, the perfect image of God in human flesh) — the believer enters into their real presence, through a window into heaven. The icon is, it goes without saying, an image — and the faithful contemplation of that image requires imagination — image-ination). This imagination is a work of empathy and sympathy, of feeling with and feeling for — of allowing one’s mind to expand one’s spiritual presence to be with the other.

This is not as exotic as it may sound. One of the reasons using a mobile phone while driving (or even walking down the street!) — even with headphones, or mounted on a holder — is so dangerous, is that in conversation over the phone one’s mind wanders to be in the presence of the other person, mentally away from where one is physically to where one is mentally. What I’m suggesting is that this can happen in a good way, a spiritual way, when we are engaged with another in an act of pastoral care via Zoom or some other application — or even on the phone.

I would like to draw on two other saints from our tradition, two Francis’s. First, you may be familiar with the time that St. Clare visited St. Francis of Assisi in a vision while she was some 50 miles away — this is why she is the patron saint of television! More relevant, both to us as a community and to the question of pastoral care at a distance, is St. Francis de Sales. His work contributed to the foundation of the Sisters of the Visitation, without which we would very likely not be here, as it was through their presence on the Hudson River in Riverdale that our founder Brother Richard Thomas formed and shaped his vocation. St. Francis de Sales was renowned as a pastoral guide, but did most of his pastoral guidance and spiritual direction at a distance, by means of his own era’s primary communication technology: paper and pen and ink. One can read his letters still, and put one’s mind back to the 17th century, and receive spiritual guidance from one long dead — through the power of imagination.

Imagination is also key to another strand of our tradition that relates to pastoral care and spiritual guidance: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. The technique St. Ignatius commended is a form of spiritual imagination, in which one places oneself into the biblical scene as vividly imagined as possible. For example, in our readings for Morning Prayer this week, we can imagine ourselves walking in silence with the children of Israel around that mighty but doomed city Jericho, hearing nothing but the sounds of our own footsteps multiplied by thousands, and the harsh and frightening blaring of the rams’-horn trumpets, aware of the awesome presence of the Holy One in the ark leading our procession, catching on the air, through the stirred-up dust, the bitter scent of fear wafting down over the walls that will soon come tumbling down. Can’t you feel yourself there?

And so my brothers I urge you to use your imagination in your pastoral ministry, to use the tools provided to make your presence felt and to feel the presence of those with whom you minister, as best you can. We are in the midst of a fast — a fast from our usual tools of ministry, a fast from being able to gather in our churches as congregations. But let us not forget that the church is the church when it is scattered as much as it is the church when it is gathered — indeed, as the deacons remind us, this is when we get about the work we are called and empowered to do, loving and serving God and our neighbor. 

This is a time of fasting, but let us always recall that what counts in a fast is not what you give up but what you take on. Take on the work of imagination, and let it empower your ministry of service and pastoral care.

—Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG 
This is a reconstruction of an off-the-cuff presentation delivered via Zoom at the recent virtual Convocation of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory.