Recently my email inbox has been filled with updates from three friends who are sick and using Caringbridge.com to update everyone on their status. For those who have never used the site, it is an amazingly helpful way to keep friends and family informed about your own or a loved one’s illness, organize visitors, meals, and help of all kinds. It is one of the wonders of the internet, that though I am geographically far from two of these friends, I can get daily updates about their progress, and leave them short notes and prayers in return.
It is not always easy to know how to interact with a friend or family member who is seriously sick. When so you ask questions about their illness? When do you bring a meal? When do you leave them alone? the New York Times op Ed columnist David Brooks addressed someone these questions last week in his column The Art of Presence. His basic message is: Just be present for those who need you.
This advice is ancient. The Talmud teaches that when you visit someone who is ill you take away 1/60th of their illness, just by visiting and being present. It is not about curing them, but about helping them heal in some small way.
Being present is not as easy as it sounds. If it were, we would not need to be reminded to do it by sources ancient and modern. Seeing a loved one suffer is painful. It is natural to want to run as far away as possible. Self-doubt easily creeps in, I wonder if I am saying the right thing, am I here are the right time, should I have brought food, something to read, should I tell a joke or be serious?
The answers to these questions, of course, depend on the person you are seeing the situation they are in. One friend has made it clear she wants prayers from friends and family. While another wants to keep things lighthearted and humorous. I have to take my cues from them about what to write and what to say. I also have to learn to put aside my anxieties. Better for me to say the wrong thing at a particular moment and apologize when I realize my mistake, then not to have been there at all.
So if you are struggling like I am with what to do or say, here are some tips on how to be present:
• Take time to really listen to the other person.
• Drop your expectations of what you are going to do or say.
• Be here now. Allow yourself not to be distracted.
• Be natural.
• Be patient.
• Try to listen with an open heart. Do not judge the other person.
• Try to sit in that other person’s place. Where is he? What is she feeling?
• Use your empathy and your compassion.
Now, just do it! Make some soup, send a card, pick up the phone. You can alleviate a bit of someone’s suffering just be letting them know you care. Be present for them.
Years ago, a Jewish woman, a 15-year survivor of cancer, came to me with a confession.
“Rabbi,” she said, “When I was getting chemo, the woman next to me said to bury a picture of Saint Jude (the saint of desperate situations) for good luck, so I did it. I was so scared. I bought a picture of St. Jude and buried it in my backyard.”
“Huh.” That’s official rabbi speak for “This topic does not appear in the Talmud.”
“So, there’s more, Rabbi.”
There is always more.
“Anyway,” she continued, “I told a different Catholic friend about burring St. Jude in the backyard, and she asked me, ‘did you bury him face-up or face-down?’ I told her ‘face- up.’ She told me that it has to be face-down. So what was I to do rabbi? My first friend insisted that St. Jude be face-up and the second one said face-down. So 15 years later, guess how many saints are buried in my backyard?”
You guessed it. There is at least one nice Jewish woman with two St. Jude’s buried in her back yard – And given the alternative she was worried about, thank God!
I shared this story this past Shabbat in a Torah Study group. I asked for help exploring the boundaries of sanctioned Israelite religion. Why on Yom Kippur would Aaron, the High Priest, offer one goat to God and another to Azazel (Lev 16)? Whether “Azazel” is a “desolate place,” or the name of a ”goat demon of the wilderness” – What does this non-normative practice tell me about the boundaries of my religion’s, Judaism’s, practice today?
I went on to share the odd story of the serpents God sent down to bite the Israelites that were wrongfully complaining. When they admitted guilt God told Moses, “Make a snake and put it on a pole, anyone who is bitten can look upon it and be healed.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. When any bitten person looked upon it, he lived.” (Numbers 21:4-8).
The Ten Commandments are pretty clear, and they make the above two stories, and a handfull of others patently problematic:
- You shall not have any gods before Me.
- You Shall not make any graven images – not of the things of the heavens, not of things of the earth or the waters below.
My question is not a history question of the actual belief of ancient Israelites. I am not presently interested in the rich rabbinic commentary that explains these difficulties away. I am familiar with them – I love them, but my interest today is this:
Is there a thread that ties together these breaks in ‘normative’ practice?
There is: Illness.
My read on these texts, and my pastoral practice in desperate health issues is “Anything Goes.”
If you are in a dire situation – do you care to which god people who care about you pray to on your behalf? I say keep ALL the prayers coming. Bring in Mary if she’ll help. Send in Mohamed, Azazel, St. Jude, a picture of a snake etched in copper. Send in all the light. If “it” works, wouldn’t you do it to save a life or to remove a serious illness?
We are taught that one should accept death rather than these 3 things: Idolatry, sexual crimes, or murder. There is president to fudge on the first, and I’m fine with that.
To those of us open to a reality that is beyond rational explanation, don’t we also have admit some naiveté’ about how that mysterious reality is really accessed?
I’m aware of the slippery slope just before me. I’m not ready to put up a cross in the synagogue or replace the seats with prayer mats (still, yoga mats are finding their way into synagogues). but I’ll defend a Jewish woman keeping two St. Judes buried in the backyard.
One person at the table asked, “How about the healing waters of Lourdes?”
“Funny you should mention that.” It was one of my dear friends, who has recently lost his vision. “Some Catholic friends of ours sent me some water from the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes,” he said. ”I put on a few drops on my eyelids each night. After a few nights, I could actually make out the numbers on our bedside alarm clock. It was the first time in I don’t know how long since I could do that.”
For sure there are boundaries in Judaism. I’m not advocating any changes – but when illness faces us with the existential realities of life and death those same boundaries often become permeable and we would be foolish not to notice.
What is in the power of a name? Why is naming someone in prayer so sacred and moving? I will never forget my experience when I was working as a hospital chaplain at memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. One morning, early in my career as a chaplain, I asked a Jewish patient whom I was visiting if she would like me to say the Jewish prayer for healing for her called the Mishuberach, literally meaning, “May the one who blesses.” She said yes, and I chanted the ancient words, inserting her name at the appropriate place in the blessing asking for a complete recovery of body and soul. When, I concluded the prayer, I looked up to see tears streaming down her face. I sat with her as she composed herself. She then said, “Thank you. I have never heard anyone pray for me before. It was so powerful to hear you say my name in prayer.”
How many of us ever hear our names lifted up in prayer? How many of us ever feel the power of a prayer or blessing intended for us alone?
As soon as I stood up to leave the patient’s bedside, her roommate on the other side of the curtain called out, “Rabbi, could you come say that blessing for healing for me too? It was so beautiful.” I walked around the curtain and introduced myself to the woman in the bed. She told me that her name was Mary, and I then asked her if she was Jewish. She said, “No, and I did not understand the Hebrew part of the prayer you just recited. But it touched my heart and I would like you to recite it for me.” In that moment, I realized that a blessing has no borders. It did not matter that I was a rabbi and she was not Jewish, what mattered was that my tradition had a prayer for healing that could help her. I recited the prayer for her using her name in Hebrew and English. When I was done, we both had tears in our eyes. The emotions I experienced are hard to describe without sounding corny. There was a deep connection between us that transcended religion, age, the well and the sick.
Some people question reciting a prayer for healing saying that in many cases God does not bring healing to the one who is ill. But in my mind there is a difference between healing and curing. God may not be able to cure an individual’s illness, but I do believe that God can bring healing even to those who are very sick and facing death. Healing certainly happened in that hospital room in Sloan Kettering that day. Both of the women were released from their suffering if only for a minute. One felt a profound joy in hearing her name recited in a blessing. The other felt a strong connection to me as another human who cared about her and who brought Gods presence to her in her hospital room.
If you want to bring healing to someone who is suffering physical or mental anguish, I offer these words from the traditional liturgy:
May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless (insert name here). May God grant mercy upon him/her, strengthen him/her , and bring healing. May God send him/her a complete healing of body and soul together with all who suffer illness. And let us say Amen.
The great singer and songwriter, Debbie Freidman wrote a song based on this prayer which often sung in place of the traditional words above. You can hear her song here: