Preserving Sukkot
On stories and floods.

Beyond binaries

We take turns leading brief morning prayers, my fellow CPE interns and I, and today was my first chance to lead us in prayer before our day's work began. I chose to focus on a small excerpt from the Jewish weekday morning liturgy: first the asher yatzar blessing for the body and its companion piece the elohai neshama blessing for the soul, and then the litany of one-line blessings of gratitude. It went over really well. Several of my colleagues told me they enjoyed the chance to reconnect with Hebrew (which many Christian seminarians learn, at least a little) and people seemed moved by my explanation that the liturgical proximity of the blessing for the body and the blessing for the soul tells us something about how the two are interconnected in the Jewish understanding.

That interconnection turned out to be a major theme of our day. We spent the latter part of the morning with a woman from the Center for Donation and Transplant, talking about organ and tissue donation, policies and practices, and different definitions of death. I came away with a clearer understanding of what it means to be brain-dead, and the difference between brain death and cardiac death...and also a stronger sense of just how complicated these definitions can be. When we think of life and death as a binary pair, they're easy to distinguish. But in the grey area between the two, things get a lot trickier to define. What if someone has lost brain function and is only breathing with the assistance of a respirator? What if she fails the gag reflex and cough tests (two of the eight ways of gauging brain function) but not the other six? What's the difference between living and existing? What's our role, as chaplains, when we're called-upon to minister to families wrestling with these decisions?

Our conversation about life and death, body and soul, continued through lunch. Over our trays of hospital cafeteria food, we talked about what it means to have, and to be, both a body and a soul. My Baptist colleague asserted, in his sonorous voice, that he doesn't care what happens to his body once his soul is collected back to God. My Jewish colleague pointed out that according to our tradition, as my morning prayer had shown, there's something important about our embodiment. My Salvation Army colleague argued against the tendency toward absolute dualism, the asceticism or hedonism, which can arise from an excessive sense of soul/body split. And throughout, I found myself reflecting on how absurdly fortunate I am to be able to spend my Mondays having these conversations with these terrific people, and thinking about these important things.

We had some differences of opinion within our group, but I think we all agreed that life and death are mysteries we may never fully understand intellectually. It's sobering and uplifting all at once, like so many things about hospital chaplaincy. I've always relied on my brain to get me through difficult situations, but I'm learning that in ministry the brain alone doesn't suffice. Death isn't something we can understand with the brain, and if we try too hard to intellectualize it, we won't be able to be fully present with those who need us. This work requires us to go beyond the easy binaries, to sit with the discomfort of not-knowing, and to approach these questions with our hearts.

And sometimes all we can do is walk humbly with our "congregants" here who grapple with these issues, offering our support and our prayers. Baruch atah, Adonai, hamachazir n'shamot lifgarim meitim: Blessed are You, Adonai, who protects our souls beyond life and death.

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