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Eschaton as ComedyBy Dave Scheider
“Students of the Center learn to listen the suffering into speech and hear them into healing.” This is a rough paraphrase from the homily offered by Seminary of the Southwest’s Dean and President Cynthia Briggs Kittredge on October 10, 2013, on the occasion of John Hines Day, the annual celebration of the seminary’s founder. The community was also celebrating the dedication of the Loise Henderson Wessendorff Center for Christian Ministry and Vocation.
The Center was conceived in thought in the mid-1990s by the Rev. Will Spong. Taking the charge by Bishop John Hines to pour the love of God into the world, rather than pooling it in the congregations, Spong dreamed of an emphasis in the seminary that would foster spiritual development and training for the caring professions. Soon after this idea was born, Dr. Corinne Ware was hired to administer the program, raising it from infancy to adulthood.
In 2012, the Rev. Seth Deleery, Southwest alumnus and a board member of the Henderson-Wessendorff Foundation, also had an idea. How might a gift to the seminary honor the woman for whom the foundation was named? During her life Loise Henderson Wessendorff had a passion that religion and science benefitted most by influencing each other. Seth Deleery knew that the Seminary of the Southwest also cherished this dialogue between science and theology. His influence led the Henderson-Wessendorff Foundation to bestow a $2.5 million gift to encourage Hines, Spong, and Ware’s dream.
The Center trains people in three areas. Students choose to prepare for licensure as counselors, board certification as chaplains, or formation as spiritual directors/advisors. Though most classes are in specific tracks for their various professions, they all share a common core of seminary classes, which help students develop their theological lens or faith perspective.
As the Center’s new director, I have the privilege of interviewing each prospective student. Though they come from every walk of life, age group, and faith community, they have one thing in common. They move toward the sound of suffering. In the military the phrase, “move toward the sound of the cannon,” describes what soldiers do that is unnatural. Who would disregard personal safety and choose to move toward the source of death? Using this military analogy, I see the Center students as people with a calling to move toward those who are suffering. Who would want to be with the suffering? They would. That is the main and most common characteristic of the Center’s students.
It is one thing to be with those who are suffering and quite another to know how being with them is helpful. The Center trains students in how to listen to the horror. Horror is speechless. It wells up from a place in the brain that is before words. The horror does not fit into the person’s life narrative. The horror must have attention before it can move into other parts of the brain that use words. Then it must be heard in order to fit into a story with which the person can live. In my mind that is the meaning of that amazing phrase from Dean Kittredge’s sermon.
There is another aspect of healing that is strongly associated with hearing. The sufferer authors a story with help from the audience, or listener. But the listener is not passive; listeners are very active. They give subtle cues of interest and reinforcement at certain points of the story and withdraw and challenge other parts without speaking a word. Every listener has a worldview or narrative that makes sense of life in general and suffering in particular. The narrative of the listener has a strong influence on the emerging narrative of the sufferer. “The Eschaton as Comedy,” describes the theological narrative that many Center students develop.
Eschaton is the Greek word for the end of the story. Comedy is the plot line of a story that moves from everything looking like a mess to everything coming together. Most faith groups have a narrative of everything coming together into an integrated whole in the end; however, the Christian narrative also hopes that the final scene is one of peace, joy, and reunion. Without overtly stating this faith narrative, trained counselors, chaplains, and spiritual directors listen into words and hear into healing because they believe that the end of the story of suffering is not tragedy but comedy.
Dave Scheider is the Director of the Loise Henderson Wessendorf Center for Christian Ministry and Vocation at Seminary of the Southwest. Prior to joining the faculty of Seminary of the Southwest, Dave served as an Army Chaplain for 25 years.
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